Jolly Rumble-O! Helston Flora Day and its music

On 8 May 2018 we made it to our first Helston Flora Day (also known as Furry Day). We gathered at 6.30am at Penzance Bus Station for the first bus to Helston. When we arrived we headed for breakfast at the Coinage Hall pub before wandering around town on the tail of the Hal-an-Tow, a performance which melds late medieval interest in Robin Hood, St George, Dragon, hobby horse, animal, sea creatures and even a St Piran character. I’m not sure you get more promenade theatre than this. The whole town is the stage and we’re in the round.

Large gathering, many with flowers in their hair, performers dressed up as sea creatures, St Piran in a monk's habit with a mill-wheel around his waist, a pig hobby horse, banners.
Hal-an-Tow arrives at its conclusion at the Guildhall, Flora Day 2018.

Doorways and windows decorated with May (sycamore), other greenery and copious flowers.

We then awaited the 10 o’clock children’s dance to hear the famed Helston Town Band play its signature tune. I can only associate Flora Day with the sound of the addictive bassline played by trombonists and tubas. As with other long musical processions the melody somehow winds its way through drums and bass. After enjoying the festivities we retired to the Blue Anchor (about 10.30am) and were permitted to play some tunes so long as we downed instruments when the parade came past. It had started to rain and the pub quickly filled up. So fuelled by Spingo we played all sorts (though not Helston Furry) to an attentive audience of smartphone photos and videos–and even a party who had come especially to Flora Day from the Faroe Islands. One memorable moment was being asked if we took requests. Asking what it was, he said, “Can you play St Just Cock Dance.” So we did, and he did too, with shouts of “Culyek! Culyek!”

The ancient-ness of Flora Day is never under-stated, with the Helston Furry Dance taking up the baton from the Hal-an-Tow and continuing through the day with dances at 7am (Early Morning), 10am (children’s dance always described as popular!), Midday and Evening (around 5pm). How an entire day’s soundtrack is constructed around two tunes is quite brilliant and points to the significance of specific music to specific places and occasions in the Cornish tradition (much like Padstow May Day).

In the week I received one of the regular Museum of Cornish Life newsletters. The description of Flora Day from the museum point of view is completely wonderful, authentic, a testimony to how something like Helston Flora Day is impossible to ignore when you are part of the town. I wanted to share it in full here (with permission).

Since the start of May we have been turning our thoughts to Flora Day. Every year it is a highlight in the museum calendar. We normally celebrate by mounting an exhibition focusing on our wonderful collection of Midday Dance dresses. The day before Flora Day a team of volunteers assemble to decorate the museum with bunting and flower archways. This provides a colourful welcome for the Town Band and Dancers of the Furry Dance.

On Flora Day itself the the museum may be closed but we are not empty instead hosting a morning tea party for our volunteers, supporters and Holifield Farm Project. Holifield Farm offers day support to adults with additional needs and the museum provides a quite space so they can attend Flora Day.

As 12 noon approaches the main role of the museum is to have the doors ready to be opened so the Helston Town Band and Midday Dance can pass through the museum on their route around the town. Having the Dance in the museum is a singularly magical experience and when the doors are closed, by the Stewards, the building seems to buzz with energy and we are all renewed.

Annette MacTavish, Director of Museum of Cornish Life, Helston, May 2020.


Much like the Padstow May Day Song, the tune and words of the Hal-an-Tow have been much commented on and studied, variously by folklorists, scholars of folk music and dance, and historians. There seems to be much more interest in the words than the tunes so if you are that way inclined, head to the archive and library catalogues. Fortuitously I was flicking through a newly-purchased working copy of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book. Lyver Canow Kernewek (1929) when a slip of paper (undated) with the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow fell out. Dunstan comments at length on the lyrics and their ‘true’ form. At some point in the 1920s they undergo Morton-Nancisation (pp. 30-31). In Dunstan’s version we only get to “Rumble O” rather than the more familiar “Jolly rumble O.”

Inglis Gundry in Canow Kernow (1966) makes reference to a Nicholas Boson of Newlyn writing around 1660, describing the erection of a Maypole to strains of “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbleow!” (p.12) When you watch the video below you can hear it is still sung this way today. You hear the words chanted more than sung, with percussion such as side drums, and tambourines providing some sense of rhythm to the relentless May Horns and whistles.

Sheet of paper with printed song lyrics.
Lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow song.

