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From A British King To Rock 'N Roll: The Slippery History Of Eel Pie Island

Aug 13, 2012
Originally published on October 15, 2012 10:59 am

We were in London, searching for Hidden Kitchen stories, when we came upon an Eel Pie & Mash shop. It was full of old white marble tables, tile walls, pots of stewed and jellied eels, and piles of pies. These shops are now a dying breed, along with the eels they serve. Our search for the source of these vanishing eels led us to southwest London — to Eel Pie Island, a tiny slice of land with a flamboyant history that stretches from Henry the VIII to the Rolling Stones.

"Eel Pie. Think of an apple pie, with eels in it," says Dan van der Vat, author of the book Eel Pie Island. The pies, when you can find them these days, are round and mounded like apple pies, but they taste meaty and rich. Van der Vat has lived where it all began — on Eel Pie Island — for 30 years. It's the only inhabited island on the tidal Thames, 18 miles upriver from the center of London.

"The traditional eel [pie] is from the Londoners in the early 16th and 17th century, when the Thames was full of eels, and they were cheap," says Ruth Phillips, owner of Cockney's Pie and Mash Shop, one of the few remaining eel pie shops in London.

But the story of how eel pie became a staple of the London diet is legendary — if a bit slippery.

Legend has it that Henry VIII was being rowed up the Thames on the Royal Barge one day, and while passing the island, he was overcome by hunger, says van der Vat. "He said, 'Stop the barge and bring us a pie! Bring us an eel pie!' He sent a minion ashore to buy him one from Mistress Mayo's famous stall, acquired a taste for her pies, and then frequently indulged it." But, as van der Vat says, "the tale is highly suspicious. The hotel was built by the Mayo family, and Mistress Mayo ran it — but in 1830, not 1530."

Regardless of exactly how it began, for the next couple of centuries, Eel Pie Island became a retreat, known for its music and food, and for the clean air upriver from the polluted heart of London. Charles Dickens came by paddle steamer to visit the hotel in the 1830s, immortalizing it in his novel Nicholas Nickleby.

But eventually, people forgot about the island, and the fancy hotel went downhill.

Fast-forward to the mid-20th century, when Eel Pie Island was rediscovered by Arthur Chisnall, an untrained sociologist who wanted to set up a kind of living laboratory to study this new creature of leisure who cropped up after World War II: the teenager. He opened a club there and used music to attract young people.

Word spread, and soon the island and the club became a rock 'n' roll mecca. There was still some eel pie to be found, but times were changing, says actress Anjelica Huston, who grew up in London in the 1960s.

"Eel Pie Island was where they used to fish out the eels through the 1960s. The eels would be sold in the front of fishmonger shops — big, fat, some as thick as your arm," she says. Huston often made the pilgrimage to the island, although, she admits, eel pies were never on the menu for her.

Chisnall's club became a draw. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Cyril Davies and dozens more did some of the earliest gigs there, tromping over the bridge and carrying the "EELPILAND" passports issued like modern-day membership cards.

Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood called it a great melting pot. "You might bump into Mick Jagger in the bar, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Keith [Richards] or [David] Bowie." The Stones played 13 dates in the dance hall in 1963.

"The room would just be throbbing, Anjelica Huston tells us. "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."

After 11 years, Eelpiland was forced to shut down in 1967 for being a health hazard. At that time, 30,000 young Londoners were members of the club.

Today, Eel Pie Island is a lot quieter. Twenty or so artists and craftspeople maintain studios on the island, keeping the bohemian atmosphere of its past.

But the eels are largely gone, thanks to overfishing and pollution.

Just a handful of the old eel pie shops remain in London. Robert Cooke owns F. Cooke's at Broadway Market in London's East End. His grandfather opened the shop in 1900; his great-grandfather opened his shop in Brick Lane in 1862. "We've been selling pie and mash in the East End for 150 years. Eels were very cheap, caught from the canal or the Thames. Now we get a lot of eels from Holland. They're farmed and very expensive. The new generation wants chocolate, coffee and cheese, not eels."

