Neal, (Mary) Clara Sophia, CBE

Social worker and folk-dance collector, born on 5 June 1860 in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Of a highly sensitive nature, in 1888 she joined the West London Mission as one of the 'Sisters of the People' and with her close friend ???) ran a working girls' club, before leaving the Mission to establish an independent 'Esperance Girls' Club, in which drama and dancing were prominent among the activities. This brought her, through Herbert MacIlwaine and Cecil Sharp into involvement with the folk-song and folk-dance movement, which she valued particularly for its social and educational value. Following World War I she concentrated on social work, especially among children; but in 1937 she was made a CBE for her contribution to the folk music revival. Her religious stance was an intense and very personal mysticism. She spent her closing years with the Pethick-Lawrences at Gomshall and died from cancer at Shere on 22 June 1944.


'I was told that Sister Mary (Mary Neal), who had been responsible for the Working Girls' Club, had been sent back to her home in Bournemouth, at little more than a day's notice, by Dr. Barrett, who was in charge of the health of the Sisterhood. She was threatened with rapid consumption of the lungs, a disease from which one of her brothers soon aftrwards died. It was not expected that she would ever return. This had been a very great shock to her colleagues, not only for personal reasons, but also because she had proved to be the only one amongst them all who had been able to cope with the factory girls of the district, who in those days belonged to the roughest class. When the Girls' Club was started there had developed such hooliganism that the gas pipes had been torn down and the furniture broken up. The Club had been closed for a period, until Sister Mary had volunteered to reopen it. Her strong character and her direct and witty talk had subdued the ruffians…

'If folks had imagined that Mary Neal would go home to Bournemouth to live the life of an invalid and slowly sink into a decline, they had reckoned without their host. She had no intenton of doing anything of the kind. She had given herself one month to get well. During that month she was on the sea, or beside the sea, during every available hour of daylight; and at the end of it she returned to London and presented herself to Dr. Barrett with a very firm expression of her determination. "My life is my own to risk, or even, if I choose, to throw away. I will not live unless I can make myself useful. I intend to stay in London and go on with my work until I become a danger to others. If that happens I can go away and die."…

'All this happened forty-five years ago. Since then Mary Neal has continued to work and thrive. She has not had any serious illness, and as I often tell her, in all human probability she will outlive every one of her generation.'

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World (1938), pp.73-4

  • Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World (1938)
  • Times, 28 June 1944
  • Philip S. Bagwell, Outcast London, a Christian Response: the West London Mission of the Methodist Church, 1887-1987 (1987)
  • Oxford DNB