Drums, fifes and fiddles

Reports from the newspaper archives contain some sense of the instruments that were played on Flora Day (drums, fifes, fiddles). A very early detailed description from 15 May 1802 (Royal Cornwall Gazette) gives us a sense of the occasion:

Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, Saturday 15 May 1802.

In the early 19th century descriptions, of which there are a fair few in the newspapers, distinction isn’t made between the Hal-an-Tow and Furry Dance being separate things, but rather part of the same set of festivities bringing in the countryside to the town, and invariably ending up with spectacles and balls in the taverns and theatre. Royal Cornwall Gazette from 10 May 1823 describes:

Dancing however commenced at a very early hour, and the pleasures of the morning were greatly enhanced by the staff of the Cornwall Yeomanry Cavalry on duty, who had a public breakfast at the Guildhall… Returning from the field they immediately threw off the laborious duty of the soldier, and lightly trip’d the flora dance thro’ every street to the music of their excellent band.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 10 May 1823.

From those early descriptions it is interesting that the military seemed to take over leading the music (and eventually the regimented brass bands). This wasn’t always so. Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4 May 1855, describes Helston Flora Day with an excerpt from Murray’s Handbook for Devon and Cornwall (later published in 1859 and possibly serialised in the papers before then).

About nine in the morning, the people assemble at the Grammar School, and demand a prescriptive holiday, after which they collect contributions to defray the expenses of the revels and then proceed into the fields, when they are said to fadé into the country… and about noon return, carrying flowers and branches through the streets, and in and out of different houses… preceded by a fiddle playing an ancient air, called the “furry tune.” They also occasionally chant in chorus a traditional song, involving the history of Robin Hood, the King of the May.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4 May 1855.

Ralph Dunstan also speaks of “violins and other instruments” adding to the simple melody of the Helston Furry tune, “according to taste and fancy.” (Cornish Song Book (1929), p. 31). Tracing descriptions of Flora or Furry Day back into the 18th century, Mike O’Connor in Ilow Kernow 5, pt. 1. (in process, p. 94) cites Polwhele describing furry dancers in Helston dancing to the sound of a fiddle (History of Cornwall, vol. 1, ch. 3, 49pp., 1803). Fiddles certainly seemed to be the order of the day before then too, O’Connor shares a description in R.A. Warner’s A Tour Through Cornwall in the Autumn of 1808 (1809) 216pp.: “The unusual gaiety of the 1796 celebration is spoken of ‘with rapture’. He described the Hal an Tow as a chorus song sung by a large number of people. The main dance was then preceded by a fiddle playing an ancient traditional tune.”

Celtic music

The music of the Helston Furry tune we recognise today is synonymous with the repertoire of brass bands, in this case Helston Town Band. Davies Gilbert in the appendix of secular tunes published in 1823 (Some Ancient Christmas Carols, 2nd ed.) introduces the “Helston Forey,” forey or foray being one of the many variations of Furry, also Faddy, Flurry, Flora. He presents a treble and bass of the tune in Eb (p.79). It is immediately recognisable with some rhythmic variation from that which we hear the band play today. Davies Gilbert describes the Helston Furry tune as a “specimen of Celtic Musick” also heard in Ireland and Wales.

Davies Gilbert’s consciousness of a genre of music understood as Celtic is remarkable given the extensive modern-day critique of Cornish Celtic music having no real history. It also brings into question the appropriation of both Hal-an-Tow and the Furry Dance tune as part of a notional English tradition (claimed as the tunes were by Lucy Broadwood and the like (see also below). He continues:

In Cornwall it is almost peculiar to the town of Helston, where a Forey was annually celebrated up to recent times, with all the pantomime of a predatory excursion into the country, and a triumphant return of the inhabitants dancing to this air.

Davies Gilbert, 1823.

Gilbert also comments on the festivities of 8 May in his day as being “some shadow of the festival… but with its nature totally changed, and its name obscured, by a fanciful allusion to Greek or Roman Mythology.” (p.79).

Uncle Jan Trenoodle’s description

The antiquarian William Sandys produced a number of books in the mid-19th century of a musical nature, including collections of Christmas carols and histories of Cornish customs (amongst other subjects such as violins). His pen name was Uncle Jan Trenoodle and under this pseudonym he published Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect in 1846. Maybe his playful name is why he hasn’t been taken seriously by subsequent scholars. We think his work is much under-estimated. Sandys’ description of the music and lyrics of Flora Day as well as its supposed origins has nevertheless been analysed and used ever since he published it.

