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A man of faith and vision

Leah Taylor's biography of Leslie Neale
is here reviewed by Donald Phillipps


  Leslie Neale  (1886-1959)  exercised an outstanding ministry within the Methodist Church of New Zealand.   He is still remembered for his 21 years as Superintendent of the Dunedin Central Mission,  and it can be said with every justification that he was as responsible as any single person for the direction which Methodist social services has followed for over sixty years.   But there was a great deal more to his service to the Church than that,  and he deserved to be honoured with a biography.

This has now been completed and we are deeply indebted to Leah Taylor for a work of painstaking industry,  impeccable research,  and careful judgment.   This well illustrated book of 125 pages published by the Dunedin Methodist Mission and attractively printed by Otago University Print is a most significant addition to the growing list of biographies of prominent New Zealand Methodists.   In this reviewer's opinion it ranks among the best two or three that have appeared.

Leslie Neale was born in Auckland into a committed Methodist family.   After his primary education at Ponsonby School,  he started work at the age of 14,  but it was his leisure-time church activities,  centred on St John's Ponsonby,  which were to be of the greater importance.   Influenced by William Ready,  who had founded the Dunedin Central Mission in 1890,  Neale became a lay preacher and by the age of 16 knew he had a call to the ministry.

At the age of 21 he was accepted for training,  but sent to Pareora West,  near Timaru,  as a Home Missionary in 1908.   The following two years were spent at the Theological Institution in Auckland and he became a probationer in 1911,  being sent to Ashhurst for 2 years and then to Edgeware Road in Christchurch.   Shortly after his ordination at the 1915 Conference Neale offered his services as military chaplain,  having been stationed at Greytown,  near which was the Featherston Military Training Camp.   At the end of the same year he and Mary Vickers were married at Auckland.

For more than a year the two responsibilities,  military chaplaincy and Circuit ministry were combined,  until he embarked with the 22nd Reinforcements in early 1917.   Neale sent regular reports on his chaplaincy work which were published in the New Zealand Methodist Times,  and which provide a valuable record.   His service at the front during the second half of 1917 involved him in the Ypres offensive,  especially at the horrifying experience of Passchendaele.   He was himself severely wounded in the leg at Ypres in November,  a wound which was to trouble him for the rest of his life.

He returned to New Zealand in 1919,  having spent some months at Gallipoli,  assisting in the identification of the graves of New Zealand soldiers killed there.   On his return Neale was appointed to the Stratford Circuit,  and in 1924 moved to St Albans in Christchurch.   In each place his energy and enthusiasm were notable.   'He was very progressive and really put a bomb under dreamy little Stratford.'   While at Stratford he began university studies but it was not until his move to Dunedin that he was able to complete his B.A. in 1933.

His time in Christchurch saw many changes in the St Alban's Circuit,  notably the building of St John's Church at Bryndwr.   His preaching attracted many people to his services;  his abilities as a fund-raiser were developed;  he made his first steps in broadcasting;  he acted positively to deal with the effects of the economic depression which were beginning to be felt.   In response to growing unemployment he began a Helping Hand Relief Depot in June 1928 at Papanui Rd.,  and,  as Leah Taylor says,  'he began to formulate his own social gospel.'   Such was his leadership that he became part of a civic committee to find work for the unemployed and to relieve distress.   He was elected unopposed to the City Council on the strength of his work,  but was only able to serve for six months,  before moving to Dunedin.

Leslie Neale is so well remembered for his time in Dunedin that it is good to be reminded that the policies and practices he developed there had been foreshadowed during his seven years at St Albans.   Leah Taylor sets his social service work against its contemporary background,  and does not pass the judgment of hindsight.   Given the circumstances  -  a worsening economic condition which particularly affected so many war veterans and their families  -  Neale would have thought of the Good Samaritan as his model.   Newly established services were of the 'ambulence' variety.   Within the Methodist Church it would have been thought inappropriate to engage in political action to change the economic climate.   Neale went as far as he could down this track,  and it is quite likely that even then his limited exposure to civic politics would have been frowned upon by some of his own people.

His immediate impact when he moved south was through his preaching in the Octagon Hall,  to Sunday evening congregations of over 1000 throughout the 1930s.   Land was bought next to the Hall to enable the development of a growing work with young people.   Care and accommodation for the sick,  the aged,  and for distressed families began in his first year.   A depot for unemployed relief was established at a time when Government and civic efforts were in danger of collapse,  and there were food riots.   There was a woodcutting venture and a butcher's shop to aid the unemployed.   The first children's health camps took place at Company Bay in the summer of 1932/33.

