Everything you need to know about London’s islands

Gilly Pickup 2 June 2022

The London Thames is home to more than a hundred small islands, all of which conceal a rich cultural (and sometimes scandalous) history.

Question:  When is an island not an island?

Answer:  When it is an “ait”…

…an ancient word meaning “small island”.  The word has been used in literature time and again, including in Bleak House when Charles Dickens wrote, “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows”.

Tirelessly ebbing and flowing over the centuries, London’s River Thames is home to 180 of these “aits”—sometimes called “eyots”. 30 are inhabited and many have intriguing stories to tell. They’ve hit the headlines, made history, seen scandalous comings and goings and even provided refuge for royals seeking privacy.

Old maps show that back in the day there were many more "aits" than there are now. After all, long ago the river was not only slower, but also wider and shallower. 

Eel Pie Island

Most famous of all of these aits is car-free Eel Pie Island, which acquired its name from a dish on the menu of a 19th century island hotel. 

The island’s fame rocketed in the “swinging sixties” when, as the epitome of cool, it was dubbed “the place where the sixties began”. The reason was the bands who played there—roll those credits for great names of the day including Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Yardbirds, and Rod Stewart who, as one of Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men, provided vocals and played the harp and guitar. 

"It was dubbed 'the place where the sixties began'"

A 17-year-old youth also went down well with the Eel Pie Island crowd. He was called Davy Jones and, with the Manish Boys, played here many times. Everyone later came to know him better as David Bowie.

Holm and Monkey Islands

King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936Credit: Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were known to make use of the secluded Holm Island.

King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson liked to pay visits to the much more sedate Holm Island. A house there became known as The Nest because it was their romantic hideaway. At least they were free from paparazzi and prying eyes on this secluded ait. 

Monkey Island was another ait on the royal radar. In this case, a fashionable setting for the 1960s party set including HRH Princess Margaret and her friends. Writers including HG Wells tended to frequent this island too.

It is not absolutely certain but generally believed that Monkey Island’s name came from the Old English “Monks Eyo”, because the first recorded inhabitants were Augustinian monks.  

Tagg’s and Walnut Tree Islands

Back to royal partying—this time Prince Edward, the future King Edward VII—on Tagg's Island formerly known as Walnut Tree Island. The name was changed in 1872 when Thomas Tagg built the island’s Thames Hotel and it wasn’t long before it became the place to be and be seen. 

The island was also a busy mooring site for houseboats. Among those who rented one was the author of Peter Pan, Scotsman JM Barrie.

However, it was none of those names who boosted Tagg’s Island popularity, but impresario Frederick Westcott, who discovered Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Fred Karno, as he liked to be known, built an entertainment complex there which included a hotel, music hall and ballroom. It opened in a blaze of glory in 1913. 

Fred decided to call it the “Karsino” and set about advertising it as the “finest and most luxurious river hotel in Europe”. If you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? 

It was eventually demolished in the early 1970s, though even then it had another famous moment by means of an appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s filmA Clockwork Orange, as a dilapidated casino.

Lot’s Ait, Oliver’s Island and Lock Island

Oliver's Island in the Thames at KewCredit: Maxwell Hamilton. Oliver's Island is so-named because Oliver Cromwell took refuge here during the English Civil War. 

Speaking of films, although mostly shot in East Africa, some scenes in Humphrey Bogart’s 1951 film The African Queen were filmed on and around Lot's Ait. Well, it certainly meant crocodiles weren’t a problem there.

There’s wildlife aplenty though on Lock Island—an abundance of water voles, in fact. The island, uninhabited until the late 19th century, was where some London families fled during the Blitz. Their descendants still live on the east side of the island.  

Oliver’s Island is attractive to wildlife too. Masses of birds call this island home, everything from Canadian geese to cormorants and herons.

There’s an unsolved puzzle connected to Oliver’s Island. The story goes that a secret tunnel which leads from the island to the Bull’s Head pub in Chiswick was used by persecuted priests as an escape route. Maybe it’s true, though plenty have tried to find it without success.

Ah, and the island’s name? That’s down to Oliver Cromwell, who supposedly took refuge there. 

Sonning Eye Island and Hamhaugh Island

Then there’s the island of Sonning Eye, a location favoured by artists. Film star George Clooney and his wife Amal bought a home on the island a few weeks after they married in Venice in 2014. The 17th century mansion cost them around 10 million pounds. 

"During the Second World War, some moved there permanently to escape the bombing."

Hamhaugh Island also appeals to artists and in the days before anyone lived there permanently, Londoners would sometimes go there for their holidays. 

During the Second World War, some moved there permanently to escape the bombing.

More war connections exist on Platt’s Eyot, which harbours a secret past. During World War I, coastal motor boats that could launch a single torpedo were built here in camouflaged boat sheds. The very first aircraft carrier is also believed to have been built on the island.

Read more: The best paintings of London

Read more: 25 phrases and street names that reflect London's port history

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