He includes the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow as he knew them (pp. 60-61) and calls it the “Furry-Day Song.” His description of the events on 8 May echo much of what we have gleaned from antiquarians and reports from newspapers (pp. 5-6). What makes Sandys’ analysis interesting is his picking out the difference between the lyrics of the Hal-an-Tow and the tune of the Furry Dance with versions known to him being mixed up, trying to adapt the words of the former to the tune of the latter. For clarity (he thought) he provided his version at the back of the book (pp. 106-8). Later students of Cornish music have been puzzled by Sandys naming of the Hal-an-Tow tune as “The Furry Day Song-Tune.” Dunstan (1929) reproduces this version as the Hal-an-Tow (p. 30) although he was less than complimentary about Sandys’ grasp on music. Just to clarify, Sandys only provides the music for what we know as the Hal-an-Tow and not the Helston Furry tune which Davies Gilbert provided (see above).

Furry dancing

The Furry Dance tune, although most associated with Helston, was certainly not peculiar to it. The early 19th-century newspapers speak of the furry tune and furry dancing in Truro, for example. A beautifully detailed description of “Rejoicings in Truro” (looking at the date likely to be midsummer festivities) which included bands, music, dancing and feasting, and furry dancing:

As soon as the children had gone off, the Furry Dances commenced, (in which all classes joined without distinction,) and were kept up with unabated spirit to a late hour of the night, or rather an early hour in the following morning.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 2 July 1814.

Ralph Dunstan in Cornish Song Book-Lyver Canow Kernewek (p. 31) gives two simplified versions of Helston Furry, both in F, commenting:

Of all the variants of the melody of the Dance, that popular in the Truro district at any time during the past 100 years is the most simple and unadorned, and probably the most ancient.

Ralph Dunstan, Cornish Song Book. Lyver Canow Kernewek, 1929, p. 31.

Dunstan goes on to say that the tune was often used for the lyrics of other songs, e.g. Southey’s Well of St. Keyne. One of our relatives, a baritone singer, commented on the refrain of the Helston Furry tune being clearly heard in Tallis’s Spem in Alia c.1570 !

Origins, tradition and adaptation

The earliest record of the music of Helston Flora Day comes in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 60, Part One (1790), p. 520. It comes as a response to a Mr. Urban by a certain Durgan enquiring after the nature of the festivities of Flora Day. Writing from Cornwall on 8 June, Durgan says:

At Helstone, a genteel and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th of May to revelry (festive mirth not jollity). It is called the Furry-Day, supposed Flora’s Day; not, I imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that goddess, but rather from the garlands commonly worn on that day.

Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 60, pt. 1, p. 520.

The letter continues with a description of the early morning Hal-an-Tow, though not called that, mentions “troublesome rogues” who go round the streets with drums and other noisy instruments, and wearing hawthorn blossoms in their hats. The demanding of a holiday, going from house to house collecting money, are features. Then the Furry Dance is described:

About the middle of the day they collect together to dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle playing a particular tune, which they continue to do til it is dark. This is called a “Faddy.” In the afternoon, the gentility go to some farmhouse in the neighbourhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc. and return in a morice-dance where they form a Faddy, and dance through the streets till it is dark.

As above.

The correspondent then speaks of changes in custom and the gentry retiring to a ball, all dressed up, then faddying back to their homes at night. The rest of the community, the “mobility” as they are described, adjourn to pubs where they continue to dance until midnight. Read the full description.

Furry dancing and the tune of Helston Furry, while for a long time associated extremely closely with the town and Flora Day, definitely have histories outside the town too. The origins of the Furry, like origins of most traditional music and dance send one on a futile quest. What we can confidently say is that the furry is Cornwall’s most distinctive communal dance and the music that goes with it, old and new, provides a strong backbone to our repertoire. The Daveys, in Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats (2009), p.15, describe the furry being a simple processional dance for mixed couples performed on fair and feast days (Cornish fer being origin of furry). Largely because of a perceived over-reliance on tunes such as Helston Furry and Bodmin Riding, several modern furry tunes have been composed or old tunes adapted for furry dancing, for example, Fer Lyskerris (Liskeard Fair), Tregajorran Furry by Neil Davey and Hilary Coleman, Bolingey Furry by Will Burbridge and Polperro Furry by Mike Jelly.

