From River Clubs to Road Houses: An Interwar Leisure Phenomenon

by Lucinda Gosling

Time to fire up the boat-backed Bentley and scorch out to the nearest roadhouse with the GF/BF for cocktails, sun bathing, dancing and a canoodle. Lucinda Gosling has the story, from its beginnings in 20s party time through to ‘Lights out’ in 1939.

In January 2019, when the Maidenhead Advertiser reported on the demolition of Exclusive House in the town’s Oldfield Road, it was a story that attracted little interest beyond the confines of the paper’s local readership.  That the dismantling of a shabby looking office building, on a dismal, grey day should warrant any coverage at all was due to the building’s distinctive 1930s art deco design, a hint at its glamorous and briefly glorious past.  Almost nine decades earlier, in July 1933, the prosaic-sounding Exclusive House had in fact opened as The Showboat in a blaze of publicity.  Built in just eleven weeks through the efforts of two hundred workers and investment of £21,000, The Showboat was a prominent newcomer among what was a growing leisure phenomenon in Britain at the time – the out-of-town club or roadhouse. 

Advertisement for The Showboat in Maidenhead, a club offering a swimming pool, sunbathing, cocktails, dinner, dancing, cabaret and sports. Built in the early 1930s at a cost of 21,000, the club was part of a movement to provide the upper middle class with out of town clubs and roadhouses a short drive from London. It was used as a services club and then a spitfire parts factory during the war.
Date: 1933 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

The Showboat’s architect, D. C. Wadhwa had been inspired by the luxurious pool complexes he had seen on the Continent and configured his building around a 68 x 43-feet swimming pool.  After a dip, visitors could then choose to move into the restaurant and ballroom in the evening, take tea on the first floor, sip a cocktail in the bar overlooking the pool, or bask on the sunbathing terrace. Wadhwa worked on the design with Eric Norman Bailey, a Scottish architect known for a number of art deco cinemas.  The resulting curved, clean lines, the gleaming blue and white exterior and even the companionway route to the sunbathing terrace referenced one of the decade’s most inspirational style icons – the ocean liner.  And although firmly on dry land, as an entertainment venue, it was a confluence of all the sophisticated activities a passenger might find on a liner.  Dancing and dining, cocktails and cabaret, sunbathing and swimming, all elegantly and seamlessly combined in a building of up-to-the-minute ‘moderne’ architectural style. As a concept it catered directly to the tastes and aspirations of a middle and upper class society increasingly obsessed with youth, fitness – and fun.

View of the Show Boat at Maidenhead, a modern road house style club built in 1933 catering to a sophisticated clientele with its swimming pool, restaurant, cocktail bar and sun bathing area. Considered state of the art when it first opened, it became a United Services Club on the outbreak of war and then became a factory. It never reopened as a club and was eventually demolished in January 2019 to make way for residential flats.
Date: 1933 © Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

Rowing and the Smart Set

While The Showboat may have been a flamboyant example of its type, it was by no means a pioneer.  The genesis of out-of-town clubs and roadhouses of the period lay not in the road but the river, specifically the Thames. The location of The Showboat in Maidenhead was a natural choice.  Along with other riverside towns such as Bray, Marlow and Henley, Maidenhead had become a magnet for the social elite since the latter half of the nineteenth century driven by a combination of factors. The towns were picturesque and sufficiently bucolic to revive the spirits of Victorians wearied by the noise and smog of the capital, and yet conveniently close to London to allow a day trip. They were also on the west side of London, the acknowledged smart side, and within the orbit of Windsor and several large houses belonging to social leaders, notably Taplow Court and Cliveden.  Many theatre stars also migrated there, choosing to buy or rent summer retreats in the area where they would spend their free time. The variety star Fred Karno even opened his own Thames-side resort, the ‘Karsino’ at Tagg’s Island.

