Mary Neal Logo Mary Neal - An Undertold Story...
Timeline     1860-1888   1888-1895   1895-1905   1905-1914   1914-1918   1918-1925   1925-1937   1937-1944   1944-1989   1989-2014


Attempts to Tell Story

1937: Autobiography Complete

Mary's autobiography As A Tale That Is Told is dated 1937. She left Littlehampton in 1940. With bombing raids along the coast, she moved to live with the Pethick Lawrences at Fourways in Peaslake, Surrey.

Mary lived with Emmeline (EPL) when they first arrived in London at the West London Mission (1891-1895) and at Somerset Terrace (1895-1901). She was close to Emmeline and her husband, Fred, all her life. By 1940, Emmeline was in frail health and Fred’s political work involved trips overseas. The arrangement would have suited all parties.

Last years

At the end of her autobiography Mary asserts “what remains to be lived will not be told.” There are few details as to how she spent her last years. In 1942 she writes to Clive Carey about working for the Gallup Survey. ‘I can do it with one hand tied behind me! I like chatting with all sorts of people, especially labourers and roadmen, etc. I have no rebuffs, only jolly talks.” (Letter to Carey, Oct 12th’42, VWML, quoted in Judge, Mary Neal and the Espérance Morris).

In her obituary of MN, June 1944, Emmeline refers to Mary’s ongoing interest in youth hostels and holiday camps. On the day after her death she reports that Mary was due to “confer with promoters of new plans for people’s holidays enriched with the delights of drama and folk-dancing.”

As A Tale That Is Told

Mary’s autobiography was unpublished and placed, possibly by Mary herself, in a large grey black Lever archfile. Handed like a baton, from person to person, for 70 years, it’s something of a miracle it’s around today. This is down to the Pethick Lawrence’s secretary, Esther Knowles and her niece, Nita Needham, (Mary's goddaughter.) Between them they appear to have guarded the book zealously from 1954 (when Emmeline died) until 1993 when handed to Mary’s gt gt niece, Lucy Neal.

The Manuscript:

1940s: At Fourways, Peaslake with Mary. With EPL after Mary’s death in 1944.

1954: On Emmeline’s death, passed to Esther Knowles. Esther, a one-time Espérance girl, was employed by the Pethick Lawrences at 14 yrs in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) office at Clement’s Inn, nr Chancery Lane. She joined the Espérance Club at 2 yrs old with her older sisters, Lottie and Nellie. (Nellie married Vic Ghirardi, one of Mary’s main teachers. Their daughter Nita was Esther’s niece and Mary’s goddaughter).
Esther was a devoted employee of the Pethick Lawrence’s. She typed Emmeline’s autobiography ‘My Part In A Changing World’, and organised a great number of papers for both Fred and Emmeline – a duty shared with another secretary known as GG. The two secretaries divided care of Pethick Lawrence papers between them. Some survived, some did not. Many were burnt. Mary’s escaped.

Telling the story

Margaret Dean Smith
The first person to take up the challenge of telling Mary’s story fully was Margaret Dean Smith, (MDS) (1899-1997) one-time librarian of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. She was step daughter to Arnold Dunbar-Smith, (1866-1933) architect of the Mary Ward House and the Sundial house built by Fred Pethick Lawrence, in Holmwood for the Espérance girls. Dean-Smith was present as a young girl at the Espérance girls’ Xmas party in 1905 at Marchmont Hall in Tavistock St, due to the connection of her step-father to Mary Ward and her circle.

1957: A letter dated 25th October 1957 from Esther Knowles (EK) to Margaret Dean-Smith refers to the Manuscript being with Anthony MacIlwaine, Mary’s adopted son, and an interview by MDS with Lord Pethick.

"I (EK) wrote at once to Anthony MacIwaine as I promised you (MDS) I would, and asked him to let me have the MS of Mary Neal’s autobiography. He has been away from home and couldn’t send it off immediately but it came to hand yesterday afternoon. I have now examined it and sent you herewith the typescript of Chapter IV which deals with the Revival of Folk Song and Dance"

Sending it 'herewith' involved the physical extraction of Chapter IV from the rest of the book.(Still to be replaced into the main body of the book). "Let me have it back" writes Esther "when you have finished with it".

MacIlwaine also had Mary’s CBE, the original Bernard Partridge Punch cartoon (given to Mary in Nov 1907 by the artist), and other items. It is not known what happened to them. There was a small chance of discovering 10 years ago, when Roy Judge found his aunt shopped in a Hastings woolshop run by Anthony MacIlwaine’s daughter. This Wallace and Grommit trail has now gone cold.

Dommet, Purslow, Carey
Dean-Smith made detailed notes of Chapter IV, and commenced an energetic correspondence with Roy Dommet, Frank Purslow, Clive Carey, Rolf Gardiner, JR Worsley, Stanley Godman amongst others from 1957 on. (All of these can be found in the VWML).