The Helston Furry tune itself has had a life well outside the Cornish tradition. Katie Moss (1881-1947) incorporated the tune into her piece, ‘The Floral Dance’ in 1911. Since then the Furry Dance also becomes known as the Floral Dance or Cornish Floral Dance or just Cornish Dance. It is probably her music that made this tune so internationally recognised in the very many versions that have been released (including Terry Wogan’s).

Mike O’Connor provides an intriguing description of how Katie Moss came across Helston Furry. She came from London and studied at the Royal Academy as a violinist, pianist and singer. She visited Helston on Flora Day 1911. She wanted to join in but ‘had no boy with her’. She saw the Welsh baritone David Brazel and pulled him into the dance. On the train back to London, Moss wrote her song telling the story of the day. Moss used the melody of the Furry Dance as the basis for its chorus (Ilow Kernow 5, Part One (in process), p. 167). No mention in this or any of the historical descriptions of the modern-day protocol that you have to have an association with Helston (born in or through family) and take part in a ballot to be permitted entry into one of the Furry Dances.


How nice to think that all this stuff we’re researching from the past really is still happening now. Enjoy the video and if you like it, please subscribe to the Cornish Trad YouTube channel.

Women and Cornish Trad workshop is online

Watch the webinar on YouTube and follow up the resources and links in the downloadable transcript below.

As part of the Hypatia Trust’s Women of Cornish Music project we had planned to deliver a workshop in Penzance on 4 April. In a little under a week I converted the workshop into a webinar and delivered it on 11 April. It was quite an experience, a slightly out of body experience, but I was thrilled at the numbers of people who attended live and those that signed up to watch the recording afterwards. People attended from far and wide – a much more diverse audience than had we done the in-person workshop. People tuned in from Nairobi, Jeddah, Littleton, Helsinki, Cardiff as well as those from Cornwall.

I enjoyed reading the chat that was ongoing throughout the webinar, participants remembering, providing interesting reactions and tit-bits of information. It was really gratifying to follow it.

Transcript, references, links and playlists

Play on Spotify

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Feature interview with Hilary Coleman and Frances Bennett

Gwaryoryon (Playing People). L-R Hilary Coleman (Clarinet), Liz Davies (Accordion), Jo Tagney (Fiddle)
(courtesy of Hilary Coleman).

I interviewed Hilary Coleman and Frances Bennett over Zoom a few weeks ago about their journeys in Cornish traditional music. I asked them about their views of being performers, composers, teachers and leaders of a stellar list of groups and movements on the Cornish Trad scene.

This interview is already an important historical document. It is about so much more than their personal experiences that is relevant to anyone interested in Cornish traditional music and its history. It covers their early life in music, learning instruments, being part of seminal Cornish Trad bands such as Gwaryoryon, the Jack and Jenny Band and Sowena. How Dalla emerged from these groups, why the Nos Lowen (Happy Night) movement started, how Bagas Crowd, Cornwall’s mighty fiddle group started and continues to grow, how they go about composing new music for the tradition including the creation of kabm pemp (5-steps), and finally some fantastic insights into gender and challenging the archetype of the “young Cornish working class man.”

These two women are two of my great inspirations when exploring and playing Cornish music and it was a real privilege to have had this opportunity to capture their stories. Meur ras bras!

The story of Henry Jenner

In 2018, MAGA, the Cornish Language Partnership, produced a short documentary film in Cornish about Henry Jenner (1848-1934). He successfully campaigned to get Cornwall recognised as a Celtic nation and prove Cornish is a living language, as well as helping to establish Gorsedh Kernow in 1928. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), this lovely 12 minute film (in Cornish with English subtitles) covers Jenner’s life, and of course, features some great Cornish traditional music. The film opens with the tune An Dufunyans which was published as God’s Dear Son in Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols.

We’ve watched it several times, and will do again. Enjoy!

Discovering Mary Kelynack’s polka

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 2the 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 .”

Black and white music in treble clef of Mary Kelynack's polka in C major.
Mary Kelynack’s polka as it appears in Racca 2.

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.

Sheet of paper with a stamp saying Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, showing faint markings of piano sheet music.
The faint indentations of printed music on the reverse of a portrait cover of Mary Callinack’s Polka by Henry Goodban. The obverse is the same as that illustrated above from the National Portrait Gallery (Courtney Library, Royal Institution of Cornwall).

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.

Free webinar coming up on women in Cornish traditional music

If you are interested in the stories of other women who have shaped Cornish traditional music, head on over to my free crowdcast webinar:

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Who were the women of Cornish music?

