The common nightingale is rarely heard in Cornwall. What’s left of its shrinking habitat (numbers have fallen by more than a half in the UK since 1995) is mainly found in south-east England. The singing is done by the male bird but in Cornwall the nickname ‘the Cornish nightingale’ was given to a woman.
Fanny Moody, the most accomplished singer of her time, was born in Fore Street, Redruth in 1866. She was one of the 13 children of a local photographer and his wife. This family was extremely musical, with at least three of the 13 children becoming professional musicians. Fanny later claimed that an interest in music was a generically Cornish characteristic – ‘even the girls in the mines sing at their dismal work’.
Fanny had a ‘light soprano voice’ and in 1879 received three years musical training in London, sponsored by the Basset family of Tehidy. In 1887 she made her stage debut with the Carla Rosa Opera Company and began three years of touring with them. At the end of her stint she married the opera company’s principal bass singer, Charles Manners.
In 1898 the couple set up the Moody-Manners Opera Company, offering ‘costume recitals of opera’ as well as popular ballads. This became the major provider of opera in the UK in the Edwardian years, at one point employing two separate touring companies.
Fanny never forgot that she was Cornish, returning to Cornwall at regular intervals for concerts and including some Cornish songs in her repertoire. At the end of 1896 she set off for South Africa and received a rapturous reception from the hundreds of Cornish miners then working in the Rand goldfields.
At Johannesburg, Fanny gave a ‘Cornish night’, adding to that with an impromptu performance from the balcony of her hotel. The local paper reported on the packed ‘assemblage of enthusiastic but not too exuberant Cornish’ who had flocked to hear her. As she sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’, many of these miners shed a tear for their homeland. In appreciation they presented Fanny with a tiara including the 15 bezants and the motto ‘One and All’.