Over a period of years, Margaret attempted to assemble the narrative of Mary Neal and the Espérance Club. Her correspondents replied at length to requests for pieces of the jigsaw, all acknowledging a periennial lack of time and the enormity of the challenge facing them. Honest views are expressed of the English Folk and Dance Society, Cecil Sharp, the Karpeles sisters and how the ‘quarrel’ came about in the first place. Esther Knowles, it seems, kept a tight hold of the original manuscript throughout, even if entrusting Chapter IV in its entirety to the postal service is probably not what one would do with it today… In a letter written (18.12.61), as he concludes work on the Hammond Index, Frank Parslow says ‘the two ways of dancing existed side by side in the same team…as they do in Bampton at the present day, where the long-legged youngsters tend to straighten their legs vigorously, whilst the Shergolds and the older men keep their legs bent. This, however does not worry the team.'
He describes the following scene:

"At Bampton I am always surprised how many of the teen-agers can stagger through a dance without even having been taught it. Yet they have the style. What Sharp would have thought of the sight of six very beery 18 year-olds having enormous fun with 'The Welley' in complete teddy-boy outfits, being raucously encouraged by the regular team outside the 'Horseshoe' at 11.30pm, I can not think, but I somehow think that Mary Neal would have appreciated it. She may even have bought them all another beer!'

Tradition he concludes 'is a state of mind'.

Purslow signs off to Margaret Dean Smith, acknowledging how much socio-political background has to be taken into account for the Folk Revival ever to be adequately accounted for.

Margaret’s extensive notes never made the leap into full narrative.

Roy Dommett 1960s picked up the baton around the same time. His letters dated 6.09.61 and 19.09.61 attempt to answer MDS’s questions about Espérance Club performances and a practical count of how many dances came up to London.
Roy confirms the first public Espérance performance on 15.12.05 and lists names of dancers that came to London. They are, for the record:

  • William Kimber}
  • Dick Kimber} }Headington Quarry
  • James Dandridge }
  • J.Horwood}
  • J.Trafford} }Headington Quarry
  • M.Cox}
  • William Hemming}
  • James Hemmings} } Abingdon
  • Sam Bennett Ilimington
  • Charles Taylor Oddington (note: came up together, but Morrises quite distinct)
  • Thomas Cadd Yardley Gobion
  • William Wells}
  • Arthur Dixey}*
  • John Wells}* Bampton
  • R. Brookes * Godley Hill Lancs

Up the same weekend
+ 2 men from Flanborough Sword Team
‘So I am at least 3 men short’ writes Roy.

Roy Dommett's letter quotes Clive Carey's reluctance to be pulled into a replaying of the 'quarrel'. 'I would feel most unhappy' he says if all those unpleasant times and the feelings they engendered should be brought back into the light'.

Roy confirms Major Fryer proposed a toast to Mary Neal (12.3.38) at the Ring Meeting at Cecil Sharp House 'instead of the more usual one (to CS) 'in honour partly of Abingdon's first appearance at a Ring Meeting'. Later that year, (17-18.9.38) Miss Neal attended the Stow Ring Meeting as the Guest of Honour. The Abingdon side attended on the Sunday and did all their dances for her to her great pleasure'. Mary’s invitation to the landlady of the Happy Dick in Abingdon can be seen here

Margaret remained in contact with Esther Knowles and wrote to her again nearly 4 years later for further details about the manuscript.

A letter from Esther addressed to Margaret Dean Smith (22nd Feb 1961) (marked confidential) reads:

"The late Lady Pethick Lawrence (Emmeline) gave me the Auto MS before she died with the expressed wish that I should continue to try to get it published some day. She herself had failed (as Mary too had done during her own life time) & E.P.L. remarked when handing me the packet "perhaps one day Mary may receive the recognition which has been denied to her so far". There is at the present time this revival of interest in the resurrection of the Folk Dances & Songs, & may be, through her Chapter on her work during 1905-1914 in the Espérance Club, Mary Neal’s life story may find a Publisher at last."

In 1974, Esther Knowles died in a car crash. Her share of the Pethick Lawrence papers passed to Nita Needham her niece, who was then living outside Oxford, married to an Oxford Zoologist. Nita’s father, Vic Ghirardi, had been one of Mary Neal’s main teachers along with Florrie Warren.

Roy Judge

From 1974 to 1993 Nita was contacted by Roy Judge, the 2nd person to make a concerted attempt, in written form, to bring Mary’s story to light. ‘Good wishes for your tunnelling’ writes one Roy to another.

A series of letters between Judge and Needham reveal trips made to view the Manuscript in Needham’s home. Judge was drawing up a lecture, commissioned by a new librarian at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Malcolm Taylor, to be given at the Cecil Sharp House, in 1988.

