The history of boat building on Eel Pie Island goes back to 1891, when William Sargeant established The Thames Electric & Steam Launch Company. In 1945 the company Thames Launches bought the site, later diversified into small shipbuilding in 1956, as Thames Launch Works, and gaining international recognition for their exports of tugboats, and vehicle/cargo carrying landing-craft.
In the 1970s Thames Launch Works was in decline, caused by foreign competition, and in 1979 it was declared insolvent. Eventually the yard was split in two, known as Eel Pie Marine Centre and Eel Pie Island Slipways. Eel Pie Island Slipways was established when employees, Ted Leppard and Len Bowman, negotiated a ‘workers buyout’ of the main slipways with a guarantee of regular work maintaining Thames Cruises passenger boats. The remainder of the yard was bought by Henry Gastall who established the Marine Centre as a DIY boatyard providing facilities for boatbuilding, restoration and repair projects, as well as workshops for artists and craft-workers.
In the 1990s tragedy hit Eel Pie Island. An accident at the Slipways in 1995 resulted in the death of Keith Bowman, Len’s son. Len left the business soon after, with Ken Dwan buying out his share. Ken, who began his career as a waterman and Olympic rower, eventually took over the yard completely, and remains the owner today.
In 1996 a devastating fire destroyed much of the Marine Centre, along with many of the traditional boats that were being repaired there. The eastern part of that yard was purchased by Mark and Helen Montgomery Smith with another couple, who continued the DIY yard as Eel Pie Island Boatyard, which continues to thrive as an affordable space for artists and boat enthusiasts today.