Eel Pie Island - 1948 to 1955by Roy Buckley
In 1948 my father took on a job as works manager for a new company: Viking Marine, making small boats such as dinghies with aluminium alloy. They already had a small site in Colne Road Twickenham, but the Island site gave much more scope. Later the company turned to specialising in ships lifeboats, at first made with aluminium alloy but later using glass-reinforced polyester resin (GPR). The job came with a small bungalow, called 'Sans Souçi', adjacent to the workshop, just about big enough to house the family: two adults and four children, I was just 7 years old with an older brother and sister plus a younger sister.
The Island was a paradise for kids to grow up, we all soon learnt to be at home both on and in the water. At this time the only access to the Island was via a ferry, initially this was either a large skiff or a broad-beam punt, both operated by an old guy called Mark Moffat, later the ferry was upgraded to a chain ferry before eventually having a bridge built, but this was after we had moved away.
The ferry landing site had a set of steps leading up to a cinder track which was the main path along the Island. A turning off this track to the right led to several houses, eventually ending at one of the woodlands found at each end of the island. Both these woodlands were not open to the public, but that didn't stop young kids from playing there, making excellent sites for camps and tree climbing. One of these houses was occupied by a 'Countess'. She kept a couple of Samoyed dogs. She would collect the hair from these and spin it to make scarves or shawls.
In the triangle formed by this side track and the main path was a waste area, generally known as 'The Dump'. This provided a superb play area and was also the site for an annual bonfire party on the 5th November in which most of the Island residents took part. At the entrance to this area was a mature conker tree which was just about the best tree in the world for climbing. The other end of the 'dump' came out by the river on the Surrey side at a small stoney beach, not surprisingly called 'Brighton Beach'. We would swim there and also exchange stone throwing with kids in Ham Fields on the other side of the river, I don't think anyone managed to hit anyone else, let alone reach the other bank. Adjacent to this beach lived an old guy, Mr Keys, who put the fear of God into us kids, but in reality I think he was just a poor recluse who didn't like company.
Continuing along the main path, on the left was a brick-built bungalow, and then, next to that was our house, Sans Souçi and Viking Marine. These two houses and the hotel were the highest points on the Island and were the only ones never to be flooded during the high spring tides: the water did come right through the workshop but stopped just by our back-door step.
Opposite our house was 'Brocks Tea Garden', which was accessed mainly by boat on the Surrey side of the Island. Adjacent to Viking Marine was the Twickenham canoe club and after that a few more houses, the immediate one having a small gazebo overlooking the river. The last house was occupied by a lady who was an ex-Folies Bergére dancer, she kept a large poodle that was never trimmed and appeared to be very fierce, but, I think, only barked at everybody passing by. Adjacent to 'Brocks' was 'the Dock and Slipway', an inlet where small boats could be berthed and serviced. By the last house was a gateway consisting of upright wooden columns surmounted by a wooden pitched roof; we called it 'the Arch' and it marked the entrance to the Hotel grounds.
The hotel was much used by the residents as well as by people on hire-boats putting into the landing stage. Of course, in those days, we kids were not allowed in the bar, but could sit in a conservatory area adjacent to the bar. The hotel had a ballroom with a sprung floor, and ballroom dancing was organised from time to time. Naturally, the hotel was also the venue for any celebration on the Island.
Behind the hotel, on the Twickenham side, was the base for 'Thames Launches' the pleasure steamer company. At one time we used to know the names of all the pleasure steamers and competed on who could be the first to identify one at a distance. The steamer site ended by a small creek which crossed the Island. At the other end of this creek was moored a houseboat on which lived the assistant manager of Viking Marine. We would cross over this creek to get to the woodland at that end of the Island.
The Viking Marine workshop had a large slipway leading onto the river opposite the Twickenham Embankment. Off this slipway were moored several private boats, including our own cabin cruiser, 'Thalia'. There were also moorings along most of the rest of the Island upstream towards Teddington.
On summer Sundays a seafood stall was present on the Embankment, we would frequently row over, collect a pint or two of prawns and winkles and sit on the slipway having a good feast. On summer weekends a strange character who called himself 'Mr Cockles' would don a homemade diving helmet and descend into the river, with a couple of volunteers pumping air to him. From under water he would let off a few fireworks.
Also on the embankment side was an old building known as 'the Wharf', alongside this was moored an old Thames sailing barge which served as living quarters for a couple. These sailing barges were once common on the Thames estuary. Just ahead of this was another boat, a motor torpedo boat which also served as living space for another couple.
After seven years on the Island we had to move for two reasons: firstly the family was expanding and the bungalow was already too small, and secondly, the company was opening a new factory at Sheperton between Sunbury and Ashford, although the Island site was retained for several years after. Even later, the company moved to Gosport, my parents with it, but I stayed in Twickenham, living in digs.