Arthur Chisnall: the sine qua non of Eel Pie Island

Last week would have been the 95th birthday of one Arthur Chisnall. A gentleman you will not have heard of, he was born in Kingston-upon-Thames on 3 June 1925 (and died aged 81 in December 2006), but he was what I call a sine qua non, a man without whom we simply would not have rock and roll as we know it, here,  in America and for that matter all around the world.

With the possible exception of the Beatles, almost every record you’ve bought in the last 60 years owes at least some debt to Mr Chisnall

That’s because Mr Chisnall founded a jazz and R&B club on Eel Pie Island, a tiny slice of land in the middle of the River Thames in South West London. And that club became one of the great institutions of rock and roll and if he had not opened that club, he would not have been able to nurture the very large number of musicians who either were members of the Eel Pie Island club or who played in bands that got their first gigs there. I’m talking about the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (both featuring Eric Clapton on guitar), Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Screaming Lord Sutch, The Who, David Bowie, Long John Baldry, Elton John, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones and boatloads more.

“He was the most amazing guy, said one Eel Pie veteran, “one who changed so many young lives, forever and for better. All good salesmen know that the most powerful way to make a sale is to make the punters believe they thought of it themselves. That’s what Arthur did with Eel Pie. We thought it was our place, which we had conjured up on our own and he just someone who happened to be there, almost invisible allowing us to be ourselves and grow from that. Of course, where Arthur differed from most salesmen is that there was nothing much in it for him, just the reflection of what it did for us.”.

arthur-chisnall,-right

Eel Pie island is the only inhabited island on the tidal Thames, a tiny 9-acre island in the River Thames off the coast of Twickenham.  It gets its name from eel pies – yes, pies filled with cooked eels – which had been served by the inn on the island since the 1500s. Their biggest customer – in more ways than one – was Henry VIII, a large and usually hungry chap who would be overcome by hunger on his journey up to Hampton Court Palace and shout, ‘Stop the barge and bring us an eel pie!’ He then sent a minion ashore to buy him an pie from Mistress Mayo’s famous stall. True story apparently.

There had been a pub on the island for centuries and the people running the pub eventually made enough money to build a hotel. In 1830, Charles Dickens spent the summer living in Twickenham – a peaceful and rural retreat, he wrote – and visited the island frequently. He immortalised it in Nicholas Nickleby when The Kenwigs eldest daughter caught a steamer from Westminster Bridge to Eel Pie island to ‘dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band.’

By the 1920s, there were dances in the large ballroom but by the 50s it was all pretty derelict, although for the most part the dance hall had survived the dereliction. It was still in use as a folk club and occasionally a trad jazz club, where loads of teenagers from South West London, or even further into town, who were all mad about this new, exotic jazz straight outta New Orleans. They would flock to Twickenham to play, listen and dance to the sounds of  the biggest Trad names around, Names like Chris Barber, Ken Colyer and George Melly as well as all the little bands springing up all over the suburbs. Like the Riverside Jazz Band from West London, whose drummer was Brian Clarke of 34 Wakeman Road NW10. I mention him only because he is my dad.

You had to want to get there. There’s a nice footbridge now, but that wasn’t built till 1957. Before that there was a small boat attached to a chain and a set of pulleys and you dragged yourself across to the dance. It was an adventure at the best of times, but if you were full of Scrumpy from the Barmey Arms up the road or the drummer or double bass player in the band, it could be rather perilous. One wag described it as like D-Day but without the gunfire. Many fell in of course. Possibly the same wag said it was probably the only bath that they’d taken in weeks.

In 1952 the Eel Pie Hotel was bought cheaply by a local antique dealer called Michael Snapper, who had an antique/ second-hand/junk shop at 146 London Road in Kingston, known as Snappers Corner.

Which is where we meet Arthur Chisnall…

Arthur was the manager of Snappers Corner. Born in 1925 in Kingston upon Thames, he grew up in a poor household, never knew his father and was raised entirely by his mum and grandmother. Despite the fact he was a bright guy, family circumstances dictated that he left school at 14 and worked in a number of jobs, before his call up to fight inn WW2. Typically a guy from his background would simply not have had the option to go to University, but in 1951 aged 26 he got a bursary to study Social Science at Harlech College in North Wales.

