Eel Pie Island in the mid-late 50sby John C Snelling
I started visiting the island in 1954. My "uncle" Frank (Francis Thornton-Glide) owned a dock adjoining the hotel's upstream side and the hire business was called "Rivercars". These were 4-seat open hire boats with a 2 cylinder piston engine driving a reversible pitch screw. Frank had two other sites at Kingston and Hampton Court.
The Chalet, built partly over the entrance to the dock, was quite old by the 50s (probably early C20th). It was then a single story bungalow with a flat roof approached by stairs from the path to the front door facing the dock. There was a handrail all round the roof and a small Gazebo in the centre. The dock held quite a few houseboats and there was quite a friendly community of people in them. There were two slipways, one in the dock and the other between the house and the hotel.
It was the beatnick era and loads of them would arrive from the mainland on a Saturday night. There was no bridge then, just a chain-ferry worked by a ferryman. It was like a big punt and quite unstable when overcrowded with the bearded masses. Some occasionally fell in (I'm not sure if any drowned). The hotel's owner, Michael Snapper, had the bridge built probably around 1957/8. It had a turnstile at the Island end. I recall one had to have a "passport" for the Jazz Club held in the hotel ballroom. I saw several up-and-coming trad bands there but my uncle left the Island before the rock era started.
I recall the dancehall was facing the river on the right hand side of the hotel as you faced Ham Common across the main stream. There was a stage at that end and to its left a small staircase leading into the hotel and bars. The hall was mainly furnished with settees and armchairs which were very tatty. The island residents varied immensely from the arty-crafty types to a practicing solicitor. My uncle used to work for the MoD at Shell-mex house in London and commuted to and from Twickenham station. If I was on the island before he arrived I would meet him at the town slipway and row him across in a dinghy. One day there was a very strong tide and we were both pushing and pulling the oars and still the tide took us downstream to the end of the island where we just managed to get ashore - very scary!
One of the Rivercars was involved in rescuing a drowning woman who had evidently absconded from a care home and was attempting suicide from the shallow spit opposite the upstream end of the Island. We managed to pull her out of the river and resuscitate her and take her to the town slip where an ambulance picked her up. That made the local paper!
My last visit was in '58 and the hotel still stood, although very delapidated.