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Mary Neal: Birmingham and Warwickshire, her ‘Native Country’

Michael Neal, Mary Neal's great nephew writes about her background in Birmingham and Warwickshire

"Nonconformity” has the flavour of marginal life but that was not the case in Birmingham, particularly in the nineteenth century. There it was a defining description of those who ruled and in the upbringing of Mary (christened Clara Sophia) it must have been important. When the city entered its period of dynamic growth (population doubled between 1860 and 1885) it was fast earning its title of ‘workshop of the world’ and those who made it what it was were predominantly nonconformist: Baptists, Congregationalists and, in particular, the Unitarians. They crowded out the Church of England, promoted the virtue of hard work and, most importantly, assayed a civic gospel that insisted on the extension of municipal responsibilities to drain, water and house a crowded population desperate for help.

At the time when Mary was growing up many of the important decisions about city life were taken by a knot of Non-conformist families, who knew each other well, frequently intermarried, and continued until the middle of the twentieth century to dominate local social life. Mary’s grandfather (David Neal, 1804-1868) and father (David Neal 1834-1918) were both of this ilk- Baptists and button manufacturers, the former recorded in the 1851 census as employing ’85 hands’. Mary’s father married Sarah Anne Smith (born 1833) in 1858, in the Mount Zion Chapel in Graham Street and Mary was their eldest child. They were married by Mount Zion’s minister, Charles Vince, described by Asa Briggs as ‘the best loved perhaps of all the Birmingham ministers of the time.’ Mary was rather rude about him in her ‘As A Tale That is Told’ but the fact that he was also Joseph Chamberlain’s political agent goes to the heart of this story.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) was a Unitarian who came to Birmingham from London in 1854, to work for his uncle, a manufacturer of screws. None made a bigger impact on life in Birmingham and he must have been a familiar figure to the young Mary. Before he went into Parliament he had driven through a revolution in how a city could be transformed. He made the social gospel of the Unitarians a reality and set Birmingham on the road to being the best governed city in the world. He struck at exactly the right moment when a faltering in foreign trade made possible the use of credit to finance municipal projects: the social quagmire in the middle of the town was purchased by the council and a new city centre was created. Public services made gas and clean water available. And all time he took Sunday school in George Dawson’s Unitarian Church of the Saviour!

Mary grew up whilst this was going on and it’s hard to believe that she was not influenced by it all. The awful conditions she encountered in London must have resembled those in her native city. Her upbringing was protective and educationally very limited.That said,she was a great reader and responded to good teaching. Her brother, Theodore David (1864-1939) was sent to the famous King Edward’s High School.and later became an eminent accountant, marrying Lillian Sarah (born 1892) the daughter of George Platten, the Baptist minister of the Church of the Redeemer on Hagley Road (where Theodore was to conduct English History lessons for young men in the Church Hall on Sunday evenings). Eventually Chairman of the Ladywood Unionist Association that put Neville Chamberlain into Parliament, Theodore shared his sister’s commitment to public life. If politically they differed, they still both became Justices of the Peace.

Whilst Mary was not to marry, a marriage and family life for Theodore were significant. He and Lillian had 5 children, Marjorie (Born 1893), David (1895-1983), Isobel (1897), Herbert (born 1899) and Peter (born 1911). He lived in Edgbaston and in 1908 bought a home in Great Alne, Warwickshire, Shepherd’s Yard where he was to keep pigs and geese and become a lynchpin of the community. It is at this house that her great-great nephew Michael David remembers meeting her when he was 9. Theodore’s love of North Wales spanned sixty years and was handed on down through 5 generations of Neals. Mary’s great-great niece, Lucy holidayed in Harlech from the age of 6 months.

Theodore is buried in the churchyard at Great Alne within sight of his cherished Shepherd’s Yard. Mary would often visit and Theodore’s own diary records Lillian’s trip to London to visit Mary. Her brother was to host a dinner for her at The Savoy in London when she was made CBE in 1937. He also helped her buy the house in Littlehampton and support their parents who moved from Birmingham to Bournemouth around 1890.

Theodore and his family were to remain in the Birmingham area and many of his direct descendants do so to this day. His great grandson Thomas David is a consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham. He has 3 children, 2 of whom now attend King Edward’s High School. (The girls’ school did not exist in Mary’s day.) Theodore’s granddaughter Julia (1919-2001) studied Medicine at Birmingham University and is the great-niece referred to in Mary’s autobiography. Theodore’s son David was a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment throughout the war of 1914-1918, marrying Margaret Lilian Wilson (1897-1988) on 12 May 1916 on leave from the Western front. The wedding photograph shows them in the garden of Theodore’s Birmingham house on Hagley Road.

Mary’s familiarity and love of ‘Shakespeare’s country’ lasted a lifetime and were shared with Theodore who was always a voracious reader.

Although, travelling was to play an important part in Mary’s life, (aided by the government guarantee of a railway service to reach everywhere that mattered for a ‘penny a mile’) it is interesting to note her abiding affection for Warwickshire. In a letter from Stratford to Cecil Sharp in May 1909 she writes “This is my native country and I know and love it all and have so enjoyed being here.”

Born into a Victorian Birmingham family, she was to become a Londoner, but clearly retained a strong emotional tie to the surrounding Warwickshire countryside she’d known all her life.

Possible links to: July 1836 – 2 July 1914)



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