Tucked away at one end of Twickenham High Street is Eel Pie Island Museum. It is a unique and interesting place for all curious minds, music lovers, and history fanatics. The museum contains a treasure trove of stories that uncover the history of the ‘Eel Pie Hotel’ and ballroom (1830 to 1971) on Eel Pie Island, where many famous musicians played, namely, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Watt, the museum’s resident music historian, who shared with me the fascinating history of the grand ‘Eel Pie Hotel’, founded in 1830, and its well-known ballroom (established in 1898). Michael Snapper first bought the hotel in 1951, and in 1955, Brian Rutland put on the first jazz parties in the ballroom. However, it was not until Arthur Chisnall took over and formed the ‘Eel Pie Jazz Club’ in 1956 that the thriving music scene was established. Pete then went on to disclose why the Jazz Club was started. It began as a “social experiment so that Chisnall could understand the ‘new’ concept of the teenager”. In the beginning, it was one of the few places in the area that performed ‘Trad Jazz’ (some acts being: Acker Bilk, Sandy Brown, Carl Douglas & the Big Stampede, and Jimmy Cliff), but by October 1962, the scene started to change to R&B, with the likes of John L. Watson, Eric Clapton, and Howlin’ Wolf playing. Finally, in 1967, under Caldwell Smythe, the ballroom became ‘Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden' where psychedelic, prog rock, and the beginnings of heavy metal were played (for example, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Joe Cocker, Deep Purple, and Genesis). Shockingly, in March 1971, the hotel and ballroom were destroyed in a fire, ending the vibrant music scene.

When I inquired into when the museum was founded, Pete explained that the museum originally was launched as an exhibition in the Orleans House Gallery in 2013, then in 2015 (for five months) it was a ‘pop up’ in the local library. The museum and its remarkable history of Eel Pie Island were so popular (12,000 visitors to the ‘pop up’) that a permanent home was needed. In 2018, the museum was officially opened to the public by Don Craine, of the Downliners Sect, and Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio, unveiling the intriguing and mostly unknown history of the island. When asked what challenges they faced when setting up, Pete replied that the biggest challenge was getting others involved, as the museum is made up of volunteers who ‘do it just for the love of it’. One of the highlights of the museum is the wall of gratitude, which is made up of gold records named after all of the organisations that helped fund the museum (including the RFU and the Mayor of London). Pete further explained that the thing that he loves most about volunteering at the museum is the joy of discovering new stories from visitors, as they ‘embellish’ and ‘underline’ what the team already knows. The museum is reliant on word of mouth and social media to gain exposure and visitors. Interestingly, they have accumulated the museum’s memorabilia over many years, including the drumsticks of Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) and Kenny Jones (The Who) and the drum head from when The Rolling Stones played at Twickenham Stadium in 2018.

An amusing story that Pete later shared with me was that of the mysterious toll lady (she collected the toll for crossing the bridge). The museum already knew of her, but when a visitor visited the museum, he shared a personal and humorous story about her. One day, he visited the island in the middle of the day and came across the lady. When she spoke to him, she asked if he was going to come back to the island for the show that night and if he was to tell her the password so that he didn’t have to pay. Amusingly, the password was ‘the Three Musketeers’. When the man returned, the password worked, and he didn’t have to pay. Hilariously, the man realised that the password never changed, so from then on he never had to pay the toll again.

Eel Pie Island Museum is a charming, community-supported place that is a delight to explore. It's a must for your bucket list, whether it is a bright, sunny day where you can visit the museum as well as walk along the riverside, look upon the island, and imagine what the hotel and ballroom looked like, or a rainy day where the museum is the perfect refuge. It is well worth a visit, and for more information about this lovely place, look at their website, eelpiemuseum.co.uk.