Skip to content

At Eel Pie Island

April 29, 2022
by the gentle author

Even though Twickenham is a suburb of London these days, it still retains the quality of a small riverside town. The kind of place where a crowd forms to watch a crow eating a bag of crisps – as I observed in the High St, before I crossed the bowed footbridge over to Eel Pie Island.

This tiny haven in the Thames proposes a further remove from the metropolis, a leafy dominion of artists’ cabins, rustic bungalows and old boatyards where, at the overgrown end of the only path, I came upon the entrance to Eel Pie Island Slipway. Here, where there are no roads, and enfolded on three sides by trees and tumbledown shacks, a hundred-year-old boatshed over-arches a hidden slipway attended by a crowded workshop filled with an accretion of old tools and maritime paraphernalia.

For the past thirty years, this magnificent old yard has been run by Ken Dwan, where twelve men work – shipwrights, platers, welders, marine engineers and marine electricians – on the slipway and in the workshop. “We have all the skills here, “ Ken informed me, “and the older ones are passing it onto the younger ones. Everybody learns on the job.” One of just four yards left on the Thames, Ken has his order book full for the next year, busy converting barges into houseboats, and maintaining and repairing those already in existence which, by law, have to  be surveyed every five years.

Like his brother John Dwan – the Lighterman I spent a day with once – Ken has worked on the river his whole life, earning a living and becoming deeply engaged with the culture of the Thames. Ken makes no apology to describe himself as a riverman and, as I discovered, the currents of this great watercourse have taken him in some unexpected directions.

“I started as an apprentice Waterman & Lighterman at fifteen. When the Devlin Report came out in 1967, all Lightermen had to be fully employed by lighterage companies, and I joined F.T.Everard & Sons. You got your orders over the phone the night before, and they sent you to collect and deliver from any of the docks between Hammersmith and Gravesend. We used to drive and row barges of every conceivable cargo – lamp black, palm oil, molasses, wool, petrol, sugar – I even moved a church once!

The work moved East as the docks quietened down and companies closed. Because of the Devlin Report, we had a domino effect whereby, when one company shut, everybody would join the next but there wasn’t enough work and so they shut too. But, as freemen of the Thames, we Lightermen were able to work in civil engineering. I worked on the building of the Thames Flood Barrier, and a lot went into the construction of Canary Wharf and the redevelopment of the Pool of London.

After that, I worked on the passenger boats, and I decided to buy one with a partner and we formed Thames Cruises – doing trips from Westminster to Gravesend. We started by buying other people’s cast-offs and we needed to repair them, so then we bought this place and I came up here while my partner ran the passenger boats. They still run from Lambeth. I found that if you have the facility, a lot of people want repairs and now most of our work is for other people. We also do a small amount of boat building and we provide a service of scattering of ashes on the river for the Asian community.

I did a lot of rowing years ago, I went to two Olympics as a single sculler, in 1968 and 1972. I won my Doggett’s Coat & Barge and was made a Queen’s Waterman, becoming the Queen’s Bargemaster for three years. My job was to move the crown in the State Coach from Buckingham Palace to Westminster for the Opening of Parliament. It dates back to the time when the safest way to travel was by water. They do suggest that the London streets are safer now than years ago, but you may wish to question that. I was Master of the Watermen’s Company from 2007/8, and now both my sons have got their Doggett’s Coat & badge and work on the river too.

I loved working around the Pool of London years ago, and, sometimes after work, I used to walk through Billingsgate Market late at night. There’d be be fish and ice everywhere, the atmosphere in that place was incredible. When we were out of work, we could get a tanner there for pushing the barrows of fish up the hill. My favourite place in London then was Tower Hill in the early morning, the escapologist on the corner trying to get out of the bag, and the old coffee shops where you could get steak and kidney pudding. When the big old tomato boats moored on the West side of London Bridge, the bridge would be full of people watching what was being moved around – it didn’t matter what time of year, people lined the bridge because there was always something different being unloaded. All the cranes were still working then and the place was hive of industry. It was a privilege to be part of it. For a fifteen year old, the London Docks was an adventure playground.

It’s never been hard getting out of bed and going to work. I still love going on the river seven days a week. It was never a job. It was an absolute pleasure. It was a life.”

When Ken visited Eel Pie Island as a fifteen year old apprentice Lighterman, he did not know that one day he would come back as master of the boatyard here. Yet today, as custodian of the slipway, he is aware of the presence of his former self – indicating to me the hull of a lighter that he worked on when it carried cargo which now he is converting to a houseboat. His sequestered boatyard is one of the few unchanged places of industry on the Thames, where the business of repairing old vessels that no other boatyard will touch is pursued conscientiously, using the old trades – where all the knowledge, skills and expertise that Ken Dwan once learnt in the London Docks is kept alive.

