Mary Neal was a social worker, philanthropist and folk dance revivalist, working in London and later Sussex, from 1895 until her death in 1944.
She was born Clara Sophia Neal in Birmingham in 1860. She began her social work in 1888, joining the West London Methodist Mission and taking the name Sister Mary. Soon afterwards Neal set up and ran the Club for Working Girls at the Mission in Cleveland Hall, Fitzrovia.
In 1895 Neal and her colleague Emmeline Pethick left the Mission to set up their own club for underprivileged girls. The Espérance Club was based in Somers Town, London, and aimed to educate local young women, the majority of whom worked long, sedentary hours in sewing and dressmaking. The Club offered evening lectures in politics and worker's rights, as well as events and excursions for the women and their children. Pethick also developed Maison Esperance, a dressmaking cooperative with set working hours and a minimum wage.
Neal wanted to teach traditional English recreational activities and so became interested in folk song and dance. In 1905 she wrote to Cecil Sharp for advice, after seeing a newspaper interview. In her autobiography, Neal notes that Sharp informed her that their subsequent work together rejuvenated his own interest in collecting folk songs and dances.
Through Sharp Neal met the dancer and concertina player William Kimber and invited him to teach folk dancing to the girls. This led to public dance performances, which became enormously popular and gained considerable newspaper coverage. Indeed, Sharp's first Morris Book used notations devised while watching Neal's girls. The enterprise was so successful that several of the women were able to leave jobs in textiles and become dancers or teachers themselves.
Over the years the relationship between Neal and Sharp soured, and they became involved in a public row in the Morning Post newspaper over the interpretation of dance traditions, and over their respective roles in the dance revival.
In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War brought about the end of the Esperance Club. Neal moved to Poplar, East London and worked for Toynbee Hall and the reformist Settlement movement. Between 1925 and 1937 Neal was a Justice of the Peace in West Sussex. During this time she sat on the special Juvenile Court Panel and researched prison reform.
During her years campaigning for social reform Neal befriended many key figures in the Labour Party (including Keir Hardie) and the Women's Suffrage movement, as well as the poet and philosopher Edward Carpenter.
Following the First World War Neal adopted two orphan children. She died in 1944, aged 84.