Neil McBeath was born at Castlemaine, Victoria in 1893, according to official records, to parents Robert McBeath and Jane McBeath (née McInnis). He was born five years after his brother, also called Neil, had died at the age of 3 in 1888. He had four older sisters – Christina, Jessie, Elizabeth and Wilhamina. On his service record, it is recorded that his birthplace was Campbell’s Creek, Victoria, a goldmining town which is located 4 kilometres south of Castlemaine.
McBeath was known for his Scottish humour and performed at a concert by the Caledonian Society at Mount Alexander, Victoria, on 17 September 1913. Advice of an upcoming concert by the Mount Alexander Presbyterian Sunday School, on 16 June 1917, announced that McBeath would be in attendance and described him as ‘the Castlemaine Harry Lauder’.
In 1914, McBeath was still living in Campbell’s Creek. His father had died in 1910 when he was 17 years old. Giving his occupation as a draughtsman and patternmaker, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and embarked from Melbourne aboard HMAT Wandilla with the 3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion on 6 June 1916. It appears that he was originally attached to 10 Battalion but before departing Australia, was transferred to 3rd Pioneer Battalion on 31 March 1916 and then to Battalion Headquarters, as a signaller, on 11 April 1916. At this time, he attended the AIF Signal School. McBeath was detached for duty at 3rd Division Headquarters on 24 November 1916 and arrived in France on 25 November 1916. He was promoted to corporal on 24 August 1917. McBeath also spent some time with Australian Corps Headquarters and the 3rd Pioneer Battalion while on active service.
McBeath was a member of the Coo-ee’s Concert Party and in 1917, wrote two songs for the group. One of these was a song called My Old Bushland Home In Australia. This song depicts themes of homesickness, and longing for family. Harmonies were added by fellow members of The Coo-ee’s, John McTier and George Pearce. The second song, ‘I’m going back again to Yarrawonga’, was written after the victory at Messines in 1917 when McBeath was inspired to write an Australian themed song. In an article in 1942, he was quoted to say that he observed an exchange between a cook and a wagon of Australian soldiers where one of the soldiers announced that he was going back to Yarrawonga. Both songs were performed by The Coo-ee’s Concert Party in France.
Between 23 April and 23 July 1919, McBeath was granted leave to attend the London School of Art as a commercial artist. Some of his artwork featured in the AIF magazine, ‘Aussie’. On 23 April 1919, McBeath was also taken on strength for AIF Headquarters in London. He was again granted leave from 1 November to 30 November 1919 for business reasons. On 1 December, he was sent to Sutton Veny, England, to join the 7 Field Ambulance Brigade. McBeath returned to Australia aboard the ship Konigen Luise on 18 December 1919.
McBeath returned to Campbell’s Creek and continued writing music and performing. He also worked as a modeller with Mr George Lambert at the Australian War Memorial. In 1921, he performed at a concert with John McTier to raise money for St John’s Church at Footscray, Victoria. McTier performed a cornet solo at the same concert. Other reports of this concert indicated that the duo entertained the audience for twenty minutes with “some Scotch melodies and original sketches, every minute of which was thoroughly appreciated, and were even then recalled to repeat their final duet ‘Back to Yarrawonga’.
The music for ‘I’m going back again to Yarrawonga’ was published after the male impersonator, Miss Ella Shields, performed it in Australia during her tour in 1922. Shields went on to sing the song in America and England. It is reported that she promised McBeath that she would sing it at her first performance when she returned to England and on receiving the first royalties for the song, McBeath ‘chucked his job with the War Museum and took a trip to England’. On his arrival in London, he saw Ella’s name on a Palladium Theatre poster and walked into the theatre at the same time as she was recounting the discovery of the song and the promise that she had made: ‘Although the promise was made nearly a year ago, and he’s 14 000 miles away…I’m going to keep my word’. Shortly afterwards, McBeath was reported to have arrived at her dressing room.
In 1938, Ella requested another Australian song and over the telephone, McBeath introduced her to ‘The song of the Boomerang’. Other songs that he wrote by himself or with others during the period 1920 to 1942 included a New Zealand version of ‘I’m going back again to Yarrawonga’ entitled ‘I’m Going Back Again to Wanganui’,’ Keep Your Tail Up Kangaroo’, ‘Toowoomba’, ‘When you’re back in your home once more’, ‘Jean from Ooterstein’, ‘When you’re back in your civvies again’, ‘June’, Break o’ Day’, ‘Molly Maloney’, 'To-Morrow (May be too late)', ‘All in one in: the national recruiting song’ and ‘Girls in the Air Force Blue’ . Between 1945 and 1953, he contributed approximately 116 artworks to ‘The Bulletin’.
McBeath married the English born singer Emmaline Mitchell. The couple had one child, Emmaline, who was reportedly ‘orchestrating for a concerto’ while a university student in Melbourne at the age of 21 in 1951. By 1939, it is known that he was living in the Melbourne suburb of Ivanhoe. McBeath also served in the Second World War with the Royal Australian Air Force and was posted to 1 Personnel Depot (Staff) when he was discharged on 25 March 1946.
Neil McBeath died on 14 May 1980 and is buried at Templestowe Cemetery and Memorial Gardens, Victoria.