Murray’s River Club: A Rendezvous of Ragtime and Romance
The American Jack May was instrumental in developing the nightclub scene in London shortly before the First World War and famously opened the legendary Murray’s Club in Beak Street in 1913. At about the same time, or shortly afterward. he opened a summer resort – Murray’s River Club – at Maidenhead that became the playground for the rich and famous.
Presumably May’s knowledge and experience of the summer regime in New York (where he came from) was useful. The city was denuded of its rich patrons as they flocked to the beach resorts at Newport, Coney Island and Atlantic City and took advantage of the sunshine with outdoor pursuits and local entertainment at night. London nightlife also came to a virtual standstill in the summer so May decided to create a resort not far from London but with a river setting that was light and airy and perfect for outdoor summer entertainment.
He bought and renovated the old Manor House (or Bridge House) situated near Maidenhead bridge on the edge of the river. It was a magnificent old Georgian building that had been inhabited by a generation of staid gentlemen called Herring and their sign – a fish – still turned slowly on the house weathercock on the roof.
It was transformed into a glamorous meeting place for the rich and famous and each summer Murray’s nightclub in London was closed and the staff decamped to its summer headquarters. Being so close to London – 24 miles away and about an hour or two drive – but sufficiently in the countryside to make it an attractive alternative to the city, assured its success. More often than not the club also attracted a large theatrical contingent and, for example, in the summer of 1915 the famous French actress Gaby Deslys and her dancing partner Harry Pilcer and the English composer Max Darewski enjoyed themselves in the house and gardens.
Usually guests arrived early and took boat rides from a mooring at the end of the lawn and then took cocktails outside. Strings of fairy lanterns and little lights were festooned everywhere in the flowers and trees to light up in the night and white coated waiters wizzed about with amazing dexterity.
The house itself was large and rambling yet beautifully appointed with a magnificent blue-ceilinged Japanese ballroom for dancing indoors. There was an indoor restaurant but weather permitting dinner was taken on the elegant verandah overlooking the vast green sloping lawn and the river. Albert, the maitre d’hotel, was a trusted waiter on King Edward’s staff at Biarritz in 1906, and was highly regarded and the service was regarded as being flawless and the food and wine excellent. During and after dinner there was dancing to the dance bands in the ballroom or outside on a beautiful, illuminated crystal floor open to the sky.
The trend for summer venues continued unabated throughout the 1920s with the development of other resorts such as the Karsino at Tagg’s Island, Hampton Court, the Café de Paris at Bray and the Monte Carlo Sports Club at Eel Pie Island, Twickenham.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Dancing Times, Variety and The Bystander
Nights in London by Horace Wydham (1926)
Photo of Gaby Deslys & Harry Pilcer at Murray’s River Club at Getty Images
5 thoughts on “Murrays River Club: A Rendezvous of Ragtime and Romance”
For the record, Jack May leased the River Club (a social club)from my Great Grandmother (Edith Holland)in early 1915: he purchased the Club outright in 1918 at the end of WW1. My Great grandmother bought the then named Bridge House (opposite Skindles)in 1911 and created a Country House and Leisure Club. The House was previously owned by Lord Pollington.
Source: Edith Eugenie Earle Autobiography.
My childhood home was in Ray Drive, in front of the former riverside club. I never knew anything about the history of the house we could see over the fence at the back of our garden. We always called it “the big house”. Now in my forties I sometimes love to visit Maidenhead to see how much it’s changed and as with most towns now, it’s become more and more built up over time. It’s fascinating to find out some of the history about where I lived and grew up. If only I had a time machine, I’d love to experience how the house was in it’s heyday of parties in my favourite era of the 20’s and 30’s !
Jack May was my great grandfather. I just was introduced to this site today. Does anyone have pictures of Jack May?
Best, Rick Liebman
I will be creating a post about Jack May in the next few months and will be using a picture I have found online. Any info about him would be extremely helpful – especially concerning his time back in USA from the 1930s.
Please let me know what you find. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
As the oldest of his great grandchildren, I can say that we never knew the true story of Jack May. What little we heard was that he was a failed gaslight entrepreneur, whose business failed after the introduction of electric street lamps.