The Incredible Life of Mary Kelynack

12:15 a.m. July 5, 2022

Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, Merv Davey, shares stories from Cornish history.

In late 1851, as the Great Exhibition in London drew to a close, visitors were greeted by the sight of an elderly Cornish woman in traditional fishmonger costume filled with her basket. It turned out that Mary Kelynack (sometimes spelled Callinack), aged 84, had traveled to London to protest because local authorities had failed to provide her with the state pension to which she was entitled thanks to her late husband’s work as a fisherman. It had taken her five weeks to cover the 350 miles from her home in Newlyn and she became a media sensation with a series of different stories appearing in the press. She seems to have petitioned the Lord Mayor of London and caught the eye of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; she may even have met the queen. The story goes that she was given five shillings to pay for her return trip, but decided to walk home and save some money!

An early 20th century postcard of Mary Kelynack
– Credit: Merv Davey

Her story became the subject of a popular song An elderly lady of Cornish fame composed by Sydney Nelson in 1852 and reached Australia as a dance tune called Mary Callinack’s Polka written by Henry W. Goodban of Sydney. Although she died in poverty a few years later, she was still well enough known that her death was announced in the national press. In Cornwall, she became part of fishwive folklore and appeared on postcards which were still printed and circulated well into the 20th century. His story was told again in song in Richard Gendall Marie Kelynack which was recorded and popularized by Cornish singer Brenda Wootton in the 1980s. Thanks to a manuscript fragment held in the Courtney Library at the Truro Museum, a version of the tune by Harry Goodban joined other 19th century polkas century in the repertoire of traditional Cornish music.

Strictly speaking, it was the popular press that coined the term ‘fishwives’ and in Cornwall they were called ‘fishjousters’, a colloquial expression for someone who collected fish from fishing boats into baskets for delivery and sell it. They were an important part of the fishing industry throughout Cornwall and there is even a painting of them in their distinctive costume selling fish at the market well inland at Launceston. It was in Newlyn and Penzance that they really captured the eye and imagination of early photographers and the art colony at the end of the 19th century, leaving us with a wonderful visual record of traditional Cornish costume. .

Cornish 'fishjousters' on an early 20th century postcard

Cornish ‘fishjousters’ as depicted on an early 20th century postcard
– Credit: Merv Davey

The striking feature of the fishjouster’s costume was the large black felt hat specially designed to hold in place a wide strap across the forehead which in turn supported the cowal, a large fish basket carried on the back. Brightly colored short shawls, often with a plaid or tartan weave, were worn and tied just below the chin so that they fell from the chest and allowed the arms to move fully for work.

The use of tartans is interesting. In Mary Kelynack’s day, it was a simple weave passed down from generation to generation with no specific pattern or pattern. Today tartans are used to represent Celtic identity and heritage around the world, primarily Scottish, but there are also tartans recorded for Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man and Brittany as well as Cornwall. The legend of the tartan is that it was widely used as a weaving pattern by the Celtic tribes who once lived throughout Brittany. Mediterranean travelers who first came into contact with these tribes noticed this weave and described it as speckled. Upon learning that the native Celtic word for speckled was ‘brith’, they called the inhabitants ‘Brithons’, which gave rise to the term Britons and eventually Britain itself. Without clear written records from two millennia or more in time, it’s doubtful this story could ever be proven, but sometimes what people thought and believed is just as important.

Mary Kelynack would no doubt have been fascinated to learn that a century after her expedition to London a national Cornish tartan would be devised and registered, soon followed by the dress, hunting and St Piran tartan. Cornish tartans are a modern expression of Cornish identity, but fishjouter costume connects us to a much older tradition. It is suspected that Mary would also have recognized the resonance between her story and the challenges faced by traditional industries in Cornwall and their relationship to central government today!

Traditional dress tells us a lot about Cornwall’s history and heritage. For more information visit

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