Mary Neal, the daughter of a successful businessman, was born in Edgbaston, England, on June 5, 1860. She was educated at Birmingham Ladies' College but later became a student of economics.
Mary Neal joined forces with Cecil Sharp, the brother of Evelyn Sharp, in order to revive English Folk Dance. In 1910 she published The Espérance Morris Book, which includes detailed description of 12 Morris dances and a selection of folk songs. This contains some descriptions of the dances,songs and games known to the girls of the Espérance Club. From the point of view of the present interest in ladies morris the costumes shown in the photographs in the book are of considerable interest. Later that year she travelled to the United States where she lectured on folk dance.
On 14th November 1907 Mary Neal decided to call a meeting "to talk over plans for putting at the service of all who wish for it, this great possession of English folk music in which it has been our good fortune to be the means of reviving active interest."
On 6th February, 1914, she became one of the founding members of the United Suffragists. Other members included Evelyn Sharp.
Cecil Sharp attended a meeting of the Espérance Club, but did not become associated with the organization which became known as the "Association for the Revival and Practice of Folk Music." Both he and Mary Neal seem to have agreed that the actual collecting of the dances would not be a function of the Association.
A disagreement between Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal came about gradually -- he being somewhat worried about the standard of dancing and teaching of the Espérance girls, and keen to uphold what he felt were artistic standards. She evidently felt that he was too pedantic on the subject and was more interested in the songs and dances as a source of amusement and happiness for her girls and for others.
The arguments between Mary Neal and Cecil Sharp and their respective followers have echoed down through the years, and the philosophies represented by these are in a sense at the root of many of the present day arguments about how 'Folk' should be promoted ( if indeed it should at all).
Mary Neal, who was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1937, died on June 22, 1944, at her home at Green Bushes, Littlehampton.
Mary's articles and publications include
Dances Mary taught include A-Nutting We Will Go, Girl I Left Behind Me (The), Princes Royall, and Sally Luker.