This essay was prepared for the 10th Anniversary celebration of New Esperance Morris. It summarises our findings in our continuing research on the life of Mary Neal and her work with the Esperance Club.
We would welcome any further information or any ideas about resources.
Why New Esperance?
New Esperance Morris takes its name directly from an earlier club of that name – The Esperance Club, which was in existence from 1895 until the outbreak of the First World War. The club, which was housed in Cumberland Market, near Euston Station, was initially a working class girls’ club run by two fairly well-to-do radical women, Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick (later Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, suffragette).
“Both Mary Neal and I (E. Pethick) had accepted … the gospel of Socialism as it was preached in our day by Keir Hardie. … We were rebels against the system that decreed that those who did the hard and unpleasant work of the world should be shut out from any enjoyment of the wealth which they wrought with their hands. … It seemed to us that the world was upside down, and being young we felt very hot about it, and had perhaps half unconsciously an idea that we and the enlightened young people of our day could do something to set it the right way up.” (1)
And so it was that they worked amongst the poorer working class girls of the district, many of whom were engaged in the clothing trade. The Esperance Club members generally earned extremely low wages and were the children of mainly uneducated parents. Mary Neal was particularly impressed by the resilience of these girls and hoped to channel their spirit to further the social change for which they were working and therefore to prevent any recurrence of the misery and squalor which was the daily lot of most of the girls’ mothers.
In 1905 Mary Neal first became aware of English Folk Songs through an article published in the Morning Post about Cecil Sharp who had been collecting Folk Songs.
“I went to see Mr Cecil Sharp to ask his advice as to whether these songs would be suitable for a working girls’ club. In ten minutes we were deep in the subject of folk song and I was told that I should be surprised at the way in which English boys and girls would understand and appreciate their own folk music. ‘They will learn it’, said Mr Sharp, ‘by a sort of spiritual sixth sense’. … I went away having made up my mind to the experiment, although I must confess that the music looked to my inexperience very difficult. In a fortnight I wrote to Mr Sharp telling him that I could only express the result of the first few lessons by saying that the Club had gone mad, that they were perfectly intoxicated with the music.” (2)
This was the start of a life-long interest in English folk song and especially in folk dance. After the success of the folk songs, the next step was to find dances in similar vein. Cecil Sharp was very ready to help and visits between Headington and London were arranged. William Kimber and his cousin came to London to teach the Esperance Girls morris dancing. “They told me that our girls learnt more in two nights than the country lads in six months. They were extraordinarily good pupils …” (3) In fact they learned enough in these two evenings to give a performance of morris dances at their Christmas party. This was repeated at a public performance at the Small Queens Hall in April 1906 when an introductory lecture was given by Cecil Sharp.
From such small beginnings, interest in morris dancing spread rapidly. Over the next few years, the Esperance Club was visited by over 30 traditional dancers, including most of the Bampton and Flamborough dance teams. The girls gave displays periodically at the Small Queen’s Hall and at various London theatres. They were inundated with invitations to give displays and with requests for tuition from organisations all over the country and so the girls in their turn became travelling dancers and instructresses.
The Daily Telegraph, June 26th 1909 carried a report on a display of Folk dancing given at Bridgewater House by the Girls of the Esperance Club. “Yesterday afternoon a charming entertainment was given. The performers … are members of the Esperance Club. … They were assisted by a number of children drawn from the public elementary schools and the enjoyment of all in their pleasant task was obvious. Miss Mary Neal … was present, and in conversation on the subject mentioned that since the Club had given its first performance three years ago, 300 clubs, villages and schools had been taught the dances and songs that this organisation had itself learnt so effectively.”
From 1905 to 1907, Cecil Sharp, Mary Neal and Herbert MacIlwaine worked together harmoniously. Although Cecil Sharp never had any official connection with the Esperance Club, he often gave talks at their public displays and sold his song collections there. Herbert MacIlwaine was musical director of the Esperance Club and also collaborated with Cecil Sharp to produce the Morris Books.
The first Morris Book was published in July 1907 and is dedicated to ‘our friends and pupils, the members of the Esperance Girls’ Club’. The authors give credit to Miss Mary Neal who ‘not only made the venture possible in the beginning, but with her power of organisation gave it a reach and strength that neither of us could have given.’
However, this strong affiliation was reaching its end and by November 1907 relations between Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal were definitely strained. Later editions of the Morris Books do not bear the dedication quoted above.
Mary Neal was very much concerned with the social welfare of the under-privileged. She realised that the help that she and others like her could give was very limited, but nevertheless was determined to do as much as she could. She looked upon the pursuit of morris dancing by her club members as a beneficial extension of their otherwise limited experience and as a basic expression of an almost lost national art. She fervently believed that the morris dance was an integral part of English life, especially among those who either worked on the land or whose forbears had been involved in agriculture.