Still, a generation of people remember both scenes. "Eel Pie Island. It's a very specific little place in space and time," says Huston. "A little point of liberation on the Thames, very alive — just like the eels."

If you're feeling adventurous, here's a traditional recipe for eel pie, likely dating back to the mid-1800s, from the book Eel Pie Island:

Richmond Eel Pie Recipe

Skin, draw and cleanse two good-sized Thames eels; trim off the fins and cut them up in pieces about 3 inches long, and put these in a stew pan with 2 ounces of butter, some chopped mushrooms, parsley and a very little shallot, nutmeg, pepper and salt, 2 glasses of sherry, 1 of Harvey sauce and barely enough water to cover the surface of the eels. Let them on the fire, and as soon as they come to a boil, let them be removed and the pieces of eels placed carefully in a pie dish. Add 2 ounces of butter, kneaded with 2 ounces of flour, to the sauce. And having stirred it on the fire to thicken, add the juice of a lemon and pour it over the pieces of eels in the pie dish. Place some hard yolks of eggs on the top. Cover with puff-paste. Ornament the top. Egg it over, bake for about an hour, and serve either hot or cold.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

For the past two weeks, all eyes have been focused on East London. But now that the Olympics are over, we turn our ears to the western part of the city.

BLOCK: Producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, The Kitchen Sisters, take us to a little known corner of London, Eel Pie Island. It's a tiny slice of land in the middle of the Thames River, a small bohemian community of artists, inventors, river gypsies and boat builders. Eel Pie Island has a flamboyant history stretching from Henry VIII to The Rolling Stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This week's adventure: The case of the complicated poisoning at Eel Pie Island.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I say hold, that's Eel Pie Island up ahead. I wonder if the ale at the inn is as cool as I remember it. And the Eel Pie, crust all flaky and tender.

I have no interest whatever in eel, Watson. Nasty, slimy fish.

DAN VAN DER VAT: Eel Pie, think of an apple pie filled with cooked eel. My name is Dan van der Vat, I have lived her on Eel Pie Island for about 30 years, the only inhabited island on the tidal Thames. I ended up writing a book about it. The story goes, King Henry VIII in the 16th century was being rowed up the River Thames on the Royal Barge to Hampton Court. Fantastic palace, a couple of miles upstream.

On his way past the island, Henry - who was actually a rather large gentleman - was overcome by hunger. He said, stop the barge and bring us a pie. Bring us an eel pie. He sent a minion ashore to buy him an eel pie from the famous stall run by a Mistress Mayo. He acquired a taste for her pies and then frequently indulged it.

ANJELICA HUSTON: Eel Pie Island was where they used to fish out the eels. In London, you'd see these big eels in the front of fishmongers' shops.

EMILY YOUNG: Big, fat, some of them as thick as your arm lying around on the marble slabs.

VAT: There was a public house here, a pub, on Eel Pie Island. It was there for centuries. It had a bowling alley and it used to sell beer and presumably eel pies. It was quite smart in 1830, just in time for Charles Dickens. He has one of his characters, Nicholas Nickleby, come to Eel Pie Island for a picnic by boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUSSELL CLARK: Eel Pie Island had a hotel on it from the 1800s that was effectively derelict by the mid-1950s, and a couple of people started a jazz club on it. I'm Russell Clark(ph), rock and roll historian from London.

VAT: Now, Michael Snapper was an antique dealer, scrap dealer. Eel Pie Island was going cheap at some stage so he just upped and bought it. What to do with it? Why not stage a concert 'cause it had a rather interesting dance hall attached to it.

HUSTON: The hotel stood alone. I remember it a little bit, like a Charles Adams' drawing. My name is Anjelica Huston. I'm an actress. I grew up in London in the early '60s. It was a time when a lot of old ways were meeting a lot of new ways, from the ration and the hardships of the Second World War and the Blitz and hunger.