We’re thrilled that our friends at the Hypatia Trust, led by filmmaker, musician and researcher Florence Browne, have won funding to undertake the Women of Cornish Music Past and Present project.

Supported by a £33,600 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and further funding from the Cornwall Heritage Trust and Screen Cornwall, the project seeks to rebalance the awareness of women’s roles in Cornish music-making past and present.

Like other areas of Cornish heritage, mainstream ideas of the Duchy’s music are dominated by male figures and traditions such as male-voice choirs and brass bands, but women have always been active in leading and shaping Cornish music. Through my role as an historian and curator–and indeed more recently as a musician on the Cornish Trad scene, I have felt particularly strongly about this imbalance.

“The work of musical women in Cornwall past and present has been astonishing, for example, the founding of early operatic and orchestral societies was very often fronted by a woman. The composition of the earlier version of Trelawny—Cornwall’s unofficial anthem—was by a woman. The revival of Celtic-Cornish instrumental and sung traditional music and carols has also been significantly led by women, such as Hilary Coleman, Frances Bennett and Sally Burley. Without their skills in capturing, recording and sharing since the early 1990s we just wouldn’t have our rich traditional repertoire.”

Over the course of the 15-month project, which is the first of its kind, the Hypatia Trust will host a programme of events to explore and celebrate music of various genres in Cornwall through a female lens. A volunteer research group will be recruited to delve into archives around Cornwall and discover the stories and music of historical women. Composing and conducting workshops aimed at building girls’ confidence in these male-dominated areas will be delivered in partnership with the Cornwall Music Service Trust, a charity committed to supporting the aspirations of young people in Cornwall through music education.

Workshop on women in the history of Cornish Trad

One of these events will be a workshop led by me in association with and our efforts to share knowledge, history and information on Cornish traditional music with the world. It will take place at the Hypatia Trust, Chapel Street, Penzance on Saturday 4 April 10.30am-1pm. This half-day workshop will explore what we know about the history of women who composed, performed and shaped the identity of the Cornish traditional music we know today.

For more information about the project, contact Florence Browne: or visit

Take the Cornish Trad Christmas Quiz 2019!

Time for some seasonal fun. What do you really know about Cornish traditional music? Take our quiz and share it with your friends.

Find out if you’re a dreary dirge or a joyous jig. Please comment and subscribe with your results.

The Cornish Trad Christmas Quiz 2019

Do you know your furries from your polkas? How well do you think you know Cornish traditional music? Pit your wits against the Christmas Quiz 2019. Most answers can be found somewhere on this lovely website. There are 30 multiple choice questions. Nadelik lowen.

Guise dancing sources – newspaper transcriptions

Over the last few years we have been researching guise dancing, a form of mumming that takes place during the twelve days of Christmas (and in recent times, a few days before). There is a wealth of information about the tradition in historic newspapers, and we have begun to transcribe the many wonderful articles on guise dancing so that they are searchable and freely available online.

One of the reasons for doing this is that in reading the well-known books that mention guise dancing, there seemed to be a fair bit of repetition, and not much life to something that, in our experience, is a pretty lively custom. We have used both the British Newspaper Archive and microfilms at Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall.

This is the kind of liveliness that we mean, found in an 1863 edition of the Cornish Telegraph:

Serving Him Out: An Incident of the Guise Dancing at St Ives

On Friday evening the 9th inst. a party of guise-dancers entered a beer shop at St Ives and obtained an interview with the landlord, whom they well plied with drink until his eyes blinked like two revolving lights and his dizzy head manifested unmistakable signs of a desire to change places with his lower extremities. In this unenviable state (which by the bye is better described than felt, we should think) four of the strongest of the party took the somnolent landlord by the arms and legs and ere could he say ‘What doest thou?’ spirited him into the open street, where a goodly number (as if by magic) started into the middle of the road and formed a procession singing the Old Hundredth with a more than mournful twang, and away they marched towards the beach (the house is situated near the sea side) landlord and all.