The latter innovation was further developed over the next five years,  with the purchase and erection of a substantial facility at Company Bay.   Much to the embarrassment of the Church Neale even accepted art union funds,  but,  typically,  claimed that the end justified the means  -  under-nourished,  semi-clad children desperately needed a change of environment,   If the Church was antagonistic the public,  by and large,  were not.   Public support for Neale was enhanced through his radio contacts,  the Radio Church of the Helping Hand having been established in 1934.   By the time the foundation stones of the new facility at Company Bay were laid early in 1935,  the development had captured the imagination of the city,  and the wonderfully generous support of the Jewish businessman,  Samuel Saltzman.   The completed buildings,  probably unique in New Zealand at that time,  were opened in March 1937.

The radio work grew quickly until it became a Dunedin institution.   Membership peaked at around 4000 in 1937/38.   Every member received a collection box,  and the pennies gathered in this way yielded about £25,000 to the Company Bay project by 1938.   The programme was broadcast on Radio 4ZM,  a private station owned by Robert Walls.   It was not easy going however,  the new Labour Government being suspicious of 'radio parsons' such as Colin Scrimgeour in Auckland,  and because of the competition between a station like 4ZM with the Government-owned commercial station.   Eventually 4ZM was closed down,  and a fresh start was made through 4ZD in 1939.   Despite the strict controls of the 1939-45 war,  the programme continued,  and Neale claimed there were 10,000 listeners,  and some even claimed that their religion was the Radio Church of the Helping Hand.

In 1940 Leslie Neale became President of the Methodist Church at the Conference held in Dunedin.   It was not an easy time for him,  with the Church deeply divided over pacifism.   Leah Taylor provides an informative and sensitive summary of the tensions that had built up over the previous two or three years within the Church,  and of Neale's dilemma as ex-chaplain and President.   He engaged in his other Presidential duties with typical energy,  suggesting the inauguration of the Centennial Thanksgiving Fund,  which eventually raised £93,000.   He travelled throughout the country,  and the Church newspaper reported many of his speeches.

Health Camp legislation passed by the Government in 1938,  however,  prevented the Mission from access to Government funds for its work,  and this policy,  though strenuously opposed by the Mission,  led to the final closure of the Health Camp in 1944.   Neale had a large vision as always,  and hoped to develop a purpose-built facility within the city.   Such a site could not be found,  and eventually,  in 1945,  it was agreed that the Company Bay site should be used.   The existing buildings were altered,  a nurses' home was opened in 1948,  and the chapel was opened by Neale himself in his last days as Superintendent,  in January 1952.   He was,  in fact,  the founder of the first Methodist Eventide Homes Settlement in New Zealand,  and worked closely with Everill Orr in Auckland when thst Mission entered on the same work.

Neale was awarded the M.B.E. for his public services in 1950,  along with the E.D.  (Efficiency Decoration)  for his war service and 26 years as Chaplain.   During his time in Dunedin he had also initiated industrial chaplaincy at the Hillside Road Railway Workshops.   He provided a place within the Mission Building for a 'psychological clinic'  run by another Methodist minister,  Dave Williams,  of Mornington.   He was still in charge when the Mission's diamond jubilee was help in 1950,  and unveiled plans for a truly grandiose building to take the place of the various wooden structures at the corner of the Octagon and Upper Stuart St.   One of his last proposals was the setting up of what was to become the New Zealand Methodist Social Services Association,  in 1952.   He and his wife left Dunedin for retirement in Auckland to widespread public expressions of appreciation.

He had a busy retirement until his death in 1959,  being involved in the preaching ministry of the Auckland Central Mission.   He built a new home in Mt Albert,  and spent much time in the garden.   With his wife he visited England in 1953.   Their health gradually declined,  and Leslie underwent major surgery.   He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 73.

Even such a brief summary as this gives some idea of the versatility,  the originality,  and the dynamism of Leslie Neale.   In all his ministries he had a vision,  and by his enthusiasm,  his 'zeal for Christ',  and the sheer force of his personality,  he carried his people with him.   That he was able to achieve so much was undoubtedly due in large measure to the unfailing support of his wife,  Mary.   Herself a talented person she provided the stability at home and her own commitment to the work he did.   But Leslie Neale deserves his notable place in Methodist history,  and we can be thankful to Leah Taylor for such a readable,  authentic,  and thorough story of his life.

Copies are available through the author,  Mrs Leah Taylor, 
94A Preston Cresc.,  Belleknowes,  Dunedin.

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