The increasing popularity of rowing meant that clubs dedicated to the sport were established at convenient spots along the river as it idled westwards away from London and into Berkshire.  During the summer months, when Henley Regatta and Ascot Sunday were highlights of the social calendar, the draw of the river intensified. The area began to attract families in addition to the original club members and messing about in boats became the quintessential way to spend a leisurely Sunday for the Edwardians. In 1890, Bank Grove at Kingston, formerly a private home, was opened by the Albany Club.  According to The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News it was, “To afford a pleasant riverside resort for members and their female relatives.  The grounds are delightful and have been adapted for lawn tennis etc.”  It went on to reassure its readers that, “The club is supported by many good names locally and the first list of members is sufficiently select”.  In 1906, Phyllis Court was opened at Henley, a premier spot for viewing the regatta from a specially constructed terrace, but also offering a large ballroom and restaurant, bars and tennis courts. 

The riverside town of Maidenhead in Berkshire showing the seven-arched bridge constructed in 1772 and the famous Skindles hotel, known in former days as the Orkney Arms. Skindles had something of a reputation among society as a place to take girls! Date: 20th century © Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

Skindles Hotel at Maidenhead had been catering to visitors to the area since the early 19th century and the patronage of the future King Edward VII, who was partial to a lamb cutlet and a brandy and soda sealed its reputation.  By 1915, Jack May, a rackety Canadian businessman, had opened up Murray’s River Club, a sister club to his original nightclub in London’s Beak Street.  Opening during the summer months, the club sought to capitalise on its location, staging outdoor mannequin parades, and laying a dance floor on lawns that sloped down to the river.

Cars Trigger the Roadhouse Boom

View of Moat Farm roadhouse in Wrotham, Kent. Roadhouses often began as petrol stations or were already inns, but they variously offered dining, dancing, cabaret, cocktails and, in the case of Moat Farm, a swimming pool. Moat Farm still operates today as a pub, and uses its fourteenth century barn for functions. However, the swimming pool is long gone.
Date: early 1930s © Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

The end of the First World War introduced a further ingredient into the mix.  Car ownership began to increase rapidly in the 1920s, first adopted by a minority of wealthy enthusiasts, but becoming accessible to a growing percentage of the population during the 1920s and 30s as affordable models from Ford, Morris and Austin were introduced to the market.  By 1918, there were 160,222 registered cars on Britain’s roads, and by 1921, 478,538, a three-fold increase in as many years. Two years later, the 2nd Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, one of motoring’s early pioneers and lobbyists whose son would go on to establish the National Motor Museum, wrote an opinion piece in The Graphic, which indicated how car ownership was outpacing road building. He implored the government to recognise the vital need for a road building programme to meet an increase which had by this time risen to, “over a million cars…necessitating a new outlook in regard to our national and local road policy.” 

Road improvements would be patchy throughout the inter-war period; governments were anxious not to alienate taxpayers by investment in a scheme that was not necessarily a priority for all.  Rail travel continued to be the prime method of travel, and the fact remained that many Thames-side towns and villages were perfectly accessible from London by train. However, motoring was a novelty that attracted a certain youthful, fashionable, and well-heeled crowd; the type of people identified by the press as, ‘young moderns’.  Journalists and writers also frequently referred to the ‘romance of the road’ helping to accentuating the mood of freedom and spontaneity associated with driving. By 1937, when George Long was writing, ‘English Inns and Road-Houses’ his 1937 survey of the UK’s hostelries it had become quite clear to him that, “the new type of road-house exists for pleasure and caters for those who use the road for recreation, rather than necessity.”  Motoring had become a leisure activity in itself and hopping in one’s car to motor out of town to a location offering tantalising amusements equal to those in London’s West End, was the ultimate mark of affluent chic.

Cover of a brochure for Askers Road House, between Bridport and Dorchester, Dorset, a forerunner of the motel
Date: circa 1930 © Mary Evans Picture Library

Early recognition that motoring and hospitality could form a mutually beneficial alliance came in 1921, when the Country Road Club established its first branch at Ham Manor, Newbury.  Dedicated to providing a comfortable retreat for motorists, the club could boast a number of distinguished members on its board including Rudyard Kipling, the Dukes of Sutherland and Newcastle, and Lord Beaulieu.  It had ambitious plans, hoping to establish a club every fifty miles along major trunk roads and in 1921 had already earmarked sites in Bath and Tewkesbury as sister clubs to Newbury.  The Country Road Club’s plans for domination fizzled out, but of those new road routes and by-passes that were being built, petrol or ‘filling’ stations followed in their wake.  Some of these began to offer refreshments, and eventually, entrepreneurs saw a gap in the market for a leisure innovation combining the car and the club.