Some one at intervals gave short sentences from the Burial Service. As may be expected, the sudden and by no means welcome termination of a good day’s business roused into fury all the drink be-clouded and drink-debased energies of the poor fellow, but all his imprecations were met with the remark ‘Prepare, Evil! prepare; thy time is short indeed.’ His struggles and cries were all in vain and in a short time the edge of the water was reached. And now as the sobered man heard the rippling of the waves, he seem to fear the result, and made a superhuman effort to free himself, but alas! the hands that held him were too strong and whilst he was cursing his tormentors and invoking vengeance on their devoted heads he was borne out into the tide, whilst one, with a fine nasal accent, pronounced aloud, ‘We now commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ ; if no one else will have him, the d—l must,’ and down they threw their burthen (wretches that they were) and scampered off, leaving their victim to scramble ashore as best he might.

Fortunately the only effect produced in the landlord is a determination to hate guise dancers in general with a perfect hatred. Who the delinquents are is a mystery. 

Cornish Telegraph – Wednesday 28 January 1863, page 3, column 6

So, dig in, and explore the heady adventures of the folk of West Cornwall in their pursuit of fun and entertainment, bringing fun and life into the darkest time of the year. Visit our guise dancing sources: newspaper archives page.

Penzance Cornish Music Session is one year old

It’s been a phenomenal year for the Penzance’s Cornish Traditional Music Session every Thursday night, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub. Time for some thank yous, foremost to John Gallagher, session leader and founder for introducing us to incredible music and creating wonderful set lists; to Chris Morgan, landlord of the Benbow, for your hospitality and support, to Russell, manager of the Benbow, for looking after us too; to fellow musicians for being dedicated to turn up even in the coldest, darkest evenings; to the dancers for adding a bit of magic to the music; to our audiences who have come from far and wide but especially our regulars from our community whose support is so valued; and thanks and admiration to Lee J Palmer for documenting the session from its wintery beginnings to its summer madness. Enjoy these timeless images as we reflect on the last 12 months.

Join us!

Join the Penzance Cornish sessioners at their anniversary knees-up on Thursday 10th October, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub, Chapel Street, Penzance. Free.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing some standing and audience sitting.
All are welcome, and its free (Lee J Palmer)

Already featured in Time Out magazine, Penzance’s weekly Cornish Trad Music Session at the Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street, has developed a bit of a cult following. Since starting up one year ago, the Thursday night Cornish Session has attracted hundreds of tourists and locals to the town’s most enigmatic Treasure Island themed boozer. 

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub, showing violins, recorders, melodeon.
Wrapped around the nauticalia of the Admiral Benbow pub (Lee J Palmer)

“I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury”

Over the last year, happening upon the session has surprised and delighted. “I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury” one punter visiting from Truro said. From modest beginnings huddled in the downstairs bar, the Cornish Session has grown in popularity with the busiest nights in the summer attracting upwards of 50-60 people with anywhere between 6 and 12 local musicians joyously playing the night away. Session organisers estimate nearly 1,500 people have enjoyed historical and contemporary Cornish tunes (and the odd song) in its first year.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing a torn Cornish flag in the background.
Fiddles, melodeons, concertinas, whistles, mandolin all feature regularly at the session (Lee J Palmer)

“I never knew Cornwall had its own music”

It all started on 4th October 2018, when a group of friends who played melodeons, fiddles, mandolin, bouzouki, concertinas, whistle and recorder, autoharp, and occasional guitar gathered in the Admiral Benbow on Chapel Street in Penzance to play Cornish jigs, furries, reels, marches waltzes, polkas and airs. Many people are surprised to hear that Cornwall has a distinctive musical tradition that is part of the wider world of Celtic music. The repertoire of tunes is large and varied, some of them new tunes inspired by Cornish people, places and themes, others deeply historical.

“’I never knew Cornwall had its own music’ is a phrase we often hear. People express surprise that we have our own music and that we are part of a living tradition. They often think it must be Scottish or Irish. We might play one tune that is over 200 years old followed by one composed for the tradition only a few years ago.”

Tom Goskar, one of the session organisers.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing a packed out room with musicians clapping, dancers dancing and audience smiling.
Packed out with musicians, dancers and punters in the height of the summer (courtesy of Lee J Palmer)

The session was originally the idea of local musical legend Len Davies, who sadly died in 2015. His friend, melodeon player John Gallagher, approached fellow musicians Tehmina and Tom Goskar in the summer of 2018 to see if they were interested in supporting him in starting a new Cornish traditional music session.

“I’ve loved the Celtic music traditions of Ireland and Scotland all my life and when, more recently, I discovered that there is an equally rich Celtic music tradition right here in Cornwall, I was determined that it should be explored and celebrated where I now live in Penzance.”

