Eel Pie Island: A Seaport in Miniature

Eel Pie Island Museum founder Michele Whitby talks to us about the boatyard that’s been keeping London afloat for over a century.

In the last 18 months, many of us found time to address projects sat simmering away on the backburner of everyday life. One such project at the Eel Pie Island Museum was a geographical analysis of previous visitors. A look through our visitors’ books confirmed guests not just from all over the UK, but from 48 different countries too!

Many would have been on a musical pilgrimage, drawn by tales of the formative part the island’s Eelpiland Club played in the British Rhythm and Blues explosion of the ’60s. And they would then have seen that the museum is not just about celebrating the island’s past but also its present and – more importantly – its future: the island’s industrial heritage that is, of course, its working boatyards.

Almost 300 years ago, Horace Walpole – he of Strawberry Hill House fame – described the Twickenham’s riverfront as ‘a seaport in miniature’, which was the inspiration behind a revamp of our museum’s boatyards display (funded in part by Richmond’s Civic Pride Fund).

The many (many!) visitors to Twickenham’s riverside in recent months have been able to see for themselves how Walpole’s words still ring true today. Working vessels, leisure craft, residential houseboats – all find their way to Eel Pie Island, some as permanent fixtures on the island’s many moorings, others passing through, clients of the island’s four working boatyards.

Considering that only 15 working boatyards remain on tidal Thames between Teddington and Wapping, this tiny Twickenham isle more than pulls its weight supporting London’s ‘Blue Ribbon Network’ (not another Walpole quote, this one is from the somewhat less lyrical London Plan). 

The Thames is now the UK’s busiest inland waterway for passengers and freight, with an increasing number of houseboats appearing, not to mention the many sporting and leisure events hosted afloat. Yet London’s river craft already face having to cross the Channel to the Netherlands, for example, for essential maintenance work.

Ken Dwan, owner of Eel Pie Island Slipways – one of the largest boatyards on tidal Thames with a waiting list of over a year to get onto one of its two slipways – is the first to acknowledge that siting a major boatyard on an island some 125 years ago was not the most sensible thing to do. However, perhaps the challenging logistics of an island location explain why the remaining boatyards survive to this day, tucked away from a developer’s grasp.

A waterman and lighterman with over 500 years of direct descendants having worked on the Thames, Ken is committed to keeping Horace Walpole’s ‘seaport in miniature’ a vibrant and living part of today’s Twickenham. As indeed are the island’s other boatyard operators – Dave Johnston of Cruisemaster; Helen and Mark Montgomery-Smith of Eel Pie Boatyard; and Andy McConnachie of Phoenix Wharf Slipways.

The beat of the late Rolling Stone Charlie Watts striking ‘wood on drumskin’ was last heard on the island over 50 years ago. However, the pulsating rhythm of ‘angle grinder on metal’ reverberates across the water to this day, a high-pitched reminder of Eel Pie Island’s continuing contribution to London’s riparian future.

Eel Pie Island Musuem, 1-3 Richmond Road (opposite Civic Centre), Twickenham TW1 3EA.

Open Thurs-Sun 12-6pm. 

(£3 Single Entry; £5 Annual Membership)

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