- A. C. Howe
Neate, Charles (1806–1879), scholar and politician, was born on 13 June 1806 at Adstock, Buckinghamshire, the fifth of the eleven children of Thomas Neate, rector and minor landed gentleman of Alvescot, Oxfordshire, and his wife, Catherine, daughter of the Revd William Church. In rural England Neate acquired a lasting love of field sports (he was to be a well-known rider and steeplechaser); more unusually, in Restoration France he acquired an exceptional mastery of French at the Collège Bourbon, Paris. There the poet and critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve was one of his schoolfellows, and he obtained a prize for French composition, open to all the schools of France. Neate matriculated as a commoner of Lincoln College, Oxford, on 2 June 1824; he was scholar 1826–8, and graduated first-class in 1828. The same year he was elected fellow of Oriel College, where Newman, G. A. Denison, and James Fraser were among his associates; he also wrote for Blanco White's London Review, then almost an Oriel house magazine. Neate was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1832. An unfortunate fracas with Sir Richard Bethell, afterwards Lord Westbury, ended his career there in 1839, but it was characteristic of Neate that later, as an MP, he opposed the vote of censure on the 'old scoundrel', as he was in the habit of styling Westbury (The Times, 4 and 5 July 1865).
With his legal ambitions over, Neate acted as private secretary to the chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Francis Baring, between 1839 and 1841, and published in 1842 a tract in favour of the whig policy of a fixed duty on corn. But he soon returned to Oxford and lived off his Oriel fellowship for the remainder of his life, neither marrying nor (unlike most of his contemporaries) becoming a clergyman. Neate was a devoted Anglican but, remaining at arm's length from the theological divisions which racked Oriel in the 1840s, he turned to the management of the college estates. As senior treasurer of the college (1846–9), he evinced a strong sympathy with the tenants, whose difficulties in the wake of the repeal of the corn laws in 1846 drew him briefly towards Disraeli and protectionism. But Neate was also a respectable scholar, and acted as examiner in the school of law and history in 1853–5, and as lecturer in these subjects at Oriel in 1856. In 1857 he was appointed Drummond professor of political economy. Loosely associated with the liberal political economy of his predecessors such as George Rickards, and having a strong interest in legal history, Neate proved a strident critic of the landed interest, a proponent of increased, even graduated, direct taxation, an orthodox monetary theorist, and, more unusually, a supporter of trade unions.
Neate was no mere don, and by the 1850s he was also deeply involved in the civic life of Oxford. He served as a university nominee on the board of health at the time of the cholera epidemic in 1854, as a poor-law guardian, and as a street commissioner. Yet he was increasingly at odds with the university on several issues, which led him to criticize its part in local bodies, and to support the claims of the townspeople and the poor. This growing identification with the town led to his election as its Liberal MP in 1857 but he was soon unseated, for bribery by his agents. As his period as Drummond professor ended in 1862, Neate looked once more to politics and was elected as MP for Oxford in 1863, when he stood as a conservative Liberal but, with his usual love of paradox, on the popular and democratic side of the party.
In the house Neate proved a diligent MP, chairing a committee on the regulation of mines and speaking effectively on a number of issues. He took a notable interest in legal reform, and acted as one of a small group of campaigners for the abolition of capital punishment. He was ready to defend the claims of the university against governmental interference, favouring university reform until it was taken up by the government, and then resenting its imposition. But he was also ready to support the claims of the town against university intrusion and opposed, for example, votes for resident dons in the second Reform Bill. He also took up important issues such as the Thames navigation and played a prominent part in supporting the siting of the Great Western Railway workshops at Oxford in 1865, the abandonment of which he felt 'will be a calamity to both City and University' (Neate to Richard Potter; 16 June 1865, TNA: PRO, Great Western railway records, Rail 129). He retired from parliament in 1868 but continued to live in Oxford, serving on its local board and as clerk to the market. He died at his home, 14 Bradmore Road, Oxford, on 7 February 1879 and was buried at Alvescot on 13 February.
Eccentric in manner, gaunt and uncouth in appearance, occasionally fiery in temper, Neate was generous, dependable, and chivalrous, widely esteemed for his fearless honesty and outspokenness. Lacking scholarly perseverance, his keen mind expressed itself better in witty epigrams, humorous verse, or elegant composition in French and Latin; he frowned upon the modern expert, who was slowly beginning to displace the older, rounded scholars of unreformed Oxford. A 'cosmopolitan' among Oxford dons (W. Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford, 1900, 18–19) and a worthy citizen, Neate failed to achieve the high distinction expected of him.
- T. Mozley, Reminiscences, chiefly of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement, 2 vols. (1882)
- A. Howe, ‘Intellect and civic responsibility: dons and citizens in nineteenth-century Oxford’, Oxford: studies in the history of a university town since 1800, ed. R. C. Whiting (1993), 12–52
- Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette (15 Feb 1879)
- J. W. Burgon, Lives of twelve good men [new edn], 2 vols. (1888–9)
- Bodl. Oxf., Dep. Hughenden
Hansard 3 (1857); (1863–8)
- Clarke's New Law List (1832–9)
- Oriel College, Oxford, essay
- Oriel College, Oxford, bound volume of printed notes [‘Opuscula’]
- Bodl. Oxf., Disraeli MSS, letters
- TNA: PRO, Great Western railway records, RAIL 129, 130
- steel-engraved portrait, Oriel College, Oxford
Wealth at Death
£2114 16s. 8d.: administration, 25 June 1883, CGPLA Eng. & Wales