Eel Pie Island, you know, the eels that had been cut up on these white marble slabs and the days of Henry VIII were suddenly meeting the youth quake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: Eel Pie Island, I used to come as 16-year-old. It was dark and it was summertime. And we would dance. My name is Emily Young. You had the trad jazz band playing. And the way we used to dance to it, you had to be quick on your foot. You were jiving and doing the Charleston at the same time.

CLARK: In the late 1950s, in particular, there was movement that looked towards America. It was more New Orleans jazz. It was called trad, traditional jazz played by people in coffee shops and small bars. People like Ken Colyer, a clarinet player, and Acker Bilk.

MICHELE WHITBY: The driving force behind the club was Arthur Chisnall. He worked in an antique shop for Michael Snapper. And after, began putting parties on there which initially were just free. It was called EelPiland. I'm Michelle Whitby. I co-authored the book "Eel Pie Island."

Most people are under the impression (unintelligible) of this big club. You know, he wanted to be a cool rock and roll promoter. But his motives were very different, and he had a huge interest in teenagers which, after the Second World War in the mid-'50s, were completely new phenomenon. General society just saw them as a threat. Whereas Arthur wanted to know how to help them, he purposefully included amongst the club members professional people - doctors, lawyers.

So if someone had a problem, he would try and steer them in the direction of the right person. He called it a social experiment and he used the music as a way of attracting these youngsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VAT: When you're too far separated from the parameters of the normal culture, your head breaks. People who were lucky got into the art schools where they could release these pressures in the form of music. There were about three, 400 people in the art schools who were formulating the groups that we know today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANNISH BOY")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Hey pretty women. Stand in a line. Make love to you, baby, one at a time...

CLARK: Keith Richard, Eric Clapton, all of those guys came out of art school. In the late '50s, early '60s, it was a bit of a hotbed for things like jazz and rock and roll and bohemianism. Ronnie Wood went to Ealing Art College. When Pete Townsend went Ealing Art College. Jimmy Page went to Sutton Art College. Jeff Beck went to Wimbledon. And Eric Clapton went to Kingston. These are all along the River Thames in probably a 20-mile radius, they're view of Pie Island. People rather jokingly refer to it as is the Thames Delta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO BROADCAST)

BOB MILLS: You're listening to his Bob Mills on (unintelligible) BBC Radio for London 94.9. My very special guest this morning is Eric Clapton. And who are we talking to now? Michele.

WHITBY: Hi, there.

MILLS: Hello, Michele. You got a question for Eric.

WHITBY: I have. Eric, I'm writing a book about the history of Eel Pie Island.

ERIC CLAPTON: Oh, God. When I - because I did a lot of work there...

WHITBY: Yeah.

CLAPTON: ...when I was like a beatnik back in the early '60s. That was the only thing there was, where you'd go to Richmond or Kingston and sit around in a coffee bar in the afternoon and wait for the time to go over the bridge to the island. And there you'd see all these great like Ken Colyer and...

WHITBY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS TRAIN")

KEN COLYER: (Singing) This train. These trains...

CLARK: A number of these kids went to Eel Pie Island and saw trad jazz and then folk and skiffle. Skiffle is kind of a punk of its time, 1955-1956, where almost every rock and roller that you've heard of that is from London would have been in a skiffle group. Kids have seen Elvis and they want to do it themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO BROADCAST)

WHITBY: Eric, I was wondering if you could tell me what your best and worst memories were of those playing at Eel Pie Island.

CLAPTON: One of the worst memories was having to carry John Males' organ across the bridge.

WHITBY: Oh, God.