Consequently, her method of instructing the girls was to invite known morris dancers to come to London to teach the girls directly the dances they knew. From this basis the girls would then visit other organisations and teach them the dances in turn.
Cecil Sharp’s approach was different. He believed that he had collected the morris dances accurately, and that qualified teachers under his instruction were needed to ensure that the dances did not become ‘corrupted’ when passed on to new dancers. He had a background steeped in classical music and earned his living by lecturing, composing and conducting choral societies and orchestras. Shortly before he met Mary Neal he had been Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music.
Although he was a member of the Fabian Society and his sister Evelyn was a militant suffragette, Cecil Sharp himself moved along more conventional lines. His social standing is illustrated by the fact that he was musical instructor to the children of the Prince and Princess of Wales from 1904 to 1907. The people he lived and worked amongst were mainly well-to-do, well-educated members of the upper middle class and aristocracy. When he first became aware of folk song and later morris dancing he felt that here was a heritage of indigenous music equivalent to any European folk music, which should be ‘saved’ at all costs. He made great efforts to note songs and dances accurately.
His views on spreading the gospel of folk song and particularly dance inevitably led Cecil Sharp to disagreements with Mary Neal, but for a while these were confined to their private correspondence.
By 1907, the morris dance movement had spread all over the country and it seemed necessary and desirable to co-ordinate the work of all the people involved in the folk world. Mary Neal called a conference at the Goupil Gallery in London. As a result of this the Association for the Revival and Practice f Folk Music was formed. Cecil Sharp found himself in disagreement with most of the ideas of this organisation and so began the public split between Neal and Sharp. Many of their views were aired in the press, with other correspondents joining in and taking sides. In reply to criticism in the letter columns of Country Life, Mary Neal wrote
“… there are no authorities except the traditional dancers, and they all dance differently in different places, and the same dancer will vary the step at different times. I was the first one to invite Mr Kimber up to town to teach the Morris Dance to the Esperance Club, and he varied his step many times during his several visits, as a folk-dancer always does. … I entirely disagree with the view that there is any one traditional step or any authentic canon of morris dancing as yet established …” (4)
From this time, Neal and Sharp went different ways. Mary Neal formed the Esperance Guild of Morris Dancers and Cecil Sharp founded the School of Morris Dancing at Chelsea in 1909. The purpose of the latter was “… primarily to conserve the Morris Dance in all its traditional purity; and, secondly, to teach it as accurately as possible …” (5) Their paths crossed from time to time and both were involved in the Annual Festival Celebrations and Summer School at Stratford upon Avon, in which town the Esperance Guild had their Country address. However, by 1911 Sharp had effectively taken control of the folk side of the festival and had formed the English Folk Dance Society.
By this time morris dancing had been accepted as part of the school syllabus by the Board of Education. Both Mary Neal and Cecil Sharp had given demonstrations, lectures and instruction in morris dancing throughout the country and in the U.S.A. Florence Warren, one of the original class who learnt morris at the Esperance Club, visited America in 1911 in her capacity as Head Instructress of the Esperance Guild. There she settled and married in 1912.
Mary Neal had other interests during this time. She was involved in the suffragette movement and acted as special investigator and journalist for the magazine ‘Votes for Women’. She did not neglect the other activities, (such as the Sunday evening Newspaper class), of the Esperance Club and continued to organise holidays for the girls at ‘The Sundial’ in Surrey and ‘The Green Lady Hostel’ at Littlehampton. With Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, she set up ‘Maison Esperance’ which gave regular employment as dressmakers and milliners to some of the Esperance girls.
The Esperance Club and Guild of Morris Dancers came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War. Mary Neal went into war work and afterwards did not resume her work with the club. In fact, she advised those who asked her about folk to join the E.F.D.S.
In 1937, “in acknowledgement of her national work in making a practice of the Morris Folk Dances a possession of the people”, the C.B.E. was awarded to “Our trusty and well-beloved Mary Clara Sophia Neal, J.P.”. In the late 1930s, the newly-formed Morris Ring sought her advice in their new policy of going back to the traditional dancers for further information, disregarding the E.F.D.S. practise of following the ‘book version’.
Having served as a Magistrate in Littlehampton for 12 years, Mary Neal died there in 1944 at the age of 84.
Sources of quotes:
(1) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence – ‘My part in a changing world’
(2) Mary Neal – ‘Set to Music’
(3) Report on the Conference held at the Goupil Gallery, 14:11:1907
(4) ‘Country Life’, 15:9:1910
(5) Circular about the ‘School of Morris Dancing’, for the session beginning 27:10:1909
Carol Minchin and Diane Moody