History of Phyllis Court Club

Learn about the history surrounding our beautiful club

In 1906 in Britain when Rolls-Royce LTD was registered, the Bakerloo Line of the London Underground opened, and England Rugby Team played in their first international Rugby match, Phyllis Court Club was founded by Roy Finlay. The young Australian took the lease of a riverside mansion where he aimed to provide a: “headquarters for social and sporting life on the river...

Phyllis Court has a distinguished history which can be traced back to 1301, when the building known as Fillets Court was the Manor of Henley on Thames. Some say the old English name for hay was fillide and so the estate was called after hay, the local crop. Others prefer to think it is named after the old name for a red rose, fyllis or filletts, because the red rose was the nominal rent paid by the first landowner, John de Molyns. He was Treasurer of the King’s Chamber and Keeper of the Royal Hawks and Falcons, and was given the Manor of Fillets by King Edward III in 1347. The rose was incorporated in the club’s emblem and is still used to this day. Below we skip forward hundreds of years to a timeline that explains how the club came to exist as it is now.


Phyllis Court Club was founded on the June 2nd 1906 by a young Australian man called Roy Finlay. Finlay took the lease of a riverside mansion where he aimed to provide a: ‘headquarters for social and sporting life on the river.’

At the time there were several river clubs along the Thames, but they were considered to be a risky business, reliant on fickle public taste and the English summer weather. ‘Many have been started, and many have been failures,’ admitted the original Phyllis Court prospectus. Undeterred, Finlay recruited a very aristocratic committee, and borrowed money to double and lavishly furnish the size of the clubhouse.

1914 - 1940

The club survived the First World War essentially because Captain Finlay did. The 1920s were its heyday as a weekend resort for fashionable Londoners, with the Prince of Wales as its Patron, and tennis, dancing and rowing proving popular attractions.

Finlay bought the freehold in 1929 and drew up ambitious plans for redevelopment, including a swimming pool and sports centre. When in 1937 these failed to materialise Finlay sold Phyllis Court to its members.


After only four years, the enterprise was on the brink of failure as debts could not be paid and many committee members resigned. However, a determined Finlay demonstrated his flair for publicity and networking when he successfully recruited new members from social clubs across the Empire. The erection of the Grandstand in 1913 gave Henley a new landmark.


The Club faced closure and near insolvency during this time. To say that the principal achievement of the Club in these decades was survival is not understated. River clubs had gone out of fashion in the 1960s and many had gone out of business.


Despite an arson attack that seriously damaged the Clubhouse in 1976, a series of reforms designed to give the Club a larger income bore fruit in the 1980s. Membership doubled within a decade, exceeding three thousand for the first time in 1989.


The Club was able to refurbish its existing facilities and add to them, with the transformation of the Grandstand in 1993, the construction of the Finlay Suite in 1997 and The Orangery in 2006. Simultaneously, the social life of the club expanded enormously, thanks to the initiative of members in creating and supporting new interest groups. Phyllis Court in the twenty-first century offers a more diverse and active programme of events than ever before in its history.

2013 - 2016

Between 2013 and 2016 the Club acquired the Paddock land retained by Roy Finlay since 1937, and redeveloped the Grandstand into the Riverside Pavilion. In 2016 the club finally began to realise Finlay’s ambition for a sports and fitness pavilion when Members voted in favour of the project. The project went from this....

2016 - 2018

...to this! Plans for the sports and fitness facilities developed and in 2018 the state-of-the-art Fitness Centre was unveiled to Members with a soft launch. Club Founder, Roy Finlay's niece, Dione Venables witnessed the opening of the Fitness Centre which had been dreamt about since 1929. The historic event saw media and specially invited guests witness the handover of the Fitness Centre key. Club Chairman, Barry Jackson, gave a speech, and he together with his predecessor Patricia Christmas, presented Dione with a commemorative frame that included a copy of the original plan of Finlay’s pool and a photo of the Centre today.


2019 was a busy year for the Club with Stan Ainsley appointed as Club Chairman as well as welcoming CEO and Club Secretary, Christopher Hogan. 

On 27th April 2019, over 1,000 people witnessed Sharron Davies, former Olympic and Commonwealth swimmer, officially opening the Fitness Centre. The momentous event wasn’t just for fitness fanatics, it was a Club-wide showcase celebrating arts, culture, food and drink. Read more about the event here

In September 2019 Phyllis Court launched its first fine-dining, pop-up restaurant, Cromwell's Fine Dining. Ahead of Cromwell’s opening for dining on Tuesday 1st October 2019, 50 select guests were invited to experience Cromwell’s. Attendees included Council members, suppliers, local press, Membership Ambassadors, key staff members and representatives from partner organisations.

2020 - today

In 2020 the Coronavirus pandemic affected the entire country, and world. The numerous lockdowns meant that Phyllis Court Clubhouse, hotel and Fitness Centre had to temporarily close for months at a time. 

The Club changed operations and offered take-aways, pre-prepared meals and food and provisions for Members to collect or be delivered from the Club. All Club and Interest Group events and meetings went 'virtual' and the Riverside Pavilion was temporarily transformed into a PPE surgical gown factory in which individuals were to create 3,500 units for the Royal Berkshire Hospital and local GP surgeries. 

The Club lawn and grounds became the main attraction come rain or shine as Members made the most of the outside space. Sadly, due to restrictions, Henley Royal Regatta and Henley Festival were cancelled as well as the majority of other events throughout the year.

The generosity and loyalty of Members and hard work from the staff throughout the year meant that Phyllis Court moved into 2021 in a strong financial position with good membership figures and positive prospects for the year ahead. 

Eminent guests

Phyllis Court has welcomed many royal and well-known visitors over the years

Queen Anne in 1604

Oliver Cromwell in 1643, when he used the site as a garrison during the Civil War and built the wall, known today as Cromwell’s Wall, from the rubble of the destroyed Manor house

King Edward VII

King George V and Queen Mary (for whose visit the original grandstand was built) in 1912

Edward VIII as Prince of Wales, Patron of the Club

Queen Elizabeth II who visited in 1998


If you would like to find out about the history of Phyllis Court in more detail why not read ‘Phyllis Court: Club and Manor'? It’s an interesting read that outlines the truly riveting history of Phyllis Court Manor and the extraordinary background to the Club’s formation, with unexpected events and dramas along the way. The book is available to buy from the club for £25.



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