Ken Dwan, Waterman & Lighterman

A nineteenth century Dutch barge and Thames lighter of a hundred years ago.


“This barge, I worked on it when it moved cargo and now we are converting it into a palace!”

Ken Dwan – the Queen’s Bargemaster – stands at the centre, surrounded by fellow Watermen.

Looking across to the mainland and Twickenham church.

You may also like to read about

Among the Lightermen

Harry Harris, Lighterman

Bobby Prentice, Lighterman & Waterman

Swan Upping on the Thames

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    April 29, 2022

    A noble professional life and a gift to us all.
    Also, great visuals. This all looks like a set from Masterpiece Mystery. Maybe Wallander, one of the best ever, although that does not take place in London.
    There is a sense of things hidden and to be learned.

  2. Sue permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Fascinating place to visit, as is the nearby Eel Pie Museum.

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Thank you for filling this huge gap in my local knowledge!

    For me, as a teenager growing up in nearby Putney in the sixties Eel Pie Island meant only one thing – the Eel Pie Island Hotel and groups like the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Yardbirds (Eric Clapton’s band) before they all found fame. There was also the Crawdaddy a couple of miles away in Richmond where the Stones were the resident band. Happytimes and being 15 or so I had no interest in any history.

    I think the hotel is long gone – probably fell down before it was demolished.

    Times for a revisit – thanks for the prompt!

  4. Milo permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Another cracking story of another fascinating life. Where DO you find these people?

  5. Julia Scaping permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Thank you for your story of the boatyard. I’m delighted you have discovered the wonders of Twickenham and hope you come again to explore other places of interest (Strawberry Hill, Turner’s House, Marble Hill, Orleans Gallery …) and the foot ferry over to Ham.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great story about Ken Dwan and the waterman of the Thames. So interesting about how they were charged through the years with delivering the Crown to the Sovereign for the opening of Parliament each year. Wonderful pics too.

  7. April 29, 2022

    “Artists cabins”? Did you just say “artists cabins”? You’ve made me wish to have a parallel life.
    In one, I can live here in rural rustic Columbia County (the jewel of the Hudson Valley) and in the other, I will happily reside on Eel Pie Island. And, oh boy, there is an Eel Pie Museum. Does that also mean that there is an Eel Pie Historian? Forgive me for always thinking in cinematic terms — but this place reminds me a bit of “The Shipping News”.
    GA, you have introduced us to so many hidden places over the years; always capturing their
    offbeat allure with words and photos.
    You are the gift that keeps on giving.

  8. Pennie Limming permalink
    April 29, 2022

    My memories of Eel Pie Island are somewhat different … way back when in the 60’s it was THE place to go for good music. The Stones, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll&Brian Auger, The Yardbirds and many many more. Seem to think the charge was the 3d bridge toll.

  9. Paula PM permalink
    April 29, 2022

    How exciting to learn about Eel Pie Island! I went down the proverbial rabbit hole and learned so much fascinating history! Thank you for adding another must-see to my list.

  10. Ann V permalink
    April 29, 2022

    My memories of Eel Pie Island are somewhat different too – my memories are musical ones also. I remember the old lady who sat beside a brazier collecting the toll money. The two people who stand out in my mind are Elkie Brooks and Long John Baldry. One day I would love to go to the Museum in Twickenham and maybe visit the island if they still have their ‘open days’. Thank you for telling us about the boatyard, I suspect most of us had no idea about it.

  11. Hilda Kean permalink
    April 29, 2022

    Fine – but do mention it’s work and interest in the 60s and 7ps around rock music ! If nothing else this is how it should be protected and maintained!!

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 8, 2022

    The Thames runs through my blood having grown up within walking distance of it in Chelsea until the age of 11, including crossing the Bridge over to Battersea Park and the funfair. I was a Mod during the 60s, but also a big Jazz fan, first influenced by my older brother who had LPs of all the greats from back then, and then marrying a big Jazz fan. Eel Pie Island was one of our go to haunts for the jazz nights there. Our family had eventually moved to Maidenhead, again within close walking distance of the Thames, where years later I’d take my own children for walks onto Boulters Island and other beauty spots along the River. One of the highlights back in the day was going to see the Swan Upping with Mr Turk. Thank you Gentle Author for triggering all these wonderful memories with your posts. Turks still have a presence on the Thames I’m glad to say, in both Cookham and Kingston. I now live in the wilds of North Yorkshire, but have maintained friendships of many years in both Chelsea and Maidenhead – and go back to visit regularly.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS