Born in Northumberland, England, Neville immigrated to Victoria, Australia as a child.
In 1897 he went from Victoria to Western Australia and joined the civil service there, quickly rising through the ranks. Neville became the state's second appointment, in 1915, to the role of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. During the next quarter-century, he presided over the controversial policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, children who were later termed the Stolen Generation. More than 69% of Noongah were removed in this way and sent to "camps" at Mogumber at Moore River and Carrolup near Katanning Citation Needed. In 1936, Neville became the Commissioner for Native Affairs, a post he held until his retirement in 1940.
The practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families was advocated at the time, and the role of Chief Protector was never persistently challenged. In 1934, a royal commission was called to examine the current state of Aboriginal people with regard to the role of Chief Protector. This ended up giving the Chief Protector more authority over the lives of Western Australian Aboriginal people which, some say, only increased their suffering. In 1937 Neville declared:
Are we going to have one million blacks in the Commonwealth or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?
The attempt to culturally assimilate Aboriginal people during Neville's time as Chief Protector had followed an era of direct conflict with indigenous Australians with regard the theft of cattle and sheep, which were used for food. Government funding given to Neville was slight and his capacity to improve their circumstances was restricted. Open hostility was still expressed, in public and parliament, and the level of violence in more remote regions continued. Many indigenous people became impoverished, especially by cases of forced dislocation with police assistance, as the population and development of the State increased. The Chief Protector was given responsibility for these people, who did not have political rights, and Neville sought to improve the circumstances in which they lived. The attempt did not achieve its aims. Whilst Neville had the statutory role of protecting Aboriginal people,some now say that the government of the day put the needs of Non Aboriginal people first.
Neville believed that biological absorption was the key to 'uplifting the Native race.' Speaking before the Moseley Royal Commission, which investigated the administration of Aboriginal people in 1934, he defended the policies of forced settlement, removing children from parents, surveillance, discipline and punishment, arguing that
"they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon's knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patient's will."
Neville stated that children had not been removed indiscriminately, saying that
"the children who have been removed as wards of the Chief Protector have been removed because I desired to be satisfied that the conditions surrounding their upbringing were satisfactory, which they certainly were not."
He published Australia's Coloured Minority, a text outlining his plan for the biological absorption of Aboriginal people into non Aboriginal Australia. The book defends his policy but also acknowledges that Aborigines had been harmed by European intervention. For this reason, he said, more must be done to assist them:
"I make no apologies for writing the book, because there are things which need to be said. So few of our own people as a whole are aware of the position [of Aboriginal]. Yet we have had the coloured man amongst us for a hundred years or more. He has died in his hundreds, nay thousands, in pain, misery and squalor, and through avoidable ill-health. Innumerable little children have perished through neglect and ignorance. The position, in some vital respects, is not much better today than it was fifty years ago. Man is entitled to a measure of happiness in his life. Yet most of these people have never known real happiness. Some are never likely to know it. The causes of their condition are many. Mainly it is not their fault, it is ours, just as it lies with us to put the matter right."
Following his retirement he was invited to represent the State of Western Australia on discussions regarding Aboriginal Welfare in connection with the Woomera Test Range in 1947 prior to the establishment of the range.
Neville was a notable resident of Darlington and was a regular user of the Eastern Railway which closed a few months before his death. He died in Perth, and was buried in Karrakatta Cemetery.
Neville has been portrayed in artistic works as the public face of this policy in the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence (played by Kenneth Branagh), and in Jack Davis' 1985 play, No Sugar.