Session leader John Gallagher.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of dancers dancing to musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub.
Local Cornish dancers joined by visitors (Lee J Palmer)

“Cornish traditional music is normally heard at Cornish festivals such as Golowan, Montol, St Piran’s Day, feast days, and at small dance-led events in halls across the Duchy. We wanted a public and easy to reach venue. We didn’t hesitate to go for the Benbow, with its unique maritime décor and a destination for visitors to Penzance. We knew our ‘Cornish soundtrack’ could make the place come alive.”

Tom Goskar. 

Chris Morgan, landlord and owner of the Admiral Benbow, offered them a Thursday evening slot. 

“It’s great to see the Benbow rocking again to some lively and fun Cornish music. People come here for the salty dog maritime vibes and the Cornish Sessions are a really good fit.”

Chris Morgan, Landlord of the Admiral Benbow.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing two fiddlers, mandolin player and drummer and audience looking on.
Sometimes the musicians get up for a dance too (Lee J Palmer)

“Better than the Fishermen’s Friends”

The often fast and foot-tapping music is regularly accompanied by spontaneous dancing, either freeform or in the style of traditional Cornish dancing led by local dancers, making the event into a lively evening reminiscent of the troyls and dances that took place across Cornwall in years gone by.

The musicians have evolved into a group with a distinctive ‘trad’ style whose sound has captured the imagination. “Better than the Fishermen’s Friends,” a merry party from Birmingham cheekily remarked to us after one particularly lively session. Many of the musicians also play for other Penzance groups such as the Raffidy Dumitz band, Golowan band and dance groups Tros an Treys and Penzance Guizers.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub for Cornish dancers.
Spontaneous and instinctive (Lee J Palmer)

“Most of us are not formally trained in music, we have learned our instruments ourselves and play for the love of the tunes. I love our instinctive way of playing together. Sometimes we sound like a great big crashing marching band, and other times we sound almost orchestral. The fact we mostly play back to back tunes in sets of 2,3 and even 6, creates a soundscape that is truly unique.”

Tehmina Goskar, session co-organiser.

“I just followed the music”

The Penzance Cornish Session is voraciously photographed and filmed, particularly by visitors from abroad. Session organisers have estimated people from over a dozen nations have experienced their music, including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and China. Two film students from University College London visited in August especially to film the session in 360 degrees to share the experience with elderly people in care homes. It has even featured in a German radio broadcast made by visiting sailors on a round Britain tour.  

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of dancers dancing hand in hand to Cornish music by musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub.
I just followed the music (Lee J Palmer)

“I’d heard about it but I didn’t know where to find it, and then I just followed the music,” a traveller said.

Local photographer Lee J Palmer has become a fan of the Cornish Traditional Music Session too. Since the cold early months of 2019 when the session was held next to the fire at the front of the pub, Lee has created a unique visual documentary. In stunning black and white photojournalistic style, his photos capture the joys and realities of this very Cornish event. 

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of two musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub, one a fiddle, the other a whistle.
Standing up to the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel (Lee J Palmer)

Article on Historical Guise Dancing and its Music

As we move rapidly towards autumn and winter our minds are drawn towards one of west Cornwall’s wonderful traditions – guise dancing.

Guise dancing is an ancient tradition from west Cornwall performed during the twelve days of Christmas. It is a form of mumming, whereby participants disguise themselves (hence the term ‘guise’) and entertain people through music, dance, drama and games. Guise dancers go from house to house, pub to pub, or process through streets and lanes bringing merriment and mischief during the darkest time of the year.

Last year, in 2018, we gave a paper at the Lowender Peran (Cornwall’s largest festival of Celtic music and dance) Cornish Music Symposium entitled “Historical Guise Dancing and its Music“. The article contains research which took several years to complete, seeing us visit libraries, archives and museums, as well as talking to people who remembered traditional guise dancing in the towns and villages of west Cornwall.

Madron Guise Dancers, Western Morning News, 7 Jan 1935, p. 10.

We had been meaning to publish it in a journal, but have decided to post it here, as it will have the widest possible audience. Our new guise dancing section will grow as we begin to publish the sources and transcriptions of our work, and we hope that it will encourage others to produce new works and research into this wide and wondrous topic. It might even encourage some to take up guise dancing in their part of west Cornwall, and explore Cornish traditional music while they do it.

Guise Dancers of the Isles of Scilly. Western Morning News, 4 Jan 1936.