It’s always exciting when you read a fleeting note with a piece of music saying it was reconstructed from a fragment found in the Royal Institution of Cornwall. I first came across Mary Kelynack’s (as it is more affectionately known) pouring over the hundreds of tunes in Racca 2 – the largest compendium of old and new Cornish traditional music published 1995-97. It is no. 21 (a useful guide for Racca users), notated in C major as a 16-bar 2/4 polka. Merv Davey in Hengan, 1983 (digital edition p. 51) described his discovery of this fragment, “a fragment of this tune can be found in a miscellaneous Box of Music MSS in the Courtney Library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. It was evidently written by Harry Goodbone [sic] and probably had words to go with it but I have been unable to find any further information. The tune has been largely reconstructed by myself .”
An aged dame of Cornish fame
I had already come across Mary Kelynack’s story while researching Cornish women’s stories for the Hypatia Trust’s History 51 project in 2013. Mary Kelynack or Callinack was from the Penzance, Paul or Newlyn fishing community. She achieved fame by walking from Lands End to London for the Great Exhibition of London in 1851–at the age of 75-86 depending on what you read. She was noted at the time for this incredible feat of determination to make sure that Cornish fishing folk were remembered and recognised as part of the exhibition or to exhibit her traditional fishwife’s costume as the Queen wanted to see it or to give the Queen a turbot. There are all sorts of variations of her story, as all good folk stories accrue over time: that she was noticed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, had tea with the Lord Mayor. I was familiar with the portraits of her, distinctive in her fishing woman’s wear to be noticed and captured by illustrators and artists. Her story has been researched by Penwith Local History Group so head over to their website to read Mary Kelynack’s true story.
You can find portraits of her in Penlee House, Penzance, Morrab Library, Penzance and the National Portrait Gallery, London. One of the NPG’s copies (An Aged Dame by S. Nelson) also carries the music of the “Song of the Cornish Fish Wife.” At the time of this (very rudimentary) research I wasn’t playing music and had not made the connection between the story and the music I learned last year.
The original story/fable of Mary Kelynack was reported in the Illustrated London News and the portrait from the cover of the music by Henry W. Goodban, entitled The Mary Callinack Polka, carries the excerpt:
On Tuesday among the visitors at the Mansion House, was Mary Callinack, eighty-four years of age, who had travelled on foot from Penzance, carrying a basket on her head, with the object of visiting the Exhibition. She was born in the parish of Paul, near Penzance, on Christmas-day, 1766, so that she had nearly completed her 85th year. To visit the Exhibition she walked the entire distance from Penzance, nearly 300 miles; she having “registered a vow,” before she left home, that she would not accept assistance in any shape, except as regarded her finances. On Tuesday, the 14th, when the Queen visited the Exhibition, her Majesty, in taking her departure, with her usual kindness and condescension noticed the Old Cornish pedestrian fisherwoman, who had been placed in her way, who with hearty emphasis exclaimed “God bless your Majesty.”Illustrated London News.
Eager to find the fragment of Mary Kelynack’s polka we headed to the Courtney Library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall back in July 2019 to find the mysterious fragment. The librarian insisted she could see no music on this item and there was only a copy of a portrait of Mary Kelynack, that there must have been a mistake. When she produced the item for us anyway to sate our curiosity we initially concurred that we could see no music, but on the reverse we noticed the indentations of printed music — the fragment visible to Merv Davey during his research many years ago.
From Truro to Australia
There seemed to be and indeed is more music than the reconstructed tune known today. It was at this moment we also looked into the different search results you get when searching for “Mary Kelynack” and “Mary Callinack.” The former more aligned to the modern spelling of the little hamlet outside St Just and a surname of West Penwith. A quick search for “Mary Callinack’s Polka” revealed a digitised version of the whole piece of music written by Henry Goodban in tribute to Mary’s story. It is in the digital collection of the National Library of Australia called Trove. The Australian edition was published in Sydney, suggesting Mary Kelynack’s fame spread to other parts of the globe, indeed where Cornish diaspora communities may have appreciated her story.
The polka is written for piano to a classic 19th century polka rhythm. It is an instrumental piece to be danced to and no song is associated with it, extending to some 85 bars with a four-bar introduction. As far as the original tune compares with the version we have now adopted into the Cornish tradition, they are pretty faithful to each other in style, key and tempo. We now have the oompah of the bass part to play around with and there are far more decorations and flourishes in Goodban’s version.
Incidentally, Henry Goodban was a well-known composer of ‘light’ dance music in the mid-19th century. He was known for composing the Fire-fly Polka and the Wood Nymphs Polka. Polkas were very popular to dance to at this time, apart from the bopping music, they were racy and permitted close contact as part of the dance. I can’t find out much about who Henry Goodban was, except a composer of popular music of the same period. A notice in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of Saturday 22 November 1851 mentions the publication of the Mary Callinack Polka by Goodban, describing it as “beautifully illustrated in colours, with a drawing from the life of the now celebrated Old Cornish fisherwoman.”
The portrayal of Mary Kelynack on the cover of “An Aged Dame of Cornish Fame” points to another piece of music written for her, this time by S. Nelson. The Song of the Cornish Fish Wife was probably written by the composer Sidney Nelson, shortly after the Great Exhibition in 1851 (dating on popular publications at the time was patchy to say the least so we can only guess). He was a prolific composer and writer of songs. For another time to get hold of the music and song lyrics.
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