Roy Judge’s original lecture was structured as a game with points scored between Sharp and Neal - relaying something of the terrain Roy felt he had entered into to give an account of Neal and Sharp’s respective roles in the Folk Revival. Rewritten (without the point scoring) the article was finally published as Mary Neal and the Espérance Morris in the Folk Music Journal 1989 Vol 5 Number 5.

"It is not a simple matter to arrive at a proper assessment of Mary Neal’s role in the folk revival" Roy begins with honesty. A scholarly piece, Judge’s article remains the most complete published picture of Mary Neal’s activity and an astonishing chronology of the movements and assignments of the Espérance Club. It holds Mary within the frame of her relations with Sharp but achieves a balanced assessment of their respective contributions to the movement. There are 216 footnotes, researched from documents in libraries and archives across the land.

1990s LIFT

In 1993, the LIFT Festival hosted a series of Daily Dialogues at The South Bank Centre, including one called Folklore v Fakelore. Alan Read, their curator, went to the Cecil Sharp House to ask for advice for speakers. Lucy Neal's visit there with him and how it initiated the Mary Neal journey is written about here (LN/EFDSS article)

Lucy Neal picks up the thread:

The Mary Box

"Roy Judge was a timely champion of Mary Neal. He thought she sounded fun. Each encounter I had with him from 1993 to 1999 was marked with delight and a detailed grasp of events and facts. It was thanks to Roy’s excitement at connecting a living Neal with Mary’s story that I was able to make contact with Nita Needham. In June 1993, I met her. She handed over a number of books, a ceramic bowl, having dispatched the original MS by Royal Mail (Registered Post) along with other letters and press cuttings. Since then they have taken up residence in a box in my bedroom.

In the 90s Roy made visits to my house in London to prepare Mary’s entry in the ODNB. I last saw him a year before he died. He always appeared as if he was just off to join a dance. It was his enthusiasm for Mary’s story that excited my own interest in her work and life. I am indebted to him for his persistence in pointing out to me Mary’s role in the Revival, before I was able to grasp the full significance of it for myself. After his death, Malcolm Taylor, VWML, wrote to me to remind me of Roy’s expressed hopes for the Manuscript being placed in the public realm.

From 1993, a number of North American academics, directed by Taylor, came to view the Manuscript and what it revealed about The Folk Revival (Dr. Dorothy Deval); Country Dancing (Daniel Walkewitz); Female philanthropy in London’s slums (Prof. Ellen Ross )and The Single Status of Female Activists in the early 20th century.(Dr.Linda Martz). This range of interests alerted me to the multiple facets of Mary’s life. "You should look into it. History’s on your side. She's the classic text book case of a woman who has had her history written out" said Ellen Ross assertively down the phone one day.

00s Lucy Neal
In 2005, I finished a 25 year stint as founder director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). I could ‘look into' the papers for the first time. I tried to contact Nita Needham after an interval of 12 years and had no luck - I knew she'd moved. Experimenting with different prefixes one day, I got a line through. "Do you know where I can contact Nita Needham?" I said. "I AM Nita Needham" came the answer down the line, as clear as a bell.

The Emmeline Bag
I visited 3 times in a year. On my 3rd visit Nita revealed possession of a 2nd cache of papers. She left the room, to return with a small collapsing Lufthansa bag bulging with letters and envelopes. "These are Emmeline's. Would you like to have them" she said. A box of Mary Neal papers had landed in my life and now a bag of Emmeline Pethick Lawrence's personal letters. No biography had ever been written on Emmeline and I knew this was because there were no personal papers to reveal her interior life. If history has trap doors and holes to fall through, I had just tumbled down one. The papers of these two extraordinarily devoted and feisty women had been sitting side by side all along like friends, moved across the country together: physically vulnerable, yet spiritually stalwart. I drove the new treasure trove, the Emmeline bag, home to my house.

That summer I'd come across Gillian Linscott’s fictional character Nell Bray for the first time. Nell is a suffragette sleuth and I was beginning to feel a bit like her.

Upstairs, I put them together. Sister Mary in the box and Sister Emmeline in the bag. I felt enormously responsible for them. The next day, I called an archivist, as though one would a doctor. What on earth was I to do with the new bag? She advised me calmly not to tell anyone…"unless you want them to be in a worse state for their being in your care."

I read them over a number of nights. With children asleep and the house quiet, I put the bag on my bed. Sometimes til 4’oclock in the morning, I’d pull wafer thin letter out after another from 100s of crumbly, ageing envelopes all addressed to Emmeline at all the addresses she'd ever lived at, including those with Mary. A series of friendly, gushing correspondents poured their hearts out to her: thanking her, informing her, adoring her. Here was her interior life reflected back at her. There were none from her, all to her. They all seemed to worship her. Letters from her family, from colleagues overseas, suffragette friends, from loyal Espérance girls, and a practical and chatty one from Mary herself. The life-long friendship between these 2 women suddenly took a form I could recognise. Humourous, open, and vivid. Their shared vision was palpable.

