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Archive -> 1937-1944 -> Attempts to tell the story



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Attempts to tell the story

The Box In My Room (and The Bag) by Lucy Neal

Mary, we can assume, had completed her autobiography by the time she left Littlehampton in 1940. With air bombing raids along the south coast she moved to live with the Pethick Lawrences at Fourways in Peaslake in the Dorking area of Surrey.

Mary had lived together with Emmeline (EPL) from 1891 for 10 years ( “It was a queer destiny” writes EPL in her own autobiography “that threw two people together so unlike in temperament as we are …. kept us together for the whole of our life and sees us together still.’p.75) and had been a constant visitor to the Pethick Lawrence’s (PL) home for 40 years after that. Emmeline was known to be frail in her later years, and as Fred’s political work involved frequent trips overseas, one can imagine the arrangement suiting all parties.

How did Mary spend the last years of her life? We don’t really know. In 1942 she wrote to Clive Carey about her work with the Gallup Survey, (Oct 12th ’4 Carey Collection, VWML, quoted in Judge, Mary Neal and the Espérance Morris) saying ‘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.”

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

In the final pages of Mary’s autobiography she writes “what remains to be lived will not be told.” Since then it has been up to others to tell her story. In and out of cupboards and boxes over the past 70 years, it’s something of a miracle that the book is still around today. That it is, is down to the Pethick Lawrence’s faithful secretary, Esther Knowles and her niece, Nita Needham, Mary’s goddaughter. Between them they kept the book safe from 1954 (when Emmeline died) until 1993 when it was handed to me.

Trying to piece together who took an interest in the book during this time, reveals a cast of characters attempting with varying degrees of success, to pick up where Mary left off in relaying the story of her life and work. Beneath the radar of conventionally written history her tale has shown a dogged and consistent presence as a story waiting to be told.

Tracking how her original typed manuscript was dispatched by post, sometimes mislaid and narrowly missing a number of house removals, shows how lucky we are to be able to put our hands on it now. For years the manuscript, along with a few of Mary’s papers, hitched a ride in various boxes and under stair cupboards with the Pethick Lawrence papers. They were fortunate not to be in the pile burnt by Miss Knowles co-secretary’s husband, one Mr G., in the 1960’s.
This is an account of what appears to have happened to the manuscript (MS) from 1940 to 1993:

1940: MS, at Fourways, Peaslake with Mary herself.
1944: On Mary’s death, the MS, one assumes passed into the hands of EPL. In 4 practical terms this meant in the care of Esther Knowles, a one-time Espérance girl (Esther joined the club at the age of 2 with her older sisters, Lottie and Nellie. Nellie’s husband, Vic Ghirardi was one of Mary’s main teachers and their daughter Nita born in xx was Mary’s goddaughter, and Esther’s niece). Esther was invited at the age of 14 by Emmeline to work in the WSPU office at Clement’s Inn. A devoted employee of the Pethick Lawrence’s all her life, Esther worked latterly with another secretary known as GG. Emmeline thanks Esther in her book, My Part in a Changing World, for her ‘labour of love’ in typing. GG and Esther were to divide the PL papers between them. Some survived, some did not. GG’s husband was known to have burnt some. Mary Neal’s papers were not in that pile!

1954: On Emmeline’s own death, the MS passed into the hands of Esther who was also became responsible for sorting out a great number of papers of both Fred and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence.

The first person to take up the challenge of telling Mary’s story fully was Margaret Dean Smith, (1899-1997) one-time librarian of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Libarary and also the step daughter of Arnold Dunbar-Smith, (1866-1933) architect of the Mary Ward House and also of 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 1906 at Marchmont Hall in Tavistock St, due to the connection of her step-father to Mary Ward.

1957: A letter dated 25th October 1957 from Esther Knowles to Margaret Dean-Smith refers to the MS being with Anthony MacIlwaine, Mary’s adopted son, and further to Margaret’s interview 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. (It has as yet to be replaced into the main body of the book). Later in the letter Esther adds “Let me have it back when you have finished with it”.

(There are also references to MacIlwaine having Mary’s CEB, Bernard Partridge Punch cartoon, and other items of hers, but it is not known what has happened to them. There was a small chance of discovering over 10 years ago, when Roy Judge discovered his aunt shopped in a Hastings woolshop run by Anthony MacIlwaine’s daughter. This Wallace and Grommit trail however has now gone cold.)

