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A black and white photo of the early Esperance dancers who sparked an interest in English Folk Dancing.
Espérance Dancers, early 20th century

Remembering Mary Neal: Suffragette and folk dance powerhouse

The person who got the English folk dance movement off the ground was Mary Neal, a suffragette who eventually fell foul of that man Cecil Sharp’s quest for artistic authenticity. Derek Schofield tells the tale.

The simplified logo for fRoots magazine, made up of an F and an R on a maroon background.
Release Date
1 May 2013
We have been given kind permission to reproduce this article from the fRoots archive to mark International Women's Day, 2023, which falls on March 8th. The article was originally published in fRoots 357, March 2013, under the title, ‘The Morris Wars’.

It is said that the victors of war always write the history and, certainly, the story of the early years of the folk revival is no exception. War? An exaggeration perhaps, but alongside the pioneering, joyous discovery and popularisation of English folk song and dance in the decade leading up to the First World War, conflict between the two principal parties was certainly a feature. The history was written by the supporters of Cecil Sharp and, for many years, Mary Neal’s role in the founding of that revival was glossed over. At first, Sharp and Neal were keen allies in the campaign to spread the word about folk songs and dances, but then differences of interpretation and style arose. In more recent decades, Mary Neal has received greater recognition – and deservedly so, for it was she who really got the whole folk dance movement off the ground.

Who was Mary Neal? Born in Birmingham in 1860, she was the daughter of a wealthy button manufacturer. Her concern for the social and economic misery of the times led her to the West London Mission, where she organised an evening club to bring some small relief from arduous sweat-shop working for the girls and women. In 1895, she left the Mission to set up the Espérance Girls’ Club, which included music and dance activities, and, soon after, Maison Espérance, a dressmaking business employing girls and women on a decent living wage. In July 1905, Herbert MacIlwaine, the club’s musical director, read a press interview with Cecil Sharp about folk song. By then, Sharp had been collecting folk songs for two years and was agitating for them to be taught in schools. MacIlwaine suggested to Neal that they might be a good addition to the club’s activities, and Neal met up with Sharp, who seized this opportunity for further publicity.

The folk songs were a great success, and Neal then asked Sharp if there were any dances to add to the girls’ activities. Sharp remembered his meeting, six years earlier, with the Headington Quarry Morris who had been dancing, out of season, on Boxing Day 1899. For Sharp, it was no more than a pleasant distraction during Christmas with his mother-in-law, but he noted several of the tunes from the concertina-playing musician, William Kimber; Sharp was less interested in the dances.

Mary Neal. Image courtest of EFDSS

After settling on financial terms with Mary Neal, William Kimber and his cousin went up to London to teach morris dances to the Espérance girls at their London headquarters at Cumberland Market, St Pancras. The dances and songs they learned were performed to an enthusiastic, invited audience (including pioneer Labour MP Keir Hardie) in February 1906, followed by a public performance in April, which included a lecture by Sharp.

The dances were extremely popular and before the end of the year, Espérance girls were teaching the dances in six counties and six London clubs. At this time, Sharp and Neal were on the same wavelength: Neal saw the dances and songs as a way of brightening the lives of the urban poor, while Sharp hoped that their beauty would drive out the ‘vulgarity’ of the music hall. As Roy Judge has written, Sharp and Neal saw them, “not simply as a nostalgic entertainment, but as an instrument for good.”

Further public concerts were given, the Espérance girls and women travelled further to teach and, from the best of the dancers, Florrie Warren, Sharp and MacIlwaine notated the dances for publication in the first of several volumes of The Morris Book.

In these first couple of years, Mary Neal was seen, rightly, as the principal partner in their activities. She was a born organiser and it was her girls who were giving the performances and being invited to teach the dances. Sharp was the supporting actor – occasionally giving lectures, although his main activity still lay in collecting and publishing folk songs.

As time went on, and as Sharp extended his knowledge by collecting more dances, the issues of quality control and who was to lead this morris dance revival arose. Sharp felt he was being written out of the picture, and that Neal was usurping his role of ‘morris authority’. But it was Mary Neal who was leading the dancers and the teachers, extending their repertoire by inviting traditional dancers from Ilmington and Abingdon to London to teach the Espérance girls, and she published The Espérance Morris Book.

Mary Neal regarded Sharp’s approach as, “the blighting touch of the pedant and the expert”.

Increasingly, Sharp felt that the Espérance dancers were too boisterous and “hoydenish”. His emphasis was on graceful dancing. Neal regarded Sharp’s approach as, “the blighting touch of the pedant and the expert”. For a while, the gathering disagreements were private, but they bubbled up into the national press in 1910. It was then that Mary Neal went back to other Headington dancers, who disputed Kimber’s descriptions of the dances.