The Roadhouse Leisure Formula

Although the basic concept of food, drink and petrol came from the roadhouse of the United States, as did the cocktails and jazz bands that were often among their attractions, in reality, the early British roadhouse imitated the more selective American country club, and had its home-grown inspiration in the established riverside club of the Home Counties. While some originated as petrol stations, and continued to cater for car owners, with garages, car dealerships and on-site mechanics, these facilities were eclipsed by the addition of restaurants, bars and dance floors, as well the obligatory pool and sunbathing area. By the late 1920s, inspired by wealthy holidaymakers on the Riviera, the suntan craze gripped the nation. The first of these new institutions was the Ace of Spades, which opened on the Great West Road in 1927, and, on a sister site shortly afterwards, on the Kingston by-pass.  At the Kingston branch, revellers could dance to Percy Chandler and his band until 3 or 4am, and women who wished to both swim and dance, could take advantage of a make-up department, on hand to groom them into elegant perfection post-dip.  It also boasted a polo ground and a private landing strip for the minority of guests arriving by aeroplane, the latter something of a gimmick but one that sparked plenty of column inches, as did a visit by the Prince of Wales. Both venues, like many other roadhouses, were unlicensed.  Guests had to bring their own alcohol, but were rarely subject to licensing laws or curfews.  Certainly, the inability to buy drinks on the premises did the Ace of Spades very little harm, according to The Bystander magazine in 1933:

Detailed diagrammatic illustration by G. H. Davis in The Illustrated London News of Phyllis Court, a so-called riverside ‘country club’ at Henley, showing extensions and improvements made in 1926. The ILN likens it to the American country club at a time when increasing car ownership and improved road networks was making motoring to entertainment complexes a fashionable pastime. G. H. Davis’s cross-section shows Phyllis Court to be catering to the desires of its upmarket clientele. Among the rooms visible are the conservatory added to the restaurant, a cocktail bar, chauffeurs’ room and a network of catering rooms and kitchens.
1926 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

“I went down to the Ace of Spades on the Kingston by-pass the other evening and found the place crowded.  It was a cool evening, but the water was so warm that you could see the steam rising and several people stayed in the water for at least half an hour.  This roadhouse must be coining money.  There is not a table to be had at 10 p.m., or again at 12 p.m., or 2 a.m. which are the three most popular times.  The fact that there is no licence means to say that the guests can arrive American-fashion with their own drink – be it champagne, whisky, brandy or what have you.  The management provide the food, cabaret, two dance orchestras, and swimming pool, and you do the rest.  Up to 9:20pm, they can send out for your liquor locally.  After that, as I say, you must bring it yourself.” 

Advertisement for the famous Ace of Spades road house. The Ace of Spades had two branches, on the Kingston by-pass and the Great West Road. The advert appeared in a theatre programme for the 1932 play, ‘Road House’ by Walter Hackett, which was staged at the Whitehall Theatre and tapped into the contemporary taste for these destinations during the inter-war years.
Date: 1932 © Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

The design of the Ace of Spades, by Ernest Brander Musman, the king of suburban hostelry architecture, was a curious hybrid. Inside, brickwork and timber, contrasted with glossy black surfaces and the playing card theme. It set a different tone to other out-of-town clubs, with a slightly raffish, ‘card-sharp’ atmosphere that was no doubt part of its appeal.  Its exterior, which was in a mock Tudorbethan style constructed with ancient timbers from a nearby barn, belying the sophisticated delights within.  Ace of Spades was typical of inter-war leisure architecture which often mixed the traditional style of the country pub with elements of art deco and moderne. 

