The ait is rumoured to have been the site of a monastery and much later was supposedly used as a ‘courting ground’ by Henry VIII. From at least the early 17th century it attracted day-trippers, who came to picnic or fish here, and later to enjoy the renowned pies that were made with locally caught eels and served at the White Cross public house. Although this culinary speciality is the most obvious (and likely) explanation of the island’s present-day name, another story suggests that a royal mistress who had a house here called it Île de Paix (island of peace), which was folk-anglicised as ‘Eel Pie’.
Twickenham Rowing Club has been based on Eel Pie Island since 1880, twenty years after it was founded by local resident Henri d’Orleans, Duc d’Aumale.
Many of the island’s wood-framed properties date from the early 1900s, when they were used as summer houses by wealthy Edwardian Londoners. The structures survive well and fetch high prices. The island’s pedestrian bridge was built in 1957.
In the 1950s and 60s the ait became famous for its noisy jazz club at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, where the Rolling Stones first emerged, and The Who, Pink Floyd and Genesis also played gigs early in their careers. Eel Pie Island has even been called ‘the place where the Sixties began’. The hotel closed in 1967 and briefly became something of a hippie commune before it burned down during its demoliton in 1971.
In 1996 a boatyard and 60 neighbouring artists’ studios also burnt down. An appeal brought donations from the local community in Twickenham as well as from several rock stars.
The island is nowadays home to around two dozen artists’ studios, situated in and around the boatyard. Twice a year, the studios open their doors to visitors, providing an opportunity to talk to the artists and buy or commission new artworks.
Most of the island is private property and there’s not much opportunity to wander off the sole arterial path. As Miss Immy points out in her delightfully illustrated blog post on the subject, “To be honest, unless it’s the artists’ open day weekend, or you happen to know someone who lives on the island, there is very little to see there these days.”
Postcode area: Twickenham TW1
Website: An Oral History of Eel Pie Island
Further reading: Twickenham Museum web page on Eel Pie Island
- Eel Pie Island, Richmond upon Thames, Hidden London, https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/eel-pie-island/