Those Musical (and Tragic) Clays

The Musical Clays. Milton and Amy Clay, and between them, Reginald. Percy is on far left. Harold isn’t in this photo (nor, for that matter, is Gwendoline; she probably wasn’t born when this image was made, but in any case, she never seemed to ‘count’ as one of the “Musical Clays”. Vancouver Sun. September 13, 1952.

Prof. Milton Clay his wife, Amy and their boys, Percy, Harold, and Reginald made quite a splash during their time in Vancouver. Milton, who was an unabashed promoter of himself and his family, made sure that from their arrival in Vancouver, the Clays were widely known as “The Musical Clays”. 

The Clay family [1] emigrated to Canada from England, settling in Vancouver in 1905. It was widely reported for many years that the Clays had had a large audience in the ‘motherland’ and, specifically that eldest son, Percy (who was scarcely 7 when they arrived in Vancouver), was known in England as the ‘World’s Wonder’ for his ability to play several instruments (4 at that time; 10 by the time they began performing here). These reports seem to have been largely fictitious, encouraged by Prof. Clay’s public relations juggernaut. I was unable to track down any reports in newspapers published in England of Percy performing there, nor, for that matter, of any of the Clays doing so. 

Within a few months of their arrival, the Clays were living in their home, 850 Helmcken Street, which also served as the HQ of the English Academy of Music, of which Milton was principal. According to a later report by Reginald, his father had as many as 110 pupils per week, with the first arriving at 6am and the last leaving at 10pm (Sun, 13 September 1952). Clay’s English Academy would be one of two local institutions (the Vancouver College of Music was the other) that was certified to train students for music exams set by Trinity College, London.

In 1906, Milton launched a “musical carnival and diorama” of the Russo-Japanese War. Central to this was Clay’s 18-piece banjo, mandolin, and violin orchestra and songs with questionable titles, today, such as “Happy Jappy Soldier Man” and “Soldier Boys are Only Toys” (World. 15 Sept 1906). According to the Vancouver News-Advertiser:

“There was not a single vacant seat at the Opera House” for the first performance and that “traffic was snarled [by horses and buggies, presumably, as this was prior to there being automobiles in the city] between Robson and Georgia on Granville by the attending throng.”

Vancouver News-Advertiser 30 Sept 1906 quoted in Vancouver Sun 13 Sept. 1952.
Chilliwack Progress. 30 June 1909.

By 1909, it occurred to the ambitious Prof. Clay that the Musical Clays may find a new and appreciative audience in the northern regions. In the summer, the Clays set their faces north via steamship from Vancouver. They played such places as Whitehorse, Granville (north of Dawson City) and Port Essington (between Terrace and Prince Rupert; now a ghost town).

If Vancouverites had seemed hungry for music, the miners, loggers, and fishermen of the North were starved for it . . . . [T]he concerts put on by the Clays were jammed. After each performance the family was showered with gifts, including a fair number of gold nuggets.

Sun. 13 September 1952.

Once back in Vancouver, Amy became active in several groups noted for their “women’s work”, including the Daughters of England (of which she was president for awhile), the Red Cross Society, and the women’s auxiliary of the Great War Veterans Association. She seemed gradually to be stepping away from public appearances with the Musical Clays as the boys grew older.

Meanwhile, most of Milton’s time, seemed to be dedicated to his English Academy and the musical instruction of other people’s kids, and the presentation of regular “musicales” where his students showed off what they’d learned. When he wasn’t kept busy with the Academy, he had purchased a summer resort property sometime around 1920 that was situated 3 miles north of Horseshoe Bay. It would become known as “Clay’s Landing”.

Around the time of the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco (1915), the earlier craze for the mandolin and banjo was starting to fade and was replaced by a new fad: a love for Hawaiian and Spanish guitars. Reginald was an early convert to the Hawaiian guitar and he and his brothers started a dance band that featured that instrument. The boys appear also to have had a short-lived Saxophone orchestra (Province 16 October 1920).

Percy and Reginald were married on the same day in 1923 — a double wedding. Percy married Bertha Tribe; he indicated on the marriage certificate that his occupation was “musician”. Reginald married Helen Nelson; he showed his occupation as “music teacher”. Harold married Muriel Epps in 1924.

On 28 October 1924, in the Province newspaper, there appeared this shocking notice:

I hereby give notice that I, Milton Clay, 1249 Davie Street, am not responsible for any debts contracted by my wife, Amy E. Clay, who has left her home without just cause. — Milton Clay

Province. 28 October 1924.

It is pretty clear from this that Mr. and Mrs. Clay were having serious marital problems and that Amy had moved out of their home. There was no other public announcement or legal action (such as divorce) taken by either of them.

The next mention of Amy in the local newspapers was on March 31, 1927.

She died on March 29, in her 50th year, at Vancouver General Hospital. Her death certificate is not available online and the cause of her death was not specified in her obituary. The obituary did show her address at the time of death as 2510 Marine Drive East. At that time, Milton was living at #5-1035 Granville Street.

Things went from bad to worse for the family. On December 24, 1927, Milton went missing after heading out on the water with a rented rowboat:

The Vancouver music teacher is believed to have been drowned Christmas Eve about 3 miles from Horseshoe Bay [Clay’s Landing, I presume], which point he left in a rowboat for Sunset Beach. The boat, with its oars and a club bag was later found adrift off St. Mark’s Summer Camp beach, a short distance from the professor’s objective, and it is presumed that while attempting a landing at the small wharf he lost his balance and was drowned.

Victoria Times Colonist. 2 January 1928.

Milton Clay’s body was never found and there was no public funeral, as far as I can tell. The only public statement was one made by someone whose initials were B.B.C. It was published in a local newspaper a year after he was presumed drowned. (Poetry wasn’t B.B.C.’s strength).

IN LOVING AND AFFECTIONATE MEMORY of Prof. Milton Clay, who passed out of my life on December 24, 1927. “There came a mist and a blinding rain and life was never the same again.” — B.B.C.

Province. 24 December 1928.

But fate wasn’t finished with the Clays yet. In 1956, Gwendoline (1907-1956), the “unmentioned Clay” who had seemed to be more interested in sports than music, passed away from breast cancer (she’d been married to Wallace Parker since 1937). And a year later, a few months after he moved to Kelowna after a career as a postal carrier, Percy (1897-1957) committed suicide — by, of all things, drowning in Okanagan Lake.

Reginald (1898-1985), of all of the family, was the only one of the kids who stuck with music as a full-time career. He was a music teacher for many years, dying at the age of 86. Harold (1900-1986) was the last of the Musical Clays. He also died at age 86 after having had a career as a sign writer in Vancouver.


  1. The idea for this post came from Neil Whaley, who saw potential in the Clays for a good story. Good eye, Neil!

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