Dean-Smith made detailed notes of Chapter IV, and commenced an energetic correspondence with Roy Dommet, Clive Carey and Frank Purslow to piece together a narrative of Mary Neal and the Espérance Club. She remained in contact with Esther Knowles and wrote to her again nearly 4 years later for further details about the manuscript. ( a little more to add here ***)
A letter (VWML) 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 died in a car crash. Her share of the Pethick Lawrence papers then passed to Nita Needham her niece, and Mary’s goddaughter, who was then living in Oxford, married to an Oxford Zoologist. Nita’s father, Vic Ghirardi, had been one of Mary Neal’s main teachers along with Florrie Warren.
Between 1974 and 1993 Nita was contacted by Roy Judge, the 2nd person to make a concerted attempt to bring Mary’s story to light in written form. A series of letters between Roy and Nita reveal several trips Roy made to view the MS and draw up a lecture that had then been commissioned by a new librarian at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Malcolm Taylor, to be given at the Cecil Sharp House, in 1988.

Roy’s original lecture was structured as a game with points scored between Sharp and Neal relaying something of the terrain Roy felt he was entering in giving an account of the folk revival and Neal and Sharp’s respective roles. Rewritten (without the point scoring) the lecture appears 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. An astonishing piece of published scholarship, his article remains the most complete picture of Mary Neal’s activity and a 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. Roy was what was called a Mary Nealist and each encounter, I, Lucy had with him from 1993 to 1999 was marked with delight, generosity and a detailed grasp of events and facts. Thanks to Roy’s excitement at connecting a living Neal with Mary’s story I was able to make contact with Nita Needham myself and in June 1993, I met her. She handed over a number of books, a ceramic bowl, having dispatched the original MS by Royal Mail (hopefully for the last time) along with other letters and press cuttings. Since then they have sat 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.
From 1993, a number of US academics also found their way to my house (Sent by Malcolm Taylor): Daniel Walkewitz, Ellen Ross and Linda Martz. They came with different interests: Country dancing, female philanthropy in London’s slums and the single status of female activists in the early 20th century. The range informed me of the many sides to Mary’s life. “She is the classic text book case of a woman who has had her history written out” said Ellen Ross one day assertively down the phone.

In 2005, I finished a 25 year stint at the London International Festival of Theatre. and I was able to look at the papers properly for the first time. I tried to contact Nita Needham after an interval of 12 years. I had no luck, and knew she had moved. One day I rather casually experimented with a series of different prefixes to the number which then rang” 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 Bag
We made up for lost time and on my 3rd visit in one year, Nita revealed a 2nd cache of papers. “Would you like to see them?” “Why not?’ I said. She left the room, to return with a scruffy Lufthansa bag filled with letters and envelopes. “These are Emmeline’s. Would you like to have them” she said. I was sitting on a footstool and fell off it. First a box of Mary Neal papers had entered my life and now a bag of Emmeline Pethick Lawrence’s personal letters. For 2 decades they must have sat side by side, moved across the country, vulnerable but stalwart little treasure troves. I drove the Emmeline bag back home to my house. Staring at it I was stunned by this new responsibility I had taken on board. Upstairs I put them together. Sister Mary in the box and Sister Emmeline in the bag. The thrill was only infinitesimally greater than the weight of responsibility. What on earth was I do with them?
Over a number of nights I read them. Putting children to bed and waiting for the phone to cease on a day I placed the bag on my bed. One by one, sometimes until 4’oclock in the morning, I pulled wafer thin letter after letter from 100s of crumbly ageing envelopes. They were all letters that had been written TO Emmeline. None from her. All to her - a series of gushing, friendly, devoted, beholden correspondents expressing themselves; whole heartedly thanking her, informing her, flattering her. They all seemed to adore her! Her brothers, her sisters, Esther herself, Florrie Warren, a kind note from Keir Hardie on the death of her father, many letters over the years from her mother, one from Mary herself, chatty and practical, many from friends overseas, a few written to her in Holloway Prison, a few written from Holloway prison. One from Annie Kenney, many from Mabel Tuke, Betty Balfour, Katherine Price Hughes and over 100 from Mark Guy Pearse. Without a word from Emmeline herself, her character became vivid and alive. The friendship between her and Mary suddenly took a form I could recognise. Intense, humourous and life-long. Their shared vision was palpable.

One day staring at my email inbox I noticed an exhibition by some artist friends, the Otolith Group curated by an Emily Pethick. I stared at the name and googled it. I found a mobile phone number and called it. Emily was walking down a 21st century 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 gt gt niece”.
We met, we met again. I showed her the Emmeline bag and pronunced her its rightful heir.
I took Emily 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 was the eldest of 13 children). For now the Emmeline bag is still with the Mary box in my bedroom. Both will soon go out into the world and their stories brought to light.




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