He was fascinated by social trends, and the junk shop gave him ample opportunity to watch the habits of 1950s youth. By the middle of the decade, he noticed that a large number of kids, particularly the cooler ones from the art college up the road, would come into the shop looking for second-hand blues and jazz records.

We may only have noticed in hindsight but there was youthquake going on. Kids didn’t want to become their parents. These were kids who had survived the privations of war: bomb shelters, evacuation and food rationing. This were new horizons. There was full employment, new opportunities nittiest in Further Education, the Church was less relevant and biggest of all, National Service was about to end.

Chatting to them, Arthur could see that there was nowhere for them to congregate and listen to their music. There were jazz clubs up West of course but that’s miles from Kingston, so he decided to do something about it. He opened a youth club with music for them in the delapidated hotel his boss Michael Snapper had just acquired over on Eel Pie Island.

So on 20 April 1956, the club opened. It was free for kids, every Friday and Saturday only,  but was so popular – they expected dozens, they got 300 with no advertising only word of mouth – that they started charging a tiny fee . It was licensed – although you could only get bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale –  but the Police insisted on keeping a membership, so Arthur named it Eelpiland and as a member, you paid 2/6 and got a passport as your membership card, which announced:

We request and require in the name of his Excellency Prince Pan all those to whom it may concern to give the bearer of this passport any assistance he/she may require in his/her lawful business of jiving and generally cutting a rug.

Given this day under pour hand this first day November 1957.

 Pan, The Prince of Trads

Eel Pie passport from 1958 - front

Arthur kept a watchful eye on members, he was always there to chat and help if we had any concerns in life. He purposely recruited professional people, doctors and lawyers, and if someone had a problem, he would try to steer them in the direction of someone who could help them. He also ran classes on how to write a CV, how to apply and how to be interviewed for jobs. At least 20 people from Eelpiland got grants thanks to Arthur to get into college where they would ordinarily not have had a chance. He called it a social experiment and he used the music as the way of attracting these young people. There was even a jive instructor to teach the crowd the finer points of ballroom jive

Not that the authorities were necessarily all that chuffed: the tabloids wrote about it as if it were a den of iniquity. The Mail published a story headline Down Among the Dead Beats and told their soon-to-be-outraged readers that they have hair like spun yarn, beards like spinach and eyes like rissoles in the snow. Any kind of clothing is worn as long as it is crumpled and dirty, any kind of haircut as long as it is not cut at all; any kind of expression as long as it is expressionless.

Not to spoil a story though, there was actually almost no juvenile delinquency. There was hardly any trouble or fighting, despite the Newky Brown (in fact most drinking was done in the Barmy Arms before you crossed the bridge), there were no real drugs at this point,  but there was quite a lot of sex, perhaps a little more than would be available elsewhere in 1960.

Trad jazz begat Skiffle begat Rock and Roll begat Rhythm & Blues and by 1960 or so, R&B was a new sound in the hearts of the young and this part of London – wittily known as the Thames Delta. There were new R&B clubs in suburbs like Epsom, Windsor Ealing and the famous Crawdaddy Club up the road in Richmond.

The lads of the scene Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies brought their band Blues Incorporated over to the island many times and at various times included Jack Bruce, Graham Bond, Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts. For a few shillings you would have also got to see The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (both featuring Eric Clapton), the Tridents (featuring Jeff Beck), The Who and Davie Jones and The Manish Boys (actually David Bowie). Brian Jones, desperate to get gigs for his band The Rolling Stones, called Arthur constantly before getting a slot which turned in to a 13-week residency throughout 1963.

1962 Archives - Eel Pie Island Museum

For the punters, the format of the evening was that you would meet at L’Auberge, now Nando’s, at 2-6 Hill Street Richmond, Surrey early evening for a couple of posh Italian coffees, then wander over the bridge and along about a mile and a bit to Eel Pie Land, but you would only leave L’Auberge when you had a quorum. Halfway over Richmond Bridge you would become aware that there were actually hundreds of you and so you would go in procession to Eel Pie. Then you paid 4d to a little old lady who always appeared to be there to cross the foot bridge.