The Great West Road branch of the Ace of Spades – image courtesy of John Law.

Some purpose-built clubs and roadhouses, such as the Showboat, or the Maybury roadhouse just outside Edinburgh, fully embraced the latter aesthetic, but many were existing old inns and hotels, already trading, but upgrading in order to compete with these new upstarts with additional facilities. In many ways, roadhouses and other out-of-town clubs defied classification in terms of style. Downs Hotel at Hassocks, 12 miles outside of Brighton, was a new build, had an ultra-modern Vita-glass ‘Restorium’, a kind of conservatory, and a sun lounge designed to mimic the deck of a liner.  At the other end of the spectrum, The Hautboy at Ockham boasted a baronial style dining hall, while at the picturesque Great Fosters in Egham, once a home of Elizabeth I, waiting staff took a prescribed approach to the building’s heritage by donning Tudor-style uniform.  Despite the confident modernism characterising the era, olde-worlde rusticism still enjoyed popularity. 

Among the venues featured in ‘Signpost’ by W. G. McMinnies, one of a number of guides published during this period and dedicated to listing pleasant places to stop at during a drive, was the K. C. B. Roadhouse in Oxfordshire.  K.C.B., which stood for ‘Keep the country beautiful’ was designed by Mrs. Carlton Oakey and opened by Sir Lawrence Chubb of the Scapa Society. The society was founded to prevent the disfigurement of the environment by uncontrolled advertising, and Chubb’s declaration that the K.C.B. was, ‘the most beautiful petrol filling station in the country’ confirmed the society’s approval.  With its whimsical thatched turrets and timbered entrance, the building resembled a fantasy dwelling from a children’s story book of the period and was the antithesis of the elegant modernism associated with the 1930s.  Run by a retired Army officer and his wife, the light refreshments offered in the twin cafes and its display of caravans made it closer to roadside services of the late twentieth century in function.

The Clock at Welwyn, Hertfordshire.
Date: 1920s © Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

But it was the glamorous, exclusive club, out of town but close to London, and with a select membership that loomed large in popular imagination.  A number of Thames-side clubs were founded as outposts to their West End counterparts and run by experts with the requisite skill and experience to ensure their guests enjoyed the very best service in the most idyllic setting.  The Hungaria in Maidenhead, which replaced Murray’s, and the Hotel de Paris in Bray, ‘first class’ according to McMinnies, were considered among the most luxurious of out-of-town clubs. Others, such as the road-house erected by Lady Hatherton next to Pottal Pool at Cannock Chase, or the Laughing Water in Kent built by Lord Darnley, were given further cachet by their aristocratic connections. And just as new roadhouses emulated river clubs by offering fine dining and top-class cabaret turns so the river club in turn smoothly adapted to the motoring craze by adding garages, parking and including road directions in their advertisements. In a chapter devoted to the ‘rise of the modern road-house’ in his 1937 George Long observed,

“The growth of this class of establishment during the last decade has been exceedingly rapid. Many hundreds of road-houses have been erected, ranging from mere shacks (which provide refreshment at low rates to cyclists and lorry-drivers) up to large and expensively equipped establishments for the well-to-do, which can accommodate hundreds of guests.”

He went on to praise a number of the latter road houses including the Spider’s Web on the Watford by-pass, waxing lyrically on its, “beautiful gardens blazing with roses and shaded by lofty elms,” as well as the famous Ace of Spades, the genesis of which lay in the notion that, “the driver might require a refill as well as the tank of his car.”

Chez Laurie Roadhouse, Herne Bay – Demolished in the early 2010s. Photo RIBApix Archive https://www.ribapix.com/Chez-Laurie-Thanet-Way-Herne-Bay-Kent_RIBA8058

These places set a class-conscious benchmark against which others measured themselves.  When a Mr. Waddy applied to the local authorities in 1938 to build Chez Laurie, a new roadhouse on the Thanet Way in east Kent, he explained that he “wanted to attract the high-class trade.  He did not want to cater for charabancs”.

