Emmeline Pethick, Mary Neal and the development of work with young women

Eemmeline Pethick Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons - no known licencing restrictions.

Emmeline Pethick Lawrence
Wikimedia Commons

Highly innovative work with young women in the 1890s by two extraordinary women.

In the archives: working girls’ clubs by Emmeline Pethick

Mary Neal (1860 – 1944) and Emmeline Pethick (1867 – 1954) came to this area of work in the 1890s as ‘Sisters’ in the West London Mission (for an account of the mission see Bagwell 1987). Mary Neal was the first. In fact, Pethick initially replaced her when she had tuberculosis, but Neal returned, and they worked together for a time.

Emmeline Pethick began her work at Cleveland Hall in Cleveland Street, London ‘where she won the affection of the high-spirited but frustrated girls by teaching them the active games which amused her young brothers’. ‘Soon’, says Brittain, ’she learned the contrast between their values and hers’ (1963: 27).

Together, Pethick and Neal used St Christopher’s Boys’ Club as a base and made a significant number of innovations. They began country holidays for the girls (and later Pethick was to set up The Green Lady Hostel at Littlehampton with Lily and Marion Montagu. However, it was after leaving the Mission in 1895 that they began a significant experiment. They started a club – the Espérance Club; and then, disturbed by the exploitation of young women by the West End dress trade, a tailoring co-operative – Maison Espérance (described in Pethick 1898). Their contribution to youth work was the recognition of a social and political dimension to work with young women. For example,

The conditions, not only of the home, but of the factory or workshop had to be taken into account. It became our business to study the industrial question as it affected the girls’ employments, the hours, the wages, and the conditions. And we had also to give them a conscious part to take in the battle that is being fought for the workers, and will not be won until it is loyally fought by the as well (Pethick 1898: 104).

Emily Pethick went on to become the treasurer and key organizer with the Pankhursts of the English Suffrage Union (see Pethick Lawrence 1938). The name of Espérance lived on as the club’s young women became a focus for the revival of Morris dancing (making particular use of the Passmore Edwards Settlement).

Mary Neal became an important figure in the breathing of new life into the English folk music and dance movement – and entered a considerable dispute with Cecil Sharp (Judge 1989). There is a women’s Morris crew named in her memory – Espérance – now in Islington. Neal was also central to the setting up of the first purpose-built play centre at Passmore Edwards Settlement.


Bagwell, P. (1987) Outcast London. A Christian response; The West London Mission of the Methodist Church 1887 – 1989, London: Epworth Press.

Brittain, V. (1963) Pethick-Lawrence. A portrait, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Judge, R. (1989) ‘Mary Neal and the Esperance Morris’, Folk Music Journal (5) 5: 545-591.

Pethick, E. (1898) ‘Working Girls’ Clubs’ in W. Reason (ed.) University and Social Settlements, London: Methuen and Co.

Pethick-Lawrence, E. (1938) My Place in a Changing World, London: Victor Gollanz.

Other sites

The Society of Folk-Dance Historians – Mary Neal

© Mark K. Smith. First published August 7, 1997.