Mary Neal was a remarkable woman.
Born in 1860, the daughter of a Birmingham button manufacturer, she came to London in her 20s to ‘serve the poor.’ As a Sister of Mercy at the West London Mission she took charge of an evening club for sewing girls and so began a life of adventure as a social reformer, a champion of working class women and a folk revivalist.
A journalist, a suffragette, a radical arts practitioner, a magistrate and an adopted mother of two boys, she died in 1944, at the age of 84. Daily life’ said her life-long friend, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, was ‘more interesting when she was present’.
The Mary Neal Project unpacks an old box to create something new: a celebratory encounter between contemporary arts and English folk practitioners to look at tradition with fresh eyes. The Project celebrates Mary’s life and the legacy of her work, bringing to light the ‘undertold’ chapter of the Espérance Club ‘experiment’ and its role as instigator in the English Folk Revival.
A chance moment of debate around tradition and creativity, during the London International Festival of Theatre in 1993, led to Mary Neal’s papers arriving into the hands of her great great niece, Lucy Neal, The Project becomes the catalyst for returning Mary’s story - and her papers - to the public realm.
Websites create collective opportunities for looking again at stories from our past. This site creates a new public space to celebrate Mary Neal's story and those of the Espérance girls.
It does not provide a definitive biographical survey of Mary Neal's life, nor a complete history of the folk revival. It represents a loose collection of texts, images, narratives and observations through which you are invited to rummage. It is unfinished and hopes to provide a trigger for future research.
You can explore the site chronologically from 1860, through keywords or characters who crop up in Mary's story: eg Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Florrie Warren, Edward Carpenter, Rolf Gardiner, Cecil Sharp.
From 1944 on, a spirited cast of characters take up Mary’s story.
For many years the manuscript of Mary’s autobiography As A Tale That Is Told, along with a few of Mary’s other papers, appears to have hitched a ride in boxes and understair cupboards with the Pethick-Lawrence papers. The typed manuscript went on several journeys: put into Royal Mail boxes in Hampshire, momentarily mislaid in Hastings and packed away during house removals in Oxford.
Beneath the radar of recorded history her tale shows a resilient presence as an historical counter-narrative and a story waiting to be told.