In 1934, British Pathé produced a series of newsreels entitled ‘Outer London Clubs and Cabarets’ featuring guests in swimwear enjoying a carefree afternoon at resorts such as the Hungaria, the Bell at Beaconsfield and the Ace of Spades before tapping their toes at the evening cabaret entertainment.  Even if many cinema-goers viewing these scenes felt they would never be part of the so-called ‘enjoyment brigade’, such scenes helped to firmly embed the road house in public consciousness as an aspirational symbol of the era. It seemed natural that commercial brands, particularly motoring companies, would want to ally themselves to the glamour of the out-of-town club.  Dunlop Tyres, one of the most prolific colour print advertisers of the twentieth century, ran one advertisement in 1929 (see below) in which a group in elegant evening dress arrive at a modern club, naturally by car, where a pool is visible in the background with swimmers diving under the night sky. A similar advertisement for the Ford V-8 “22” in 1938 further emphasised the contemporary synergy between car and club.

Advertisement for Dunlop tyres showing smart cars arriving at a country club for the evening. Beyond the cars can be seen an art deco club house, swimmers diving in the club pool and guests in evening dress sitting at tables. Looks idyllic! Date: 1934
© Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

Rose’s Lime Juice, a cordial beloved by the smart set, showed a poolside scene at a roadhouse, while Our Sons bathing wear claimed its range of costumes as, “being quite in order for wearing at the many Road Houses and private swimming pools as given in the listing below” recommending around thirty lidos, hotels, road houses and country clubs around Greater London. Soon fashion designers came under the roadhouse spell; a checked dress featured in the The Sketch in 1933 was described as ‘suitable for a roadhouse party’, and Corot of Old Bond Street christened one outfit in its spring range of that year, ‘Road House’.  Even Bekonscot miniature village, completed in 1929, featured its very own roadhouse, at Lilliputian scale.

Upmarket Mayfair car hire firm Godfrey Davis, which could deliver and pick up cars for customers, based its advertising in the summer of 1929 on the convenient notion of “G.D.ing it up to the Hotel de Paris in Bray” and it waxed lyrical on the club’s charms:

“Cool lawns and river! Cool rooms and a magic menu! Enchanting music! Dancing under the trees! – the fashionable up-river fairyland”

Scenes at the Hotel de Paris in Bray, a popular nightspot during the 1920s for fun seekers looking to escape London for the evening. On offer were cool rooms, pretty lawns and bright coloured sunshades, shady trees and a glass dance floor, all by the river ‘glinting romantically in the moonlight’.
Date: 1929 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

Roadhouse Shenanigans and Signs of Moral Panic

Godfrey Davis’s advertisements are intriguingly ambiguous about the couple’s marital status, and whether they will stay the night at the Hotel de Paris, for despite all its charms, the out-of-town club would become renowned as a location for illicit rendezvous and sexual liaisons, particularly in Maidenhead and its neighbours.  A common saying before the Second World War was, “Are you married or do you live in Maidenhead?”  Everyone knew what the phrase implied.  Most clubs had rooms, and failing that, extensive car parks and garages where couples could find seclusion.  It is impossible to know how widespread this was, but several divorce cases reported in the press, stated the guilty, adulterous party had committed the act of betrayal at a roadhouse or club.  In January 1938, Mrs Effie Smallwood McAusland petitioned for dissolution of her marriage on the basis that her husband Thomas had committed adultery at the Bubbling Brook Roadhouse near Reading.  Two years earlier, one of the most high-profile divorces of the twentieth century, involving Mr Ernest Simpson and his wife, Wallis, accused Ernest of committing adultery with Mrs E. H. Kennedy at the Hotel de Paris in July 1936.  Two waiters and a porter from the club were called to the witness stand to give evidence. 

