Rex Needle: The private life of Raymond Mays as a man about town

Raymond with Rebe Daniels and Ben Lyon visiting Bourne in 1938
Raymond with Rebe Daniels and Ben Lyon visiting Bourne in 1938
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Raymond Mays was thrust into the world of business as head of the family firm of wool and skin dealers and as the founder of ERA and BRM although he was always more at home in the dress circle at Drury Lane rather than sitting round the boardroom table running a company.

He acquired a love of the theatre as a young man about town which remained with him until he died and enjoyed the close friendship of many stars of the day who he frequently met in London and who visited him at his home in Bourne for weekend parties. Even at the age of 20, his first racing car, a Bugatti Brescia, was called Cordon Rouge after the famous brand of champagne, and a second Bugatti followed, this time named Cordon Bleu after the brandy, an indication of his love for the high life.

Raymond was born at Eastgate House on 1st August 1899 and after a spell at Oundle School he was commissioned as a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards in May 1918 and sent to Chelsea Barracks in London, a posting that enabled him pursue his stylish living and predilection for theatrical musical comedies.

He later served in France and Germany but did not take to military life and returned to Bourne in 1919 after resigning his commission. A spell at Cambridge University followed but he left without gaining a degree, pursuing his chosen lifestyle of motor racing and the theatre rather than studying engineering, his chosen subject.

Raymond was obviously stage struck and once said that if he had not been able to motor race, he would have loved to have pursued a career in the London theatre and unashamedly admitted that he had fallen for the musical comedy star, Winifred Barnes, while serving at Chelsea Barracks. She was then appearing at Daly’s Theatre and was extremely popular with the young officers. “Night after night I gazed at her from the front row of the stalls and decided I must meet her”, said Raymond. “I called at her Eaton Square house but she was out and unfortunately another opportunity did not come along.” But there were to be other infatuations that turned into lasting friendships.

His father, Thomas Mays, died in 1934, and his mother Annie remained his hostess at Eastgate House, always offering support and encouragement, organising the hospitality, arranging rooms and meals for guests attending his lavish parties which frequently included businessmen, famous personalities from the world of motor sport as well as the stars of stage and radio, and although handicapped by arthritis in her later years, she presided over Eastgate House from her bedroom until she died there in 1973, aged 97.

Raymond also took an active part in amateur dramatics in Bourne for a spell, appearing in a production of The Quaker Girl presented by the Bourne Amateur Operatic Society at the Corn Exchange in 1930 when he was on stage with two of the society’s stalwarts, Win Hassock and Kath Hinson who remembered in later years: “He could neither act nor sing that well but my goodness he certainly looked good on stage.” Dancing was another matter and among Ray’s hundreds of motor racing trophies was a silver cup for winning a competition at the Casino Ballroom in Skegness with his cousin, Nona Agnew.

Among those who made the journey from London’s West End to Eastgate was José Collins, star of the musical The Maid of the Mountains at Daly’s Theatre, one of Raymond’s favourites which he saw again and again. “I first went with my parents when I was a schoolboy and I was captivated”, he recalled later. “The music and the scenery thrilled me but most of all José Collins. Her magnificent voice, her black hair and the intensity of her acting held me spellbound. I longed to go and make myself known to her and determined to do so one day. In the years that followed, while at Cambridge and in the army, I saw it 84 times, always with José Collins, and she later became a very good friend and I remained a terrific admirer.”

In 1935, Raymond met Ivor Novello who at that time was the darling of London’s West End theatre where several of his musical comedies enjoyed a hugely popular success. Glamorous Night at the Drury Lane Theatre was among the most famous and the first to star Mary Ellis, another favourite with Raymond, who saw the show and became firm friends with both her and the composer who also visited Eastgate House on several occasions.

Mary Ellis was particularly popular in Novello’s production of The Dancing Years. “I knew and admired Ivor and often went to see it at Drury Lane“, said Raymond. “During the war years my mother used to send Mary eggs because she couldn’t get any. My favourite song from the show was ‘I can give you the starlight’ and the producers would sometimes cut this particular number from the show but whenever I went to see it, I would send a little note round to the stage door to say that I was in the audience and would she sing it and she always did.”

Other guests at Eastgate House included Binnie Hale, Phyllis and Zena Dare, Norma Shearer and Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, two American friends who were to achieve fame on wartime radio in Britain with their patriotic shows Hi Gang and Life with the Lyons.

Raymond never married and in his final years was often seen walking the streets of Bourne with his dog and receiving only occasional visitors and in 1978, he was awarded the CBE for services to motor sport. He died on 6th January 1980 and his funeral was held at the Abbey Church followed by cremation and so there is no headstone in the town cemetery where his father and other ancestors are buried.

But in November 2003, a £10,000 motor racing memorial was unveiled on a grassy patch in South Road to remember his achievements while the Raymond Mays Memorial Room at the nearby Heritage Centre contains a wealth of material in photographs and artefacts collected by the Civic Society recording the life and career of a man who made such a remarkable contribution to international motor racing.