Mary Neal’s approach was for the Espérance girls to learn the morris steps from the traditional dancers, and then for the girls to teach others, and for them, in turn, to teach yet more dancers, even if the resulting dances, several stages down the line, bore little resemblance to what the traditional dancer had originally taught. Sharp put great faith in authenticity: the descriptions of the traditional dancers. He wanted a touchstone, a yardstick, something that the revival could refer to, ensuring that the dances were being performed ‘properly’. Hence, he kept detailed notes of what he collected, so that we now have not only his books, but also his written-up manuscripts and even his rough field notebooks.

With hindsight, and with greater knowledge about the process of transmission in tradition, we can see, perhaps, that Sharp’s approach was flawed. What he collected was only a snap-shot – the dances might have been quite different ten or a hundred years earlier. But at least we do know what was being performed then. If there had only been the Espérance dancers, and no Sharp notes, we would have had no record at all of what had been danced in the past. But without Mary Neal’s initial interest, perhaps Sharp’s knowledge of morris dancing would have stayed in his 1899 notebook.

By 1912, Sharp was gaining the upper hand. He extended the dance repertoire to include sword and country dances, and the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS) was founded in 1911. Mary Neal wrote of the “beautiful, graceful and charming” dancing of Sharp’s displays, but categorised it as art dancing, not folk dancing – “far removed from what I saw at Bampton”. For his part, Sharp considered that Neal could not see further than philanthropy, and did not appreciate that the folk dance revival was an “artistic movement”. The Times contrasted “the spirit of joy” of the Espérance dancers with “the spirit of accuracy” of Sharp’s supporters.

Mary Neal and Cecil Sharp were both strong personalities, each wanting their own way. Emmeline Pethick, one of Neal’s closest friends, wrote of her as, “a challenging person, who provoked others to violent reactions of like and dislike”. A similar comment could have been made about Sharp. Others recalled her, “kindness, her formidable energy, her wit and her ability for making things happen.”

Douglas Kennedy, Sharp’s successor as Director of the EFDS, later the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), wrote in the 1980s that, for him, the Sharp-Neal debate was one of content versus form – and that he had, “seen the pendulum swing from side to side” between the two ever since. His recollection of an Espérance display was that it was, “all impulse and impressionistic but a bit of a mess.” He felt that if there had been no Mary Neal, “we should have had to invent one” to spur Sharp on to collect the dances and devise the notations.

Throughout the period, political life was dominated by the issue of women’s suffrage. Mary Neal had attended the first committee meeting of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union in 1906 and contributed to the magazine, Votes For Women. Many of her supporters were active in the suffrage campaign, as indeed was Cecil Sharp’s sister Evelyn, but not Cecil, who distanced himself from the increasingly violent suffragette actions.

In the run-up to the 1914 war, Espérance activity waned. Mary Neal put her organisational abilities into the war effort, and after 1918 she recognised that, in the face of Sharp’s supremacy, it would be impossible to resume her folk dance role. She continued to devote herself to children’s welfare, but her contacts with folk dance were only occasional. In 1937, she was appointed CBE, for her work with the revival of folk songs and dances. She died in 1944.

Mary Neal’s rehabilitation dates from the 1970s. The women’s movement led to women challenging for positions dominated by men, including morris dancing. From the 1920s, the public display of morris was confined to men’s teams, although women continued to learn the dances in classes. In the 1970s, women looked for precedents for them dancing morris, which led back to Neal and the Espérance dancers. Val Parker, a member of Bath City Morris, one of the first 1970s women’s sides, was overjoyed to hear about Mary Neal and used the photographs of the Espérance dancers as inspiration for her team’s kit. Another team, based in Islington, London, called themselves New Espérance to celebrate the contribution of the earlier dancers, and team member Janet Dowling also started Mary Neal Rapper. Janet found the story of Mary Neal “inspirational”, and at a time when some morris men were engaged in a “keep morris male” campaign, Janet felt that New Espérance could, “claim a lineage that was older than most of the men’s teams, and that gave us confidence in what we were doing”. But it had not been simply a matter of Sharp’s dancers being men and Neal’s being women: both camps used both sexes for their displays.

The late Roy Judge fully researched Mary Neal’s life and contribution, contributing an influential article to the Folk Music Journal in 1989. In 1998, Sue Swift wrote and produced a play, The Forgotten Mary Neal, which was performed at Sidmouth and Hastings. The latter show was attended by Lucy Neal who was Mary’s great-great niece, and director of the London International Festival of Theatre. Lucy built on Roy Judge’s earlier work and brought together Mary Neal’s manuscripts and records, which she has lodged at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

For Lucy, the key to Mary’s contribution is that “spirit of joy”. Lucy says, “What is exciting is that the current work of the EFDSS celebrates equally the pioneering work of both Mary Neal and Cecil Sharp. Theirs is a shared legacy: a passion for English folk song and dance, and a recognition that people of each generation create their culture, first and foremost, by taking part in it.”

This article was originally published in fRoots 357, March 2013, under the title, ‘The Morris Wars’. Reproduced here with kind permission.