Bernard Neal joined the Croquet Association (England) in 1963. In just four years he had scaled the heights by being selected for the Surrey Cup (the second ‘Eight’ at that time) in 1965, the first Chairman’s Salver in 1966 and the President’s Cup in 1967 – an event in which he eventually played eleven times. He won the Men’s Championship in 1967, the Open Championship twice, in 1972 and 1973, the Ranelagh Gold Cup at Roehampton on three occasions, the Hurlingham Cup twice and the Veterans. He also represented Great Britain in three MacRobertson Shield series - in 1969, 1974 and 1979.
But his prowess on the croquet court was more than matched by his contributions to the game off it. He was elected to the CA Council in 1966 and in the following year he was appointed Chairman of the Publicity Committee. In those days words like ‘development’ and ‘coaching’ were not part of the CA’s vocabulary – although ‘survival’ was. Within a year Bernard made sure that they became central to the CA’s discussions: a coaching scheme was mooted and he explored the possibilities of obtaining government funding (for both the CA and its clubs). The latter bore fruit almost immediately in the form of a grant towards the costs of the 1969 Test Tour to Australia. He then led discussions with the Central Council for Physical Recreation and the newly-formed Sports Council which resulted in the first of the latter’s annual grants to the CA, eventually spanning twenty-eight years and making a huge contribution to the CA’s finances and activity. The first grant aid, in 1970, was for both administration and development: it enabled the CA to give more than a pittance of an honorarium to its Secretary, but more significantly it provided financial support for the CA to initiate a development programme. The scheme was initially a modest affair but was not without its detractors, who feared radical change in the ethos of the game. (This even caused some notoriety in the national press and led to the forced resignation of the Gazette Editor!). Seminars for coaches were held and two volunteers, Barbara Meachem and Liz Neal, acted as development officers in the North and South respectively. Armed only with some basic croquet equipment and publicity materials, they were expected to support existing weak clubs, explore the potential for new clubs and even to try to set up clubs where circumstances seemed favourable. The momentum they generated eventually led to the appointment of Chris Hudson as the CA’s National Development Officer and the establishment of the CA’s Coaching and Development Committees which now manage comprehensive schemes to help and support both individual players and clubs, all funded from the CA’s own resources.
Bernard’s balanced judgement and tact made him the obvious choice to replace Dudley Hamilton-Miller as Manager of the 1969 Test Team when the latter had to withdraw, literally at the last minute, due to ill-health. He won universal praise from the Australians and New Zealanders during the tour and, since then, he became a highly respected unofficial ambassador for the CA on the world Croquet stage. His advice and guidance were key elements in the CA’s leading role in the period preceding the establishment of the World Croquet Federation in 1989, and Bernard’s influence was significant in the CA hosting several World Championships. About 1990 Bernard and Liz went to Japan and managed to persuade the Japanese to take up Association Croquet.
Following three years as Publicity Chairman, Bernard was elected Vice-Chairman of Council from 1970 to 1972 and Chairman from 1972 to 1974, achieving the unique distinction of winning the Open Championship in both his years at the helm. He then served on numerous Council committees, many as chairman. When he was Chairman of the Laws Committee he wrote ‘The Basic Laws’ – just one example of his tireless efforts to improve the CA’s provision for its members.
He often acted in a discreet, but effective, way to help the Association. Thus in 2001-2, when the CA was searching for a new location for its headquarters, Cheltenham, his home club, became one of the three contenders – Bernard had worked his magic! Whilst the outcome was in doubt Bernard, of course, took a back seat in Council discussions, but when the decision to move to Cheltenham had been made, he (with other Cheltenham club members) did their utmost to make the transition as smooth, and the welcome as warm, as possible. In 2004, Bernard was the obvious and unanimous choice to succeed John Solomon as the President of the Croquet Association, a position he decided to relinquish at the 2009 AGM.
It might be thought that Bernard had little time for anything but Croquet. But he had distinguished professional and sporting careers in the world beyond, and brought benefits from both to our more modest domain. As an internationally respected civil engineer, he was instrumental in making the CA see the need for, and the benefits arising from, standard specifications for croquet equipment. He led from the front in devising ball-testing equipment and chairing the Equipment Committee which has now established a set of standards recognised worldwide and tests new equipment on a regular basis.
Bernard was a highly competitive county tennis player. His prowess included being Captain of Lawn Tennis at Cambridge University around 1945 and that offered him membership of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club where he became long-standing member, serving on its main committee for many years and winning more Wimbledon (croquet) championship titles (38) than any other person – a good pub quiz question! He was one of a small group of members who effectively resurrected croquet at Wimbledon in the post-war era, and it is largely due to Bernard’s influence that it now has a much closer relationship with the CA. The Croquet Exhibition at Wimbledon during the CA’s centenary year, the gift of the Wimbledon Cup for the Association Croquet World Championship, and several notable CA functions held at Wimbledon would never have happened but for his behind-the-scenes work.
Bernard preferred quiet diplomacy and was modest about his achievements. This citation is thus inevitably deficient in not recognising many of the benefits he brought to Croquet, particularly at a personal level. Thus it is impossible to chronicle how generous and supportive he, and Liz, were to many (especially younger) players - they were even known to accommodate whole test teams on occasions! But what has been noted here gives ample evidence that the CA, and the whole croquet world, owe an enormous debt of gratitude to someone who worked ceaselessly for Croquet for well over forty years and who, by setting the highest standards in all that he did, was a worthy recipient of the prestigious CA Council Medal.
Bernard was survied by his wife Liz until 2023, when she passed away shortly before her 101st birthday.