What a World

The Bizarre London Island Where the Rolling Stones Began

Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Charles Dickens, King Henry VIII. These are just a few of the famous visitors to Eel Pie Island, a centuries-old refuge for musicians, hippies, and writers.

Just 18 miles from London’s city center, Eel Pie Island has a past almost as eccentric as the images its name conjures. On the tiny piece of land—just five or so acres—perched on the River Thames, 120 residents call home this private island with roots deeply embedded in England’s musical history. From a resort for well-heeled Londoners to a haven for jazz and a bastion of early British rock ’n’ roll to a free-living hippie commune—Eel Pie Island has seen it all.

In the early 1960s, bands like the Rolling Stones played a standing Wednesday gig and stars like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton found their voices at the famous Eel Pie Island Hotel, a place Charles Dickens described as a “place to dance to the music of the locomotive band.” As Britain began to carve out its place in pop music, the stage soon gave way to budding R&B and rockstars, showcasing yet-unknown acts just getting their footing, from The Who to The Tridents with Jeff Beck to a young David Bowie played monthly shows with his band, the Manish Boys.

The island’s strange name traces to a historic rumor involving a slimy British delicacy: eel pie. According to an unlikely legend, a hungry King Henry VIII insisted on docking at the island in the 1500s and demanded to be brought an eel pie from his favorite local stall. At the time, the island had not yet been named after the delicacy, and went by the decidedly less fantastical Twickenham Ait. Regardless of its name, the island always played host to a variety of attractions, including, in 1740, a bowling alley, according to the book Eel Pie Island by Dan Van der Vat. An 1882 travel guide calls it “a good place for oarsmen and campers to picnic,” with a hotel called the White Cross.

In 1830, that hotel was replaced with the eponymous Eel Pie Island Hotel, which served the popular street snack so well that the island was renamed shortly after. It soon became a popular resort for city folk. Dickens visited after the swanky hotel was constructed, penning chapters of Little Dorrit there, and making mention of it in Nicholas Nickleby.

A century later in the 1920s and ’30s, the island was hosting weekly dances. But by 1956, the hotel’s grandeur had already faded when a veteran and junk-shop owner named Arthur Chisnall started hosting weekend jazz shows. When a bridge went up a year later, negating the need for the public four-person rowboat that previously shuttled visitors across the river, the island grew more popular. Chisnall began to use Eel Pie Island as his own social experiment to provide a space for a new breed of youth emerging after WWII: the teenager. Chisnall dedicated himself to bringing in up-and-coming bands and helping the mostly art school crowd network, and get their educations and employment.

“I didn’t know what impact I was having on the music scene. You've got to remember that my job was to create a world for people and I created that world,” he told the BBC before he died in 2006.

Bands like The Who, The Yardbirds, and countless others got their start at the club, which soon had more than 30,000 young members. “The room would just be throbbing,” actress Anjelica Huston recalled to NPR. “Hot, humid, full of cigarette smoke. People didn’t take a lot of baths in those days in London. There wasn’t a lot of shampooing going on. Music would blare. Those who weren’t dancing were snogging. Kissing. Necking. It was a ritual thing.”

The club closed in 1967 due to police raids and rising repair costs, but that didn’t keep the kids away. Before long a few hundred squatters of all kinds—art students, hippies, drifters—moved in and transformed the island into a bohemian haven to fit the times of free-loving communal living. It turned into the UK’s largest hippie commune, even attracting a residency by the U.S.-based Hog Farm commune, run by Woodstock veterans. In 1971, the local council declared it unfit for living, and evicted the occupants. Shortly after, the hotel was reduced to ashes by a fire. But through it all, a small population of holdouts remained on the island.

Today, Eel Pie Island is home to a mellower bunch: retirees, artists, and the like. Their community is a ramshackle assortment of eccentric homes, a working boatyard, and colorfully painted and decorated sheds used for the 26 artist studios. It’s only open to visitors twice a year, when the public can tour the working spaces.

But online, Eel Islanders of days gone by can still reminisce about the wild times they had just a few miles downstream from central London—whether they were there during the early jazz days or the rocking ’60s or the drug-filled decades that followed.

“I shared a the [sic] flat at 102 Edith Grove with Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards,” one old-timer writes of the band’s 1963 discovery on a forum collecting memories. “I remember the night when Andrew Oldham came to Richmond to check out the Stones…Afterwards I stood on the corner chatting with the guys about whether they should sign with Andrew the next day—the rest you’ll know…”