A woman of wit and social passion, Mary Neal OBE, has been widely recognised as one of the great spirits behind the revival of English Folk Song and Dance. Devoted to the teachings of St Francis and the worship of rhythm and natural beauty, her work with the Espérance Club in Somerstown, cut across a wide spectrum of British political and cultural life: from sewing girls, to farm labourers, health workers, prisoners, artists, judges and peers of the realm.
Her vision for social justice and the transforming power of the arts went hand in hand - a model of some of the earliest known participatory arts practice with contemporary appeal to artists and arts educators today.
From a perspective of engaged social activism, she understood well that culture lives through endless adaptation and re-invention. Her story, however, along with the working classes whose oral inheritance she championed has been subjugated beneath the prevailing history of her one-time collaborator Cecil Sharp. Her story reveals how women often get ‘written out of history’ whilst the spirit of their experimentation can remain.
How do such exciting stories get written out of history? And how do they get written back in again?
Further information about Mary Neal
As a ‘Sister of Mercy’ with the West London Mission, Mary was appalled by the work and living conditions of the sewing girls she met there. A belief in cultivating the dreams and creativity of young people rather than handing out charity to serve the girls’ needs saw her set up, with Emmeline, a new social experiment: The EspÈrance Club.
Open 4 nights a week in Somerstown near Kings Cross, from 1895-1914, The Espérance Club taught girls and young children acting, singing and dancing, along with lessons in politics, journalism, workers’ rights, sex education and well-being. (From 1890 on Mary and Emmeline organised trips to the countryside and sea-side for the sewing girls as well).
From 1905-1914, 100s of girls from the Espérance Club were taught English folk song and dance by traditional musicians and dancers who travelled from towns and rural villages to Kings Cross. The success of the Club’s public performances enabled the girls to become dancers and teachers themselves - putting their sewing needles and scrubbing brushes aside to dance the length and breadth of England. The vitality and commitment the girls displayed in embracing English song and dance (“I simply tell them to imagine they are their great great grandfathers and great-great- grandmothers dancing on the village green”) became an instigating force behind the English Folk Revival of the early 20th Century, particularly in relation to the Morris.
This period of English cultural history is better known historically through the work of Mary Neal’s one-time collaborator, the song collector, Cecil Sharp after a bitter dispute developed between them over participation in the revival and ways in which the dance could be taught and carried on. Identified by Mary as perennial debate between inclusivity and exclusivity, tradition and modernity, the debate centred on questions of authenticity.
Whilst Sharp wished to establish an exact canon for England’s traditional songs and dances, Neal believed dancers embraced dance intuitively and handed down from parent to child, no two dances could ever be precisely the same. Their ‘great debate’ became a classic struggle between form and content, spirit and technique. Like peeling an onion to get to the core of a matter, the nub of the dispute, seemed to hang at one point on whether one particular dancer, William Kimber from Headington Oxford, danced with a straight or a bent knee.
Bent or straight knees aside, though Mary Neal, is a text book case of a woman who has been ‘written out’ of history and the Espérance girls, Florrie Warren, Blanche Payling, May May Start and others, along with her. Never complete or fully in focus, they are nevertheless always present in the larger picture of the English Folk Revival: in London, Thaxted, Cambridge, Stow, Abingdon, Cumbria, Yorkshire, Somerset and elsewhere, in Mary’s case for 40 years.
In Mary’s life overall, the canvas broadens to include Miners’ strikes, tea with Keir Hardie, visiting women in Holloway Prison, taking the minutes of the first WSPU meeting in Sylvia Pankhurst’s flat and later, on a Sussex county bench, working in the juvenile courts, discoursing with her friend the poet philosopher Edward Carpenter, or establishing holiday homes for the working classes.
In her autobiography, As A Tale That Is Told, published in extracts here for the first time, Mary says: ‘I want to tell the story as it has not yet been told and as it never will be told unless I tell it’. One anecdote stands out as an insight into what gave the Club its transformative qualities.
On a hot summers’ day, one of the older Espérance girls asks Mary for half a crown to make homemade lemonade for the younger children. It will give them, she says, ‘courage, this hot weather’. The same girl that autumn asks if she can bring younger children left playing in the street into The Club, so that older girls can teach them songs and games. ‘And so began our “Babies Club” since famous through the land for their folk games and songs and dances and described by the “Times” as the real leaders of the revival of folk music in England.”
From 1895-1914, songs and dances, in a similar way, passed from child to child.
The children learnt fast and the girls covered travelled the length of the country “We have rivalled’ said Mary ‘the traditional John Kemp’.
How does a cooling glass of lemonade ‘give courage’? Courage for what?
Is it possible that the energies of the Espérance Club lay in this care for one another to survive in spirit from one day to the next? Does not a seed of the revival lie in this reality?
Mary’s concern for children lasted a lifetime. A large part of her autobiography maps the work she did as a magistrate, trying to reform the juvenile courts and take preventative actions with local policemen and families where she saw a child heading towards the law.
She was also given 2 children to adopt, Anthony and David.