CLAPTON: And he had a B3 with two handles that he'd stick through it. And the floor, he'd stand in the middle of a floor and it would bounce something down so hard, you didn't have dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CLARK: Eel Pie Island by the early '60s was taken over by rhythm and blues. Harmonica player Cyril Davies formed Cyril Davies All-Stars. He died at the age of 32 of leukemia. And his place taken by Long John Baldry. There is story that the night that Cyril Davies died, they had a booking at Eel Pie and they went on and played their show without Cyril. And afterwards on the local railway station, which is taken in southwest London, Long John Baldry came across a young guy, a little bit drunk and playing the harmonica and singing and his name was Rod Stewart and...

(LAUGHTER)

CLARK: ...John Baldry went over to him and said: Do you want to join a band?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUISE")

THE YARDBIRDS: (Singing) Oh, Louise. Yes, you're the sweetest girl I know...

WHITBY: The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, Faces, people would come and go and play in different bands.

RONNIE WOOD: It was a great melting pot. You might bump into Mick Jagger in the bar. You know, when The Stones were first starting, you'd see like, Pete Townshend coming through or Ray Davies, Keith or Bowie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CLARK: Any band that was worth its salt had to play there. Until you ticked off that one on your itinerary, you hadn't really arrived.

PAUL JONES: Paul Jones, I played with the '60s band Manfred Mann. You drove up here in your van and then you unloaded stuff and just pushed it on a trolley across this strange, little footbridge.

WHITBY: The footbridge was ropey as anything, decrepit. It was muddy, old London ramshackle river life with old barges where people were living.

CLARK: You had to pay to get over the bridge. If you didn't want to pay, you swam across and lots of people did.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "MONA")

STONES: (Singing) I say hey, Mona(ph)...

HUSTON: The room would just be throbbing. Hot, humid, full of cigarette smoke, sweat. You didn't take a lot of baths London at the time. There wasn't a lot of shampooing going on. Music would blare and those who weren't dancing were snogging. Kissing. Necking. It was a kind of ritual thing.

WHITBY: We just loved dressing up. Beautiful old ramshackle leather jackets. You could buy an old Victorian nightie and you'd have all the fluffy white lacy cuffs underneath this Jacobean velvet look - tight jeans, bell bottoms and hipsters, little mini skirts. It was just before the hippies came and the world changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUSTON: The island, you know, had gained quite a reputation. The Rolling Stones, for instance. Brian Jones actually phoned Arthur and said, you know, we'd like to play the island and they played a total of 13 dates over here in 1963. I think they got about 50 quid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CLARK: Pink Floyd was one of the last groups and they played there in, you know, 1967. The Eel Pie closed for being a health hazard. It was there for 11 years. And in that time, 30,000 young kids were members of the club. A number of people, once the hotel had closed down, decided just to move in and live there, squatting. In the early '70s, that was really the movement, particularly in London where, after the war, there were lots of properties left empty that had been bombed and before they could demolish, people would just colonize them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It was a waste land. It was squattable. The river authority wasn't doing anything with it. This bit was sort of claimed by youth culture.

WHITBY: The electric had been cut off and the water. It's freezing cold, so they just started ripping the building to pieces to keep themselves warm, and then it just became unfit for human habitation.

VAT: There was a fire. The hotel was pulled down and the owner got permission to construct 18 townhouses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One of the great institutions of rock and roll music. What is it now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The island is half residential and half boatyards and where the hotel was is now houses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But it's still - there are still artisans over there?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes, yes. Yeah. There's all sorts of people over there, sort of sculptors and stone carvers and a blacksmith and...

HUSTON: Eel Pie Island - it's a very specific little place in space and time. It's a little point of liberation down on the Thames. Very, very alive, just like the eels.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Our story about Eel Pie Island was produced by the Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson and mixed by Jim McKee. You can see pictures of the island and find a recipe for eel pie. Audie, are you tempted?

CORNISH: Hey, anything with enough butter, I'll give a shot.

BLOCK: So it's like this. Skin, draw and cleanse two good-sized Thames eels and - yes, butter, a little shallot, nutmeg. Yum. It's at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.