Page 1: Biography
Neale, Leslie Bourneman
This biography, written by Donald Phillipps, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Leslie Bourneman Neale was born at Devonport, Auckland, on 26 June 1886, the sixth child of Isabella Selby and her husband, William Henry Neale, a bootmaker. After attending Ponsonby School, which he left at the age of 14 in 1900, he was initially employed with Thompson and Hills, jam manufacturers. His parents worshipped at St John’s Church, Ponsonby, where Leslie became immersed in church activities. He studied to be a Methodist lay preacher and was accredited in 1905.
Neale offered for the ministry in 1908, and was sent as a home missionary to Pareora, near Timaru. In that year he became engaged to Mary Vickers, a gifted musician, but the church’s requirements delayed their marriage until the completion of his probationary ministry. The next year he began his theological training, and in 1911 he was sent to Ashhurst, Manawatu, for the first two of his four probationary years. From there he went to Edgeware Road, Christchurch, and he was ordained at the 1915 New Zealand Methodist Conference held in Christchurch. He was then stationed at Greytown in the southern Wairarapa circuit. On 14 December that year he finally married Mary, at St John’s, Ponsonby; they were to have one child, a daughter.
The 1916 conference approved Neale’s appointment as a chaplain to the armed forces, and after training at the Featherston Military Camp he went overseas with the 22nd Reinforcements in February 1917. Throughout his time as a chaplain he provided the New Zealand Methodist Times with a series of reports on his work. He arrived in France in October and saw action at Ypres (Ieper) and Passchendaele (Passendale). On 16 November he was seriously injured by an exploding shell and was threatened with the amputation of his leg. This he stubbornly resisted, though his injury troubled him for the remainder of his life. After a break of some months at Gallipoli on war graves matters, he returned to New Zealand in August 1919.
Neale resumed circuit ministry at Stratford, Taranaki. In 1924 he was stationed at the St Alban’s circuit in Christchurch, and began extramural studies for a BA degree (he graduated in 1934). As the country’s economic condition declined, he organised large-scale relief work in Christchurch through his Helping Hand relief depots; the first of four was opened in Papanui Road in 1928. Food parcels were distributed, jobs found, grants made for medical assistance, and in 1930 there was a holiday camp for disadvantaged children. In 1930–31 Neale served on the Christchurch City Council.
Leslie Neale was appointed superintendent of the Dunedin Methodist Central Mission in 1931. He had always given priority to evangelical preaching and the mission’s hall in the Octagon gave him the platform he needed. He cut an impressive figure, solidly built and overflowing with vitality, and by the mid 1930s his Sunday evening congregations regularly exceeded 1,000. Over 2,000 people participated in various weekly activities and his work with young people prospered. Relief work also increased greatly, particularly after the food riot in January 1932, and the Octagon hall was used as a citizens’ relief depot. In April 1934 Neale inaugurated a weekly radio programme, the ‘Radio Church of the Helping Hand’, which reached a substantial audience. Every year its anniversary was marked by speeches and a supper in the town hall, an event attended by thousands of listeners.
His major achievements, however, arose out of his concern for the effects of poverty on the children of the unemployed. Following the lead of Dr Elizabeth Gunn, in the early 1930s Neale purchased land at Company Bay on Otago Harbour and gradually evolved plans for a large-scale children’s health camp. He raised funds and even accepted money from art-union lotteries. It was opened in March 1937, but was excluded from government funding because it ran only during the summer months. It was eventually superseded by the Roxburgh Children’s Health Camp, opened in 1941.
The Methodist church recognised Neale’s outstanding record by electing him president of its 1940 Conference. He was, therefore, very much involved in the tensions that erupted over conscientious objection during the Second World War. With his chaplaincy background he endeavoured to balance the right to act according to conscience with the patriotic needs of the country. The 1940 Conference forbade the use of the pulpit to promote either recruitment or conscientious objection, and Neale criticised some pacifist ministers for breaching this policy.
Soon after the war there was a belated recognition within the church of the lack of facilities for the elderly. The buildings at Company Bay were used as a rest resort for women, and after the final health camp was held there in 1944 the property was developed as an Eventide Homes settlement. In 1948 Neale was made an MBE for his community services; he also received the Efficiency Decoration for 26 years as chaplain to the armed forces (1915–42).
Leslie Neale retired from the ministry in 1951. There was widespread acknowledgement of his 20 years of service to Dunedin and Otago, and he was referred to as one of the city’s ‘great men’. In retirement he and his wife settled in Auckland. He had always enjoyed fishing and gardening, and now developed a small market garden, producing fruit and vegetables for sale. He remained in touch with Methodist social services through involvement in the Auckland Methodist Central Mission’s building programme. He died at Mount Albert on 26 August 1959, survived by his wife and daughter.