‘Racy Roadhouse’ by Clarkson Rose & Conrad Leonard from the 1936 ‘Twinkle’ – image courtesy of John Law

While this association might give a night out at the Hotel de Paris an added frisson of excitement, the roadhouse would attract criticism from organisations committed to protecting both Britain’s moral welfare and the bucolic perfection of its countryside.  One columnist in The Bystander, 1935, a magazine usually hugely supportive of roadhouses and the like, grumbled how, “The lovely county of Sussex is increasingly defiled by roadhog and roadhouses and bungaloid growths and jazzy hotels and all manner of beastliness.”  In December 1934, the Western Daily Press reported on a meeting of the Bristol Wine Trade Defence Association in which a Captain Morris had suggested roadhouses harboured, “a good deal of illegality” and were, “corrupting the morals of the community”.  The Western Temperance League was also anxious about, “The menace of the roadhouses and young people engaged in the ‘cocktail habit’”.  As roadhouses began to mushroom along major routes, often offering a more perfunctory stop-off for haulage transport, there was an increasing concern about ‘lorry girls’; young women who loitered around roadhouses in order to seduce lorry drivers. Whether lorry drivers were innocents who required protection from predatory females remains questionable, but the problem, whether perceived or real, further framed the roadhouse as a place of dubious morality.   

‘Roadhouse Girl’ by Desmond Reid (1957) – image courtesy of John Law

This image problem, at least in the eyes of Britain’s moral guardians, was not helped by its depiction in popular culture.  A stage play in 1932, ‘Road House’ by Walter Hackett, was set at the ancient Angel Inn, modernised to become the Angel Face Roadhouse.  The Guardian, with tongue in cheek, described it as the ‘most classy of the licensed bathing establishments that ever decorated a by-pass’.  The Tatler’s review reeled off a list of stereotypical habitués of the roadhouse from ‘nymphomaniacs with titles’ to ‘suave crooks who roam the balcony with panther tread’.  Inside the theatre programme were advertisements for Maison Lyons chocolates, illustrated with art deco figures enjoying typical roadhouse pursuits such as tennis and sunbathing, and another publicising the real-life Ace of Spades.  ‘Road House; was made into a film two years later, and the phenomenon was soon picked up by other writers, who found it the ideal setting for crime or romance novels and film noir – a trend that ultimately would continue to tinge the roadhouse with a faintly disreputable quality.  

Fading to Blackout

Many of these once-vibrant social spots fell victim to the Second World War and, in fact, some even began to lose their gloss as well as money in the latter half of the 1930s. As the roadhouse became more accessible to the ever-growing numbers of car owners, they began to attract a more déclassé crowd and the original early adopters lost interest after the first, few heady years. A challenge came from the more wholesome and family-orientated pubs also being built along roads in the suburbs, especially in the areas north and west of London known as Metroland.  And high-class facilities that were once such an attraction became a financial burden for owners: swimming pools and West End jazz bands did not come cheap.  The Hungaria for one was put up for sale in 1936.  The war was to sound the final death knell for many, not least because petrol rationing had a direct impact on motoring for leisure. 

Former Showboat, Maidenhead prior to demolition. Photo 2007 by John Law

The Ace of Spades burnt down in the 1950s and the area’s dubious claim to fame today is as a traffic black spot.  The Hotel de Paris was demolished in the 1950s to make way for a housing estate; and a garage now sits on the site once occupied by Murray’s, though its famous lawns survive as a public park.  Others clung on longer. Skindles continued to attract a glamorous, if more eclectic crowd in the 1950s and 60s –everyone from Mick Jagger to Princess Margaret visited Skindles.  But by the 1980s, its status as a local discotheque was a humiliating demotion from its former glory days.  Its neighbour, the magnificent Showboat, became the All Services Club at the beginning of the war before being requisitioned as a factory for Spitfire parts. Post-war, it continued as a factory and never reopened as an entertainment venue.  When the wrecking ball swung two years ago, clearing the site for residential flats, it was demolishing not just a building, but something that, for a brief but bright moment, symbolised the optimism, freedom and sophisticated tastes of the 1930s ‘road house set’. 

© Lucinda Gosling, 2021

Many of the images in this article have been kindly supplied by the ‘Mary Evans Picture Library – The widest range of historical and cinema images for editorial and creative use’. Find out more at https://www.maryevans.com/

Additional photos gratefully supplied by John Law.


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