“The island was the weekly pilgrimage to experience Newcastle Brown and Jessie Fuller singing ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, Cyril Davies playing ‘Country Line Special’, Rod ‘the Mod’ Stewart singing singing and dancing to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ with Long John Baldrey, Alex Harvey wowing the women with his pelvic thrusts and Jeff Beck in the Tridents playing guitar with his back to the audience. Oh yeah, and the Stones.”

Cyril Davies, mentioned above and in the quote, was one of the key people along who popularised Chicago (electric) blues in London. A panel beater from South Harrow by day, Cyril was a dynamite blues singer, guitarist and particularly harmonica player by night. He was a giant at the scene and played Eel Pie countless times. He was only 31 when he died of leukaemia in January 1964 so Eel Pie put on a fabulous tribute night for him on 12 January 1964.

After the show, on the platform at Twickenham station, blues singer Long John Baldry who took over Cyril’s band, arrived on the platform to hear an 18-year-old waif singing and playing Smokestack Lightnin’ on the harmonica. ‘Young man’ Baldrey called out, ‘\ you have a good voice, why don’t you join my band?, to which the teenage Roderick David Stewart – for it was he – did, for £35 a week, after securing the approval of his mum. She approved of the wages and warned Baldry to make sure Roddy gets home on time. Rod still living at home. That is indeed how Sir Rod got started.

Eel Pie remained popular throughout the early and mId-60s but if the owners were making money, they certainly didn’t spend anything on repairs. There were holes in the roof and the floorboards were all rotten, especially directly in front of the stage, where it was always hazardous to dance. The police were always interested and by 1967 there were a lot more drugs around so by September 1967, denied a drinks license and with holes in the dance floor, Eel Pie closed, after 11 years of promoting new trends in music and inspiring new attitudes amongst the 30,000 fans who passed through.

Squatters soon moved in and although the club reopened in 1969 as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden featuring progressive bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Mott the Hoople, its days were numbered. By 1971, it was a squatter community again and after a nasty legal battle, the local council not only closed the place down, it tore it down as well. However, whilst the demolition was in progress, the Eel Pie Island Hotel mysteriously caught fire on 30 March 1971. 

Today, Eel Pie Island is now a small bohemian community of about 50 homes and artists’ studios, 120 inhabitants, a rowing club and two or three boatyards. Twice a year – not this year obviously – usually in June and December, the island opens up to the public and the studios open their doors to interested visitors. Michael Snapper died on 13 December 2006 aged 98. He competed in vintage car rallies well into his 90s, celebrated his 91st birthday by abseiling down a cliff and was planning on water skiing on his 100th birthday. Barely two weeks later, on 28 December, Arthur Chisnall left us, not before changing popular music in a modest but far reaching way. Genuinely if he hadn’t opened that club, nothing would have happened but not perhaps in the same way…

There is a museum in Twickenham dedicated to all things Eel Pie Island, which you can find at http://www.eelpiemuseum.co.uk. The curator is Michele Whitby, who is also th author of a splendid, superbly illustrated book called Eel Pie Island.

1 thought on “Arthur Chisnall: the sine qua non of Eel Pie Island

  1. In 1968 I think I saw an advert in the London standard for music Venue for sale it was eel pie island
    I was 18 and very much into north London blues clubs such as station hotel west hamstead manor hour county lib primrose hill etc seeing John Mayal Jeff beck long John chicken shack etc
    Anyway I talked my father into it we went to see Mr Snapper in Kingston at his house agreed a deal subject to obtaining a drinks licence the club had recently lost its license and was not considered viable without one
    We then went to court to see if a license would be issued to a new ownership and despite our barristers appeal we failed As the police objected
    So that was that but I often wonder what my life would have been like running that club mixing with my idols
    But I probably would not be here today to tell the tale

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