The sense of living diachronically, in 2 centuries at once, remained elastic for a few weeks more. I was clearing my email inbox one day and noticed an e-flyer for an exhibition by some artist friends, the Otolith Group, curated by an Emily Pethick. I stared at the name, Emily Pethick and then googled it. I found a mobile phone number and called it. She was walking down a road with the sound of traffic roaring by. After a mumbled introduction of my interest in EPL I asked if she was a relative. "Yes, I’m her great great niece".

We met twice. I showed her the Emmeline bag and pronounced her its rightful heir.

I took her to see Nita Needham, who then produced a 3rd cache: an exquisite embroidery Emmeline's mother had started in the 1850’s (and never finished - Emmeline, born in 1864, was the eldest of 13 children).

With help from the University of Winchester, the Arts Council of England and the Heritage Lottery I raised funds to allow me to follow Mary’s trail.

Should I turn her into a PHD thesis? Find a publisher and attempt a biography? Settle for re-writing her short entry on wikipedia? I felt something more active was required. More performative. If it was possible to fall backwards through time, could someone else be made to fall forwards?

How do we re-tell stories from the past? The bringing to light needs to be participative and collective, oral as much as written. It needed to be enacted as an iterative and evolving process. I began just by going around talking to people about her. Who knew what? I went to folk festivals, travelled to meet players, musicians, arts educators and dancers.

People knew about her – but not much. People always referred to her ‘spirit being very much alive’. She was around, but not around. The spirit of her experimentation remained.

As a theatre producer, I’m interested in how things happen. Mary was a social entrepreneur at heart and recognised when the dynamic influence of social interactions were at play. She held a lot of parties, performances and celebrations. People from all walks of life gathered at parties held at the Espérance Club. New conversations triggered new possibilities. Maybe there was a clue in this.

"The charm of these parties lies always in the atmosphere of social equality which fills the place and to which everyone instinctively responds" she wrote charmingly "One never quite knew what would happen with such an unusual company of performers and such unusual audiences".

The buzz they created had a transformative effect. How is the history of such serendipitous encounters and shifts of perception written?

I decided to try the party approach. A celebratory act – handing over her papers to the public domain - could serve as a catalyst for bringing her story to light whilst initiating some new conversations and possibilities around the inheritance, excellence and participation in traditions of English song and dance.

Could an undertold story connect spheres of discourse 100 years apart?

Sticking with her values of inclusivity and participation, I would involve as many people as appeared interested in the telling of her story, engaging along the way the kinds of people she had engaged along the way: artists, children, educators, dancers, singers and historians. In the re-telling, could the story be resolved and celebrated?

‘She got people dancing’ wrote Frank Parslow. Could we do the same?
Unpacking an old box to create something new, has been the result:

The Mary Neal Project

  1. Article in EFDSS Magazine, Nov 2006
  2. Lecture given in Sheffield, Sept 2007
  3. Article, commissed by Guardian but never published, Nov 2007
  4. Radio 4 programme, Nov 2007

Mary Neal’s role in the Folk Revival has been written about over the years, though never as an account of her life and work in its own right.

The following list is not complete. Additions are welcomed.

A.H. Fox Strangeway's biography of Cecil Sharp written with Maud Karpeles was  published in 1933. Mary was sent a copy and replies to Fox Strangeways, having enjoyed reading the book, congratulating him on a fair account and his 'vivid' pen. She corrects him on an inaccuracy in relation to the Stratford Festival, adding 'but it doesn't matter now'. 

Georgina Boyes The Imagined Village (August 1994 Manchester University Press). Georgina Boyes took part in the LIFT Daily Dialogue that first put me in touch with the Mary story (see below). The Imagined Village looks in depth at the connection between the folk revival and socio-cultural changes in Britain at the time and has also provided the name for an album and concert produced by Simon Emmerson that premiered at WOMAD 2007. The Imagined Village
"Whilst working on her writings for 'The Imagined Village', I developed a high regard for Mary Neal" Georgina wrote to me one day.

Vic Gammon The Seeds of Love, which documents Sharp's song collecting gives an account of Mary Neal's role in its introduction.

Why New Espérance? An essay written in 1983, on the 10th Anniversary of New Espérance Morris by Carol Minchin and Diane Moody. 

Christopher Bearman’s 'The English Folk Music Movement, 1898-1914 (University of Hull, 2001). A copy is held in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Sue Swift The Forgotten Mary Neal, August 1998. A Play performed at Sidmouth and Hastings.