BRENDA HAD NEVER DREAMT OF BECOMING A SINGER

She was born in London in 1928.

 

Her Cornish born and bred parents, Angus 

and Lena Ellery, had travelled to the city in 

search of work, and were there only a few 

months before returning to Newlyn.

 

Brenda came from a family where music was 

important, although they were not musicians. 

All her relatives sang, because it was what you 

did in Chapel, but they also made music and 

told stories for their own pleasure at regular 

family get-togethers. 

Brenda aged 17 years and 9 months

Brenda in the sea with friends Beryl, Edna and Cynthia

Carbis Bay, 1947

Brenda and John Wootton

building a snowman

Teenage Brenda with her mother Lena

Brenda and John Wootton with daughter Sue at Sennen Cove

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Brenda and John with daughter Sue, Beachfield, Sennen Cove, 1955

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Brenda, John and friend holding a pasty

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Brenda and John Wootton with daughter Sue at Sennen Cove

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The First Time Ever

BRENDA WAS A MOTHER 
& A GRANDMOTHER

As well as a singer, these were roles that

were central as she found fame in later life.

 

Her increasingly busy singing career did

cause her bouts of severe homesickness,

especially when her two grandsons, Davy

and Jan, appeared in her life. She longed

to come back home to Penzance to spend

time with them, and to stroll up Market 

Jew Street, to catch up on the gossip and

see what was happening. 

Brenda with her grandson Davy

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Brenda with Bucca the cat, at home in Tredinnick Stack

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Brenda and grandsons watch TV

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Brenda with her grandson Davy

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Jan and Davy with the Cornish Flag,

Lorient Festival

‘Oh, I do so love the peace,

and I thank God everywhere 

and everyone is just the same.

Not so long ago I’d just finished

a tour and we all went over to

Sennen Feast. We arrived just

in time for the Bazaar and when

I walked into that church hall where

I’d put on all those pantos over 

20 years before, it was just as though

I’d never left. There was the raffle,

the cakes, and all those old friends, 

Mrs Maitland, Laura and Marjorie,

and it was “Ello my bird, what you

doin’ out ‘ere then?”, and me showing 

Davy off like mad. It was a perfect day.’

 

(Cornish Voice Magazine, 1980s)

Brenda and John Wootton

Charlie Bate

Brenda on-stage with John the Fish

A FIRST SOLO

As a young housewife and mother living

in Sennen, with husband John and baby

daughter, Sue, Brenda was heard through

her kitchen window as she sang along to Housewives’ Choice on the radio. 

The eavesdropper was Mr Maitland, producer

of Land’s End WI’s first ever stage production,

The Emperor and the Nightingale. 

Casting was complete, all bar the key role

of the real nightingale, which needed the

purest, sweetest voice of all.

Hearing Brenda’s voice, Mr Maitland realised

he had found his real nightingale at last, but

she took some persuading to tackle the part. 

She was too shy to appear on stage, but he 

reassured her she did not need to. She would 

be singing from behind the scenes, and would 

be heard through an open window.

She reluctantly agreed but after the

performance, the audience demanded to

see the singer with the marvellous voice,

and onto the stage she stepped. The roar

of applause and admiration was her first 

taste of the power she could wield with

her voice. It gave her the confidence to

involve herself in amateur dramatics, to

write, appear in and produce pantomimes,

to put her head above the parapet for the

first time, and she had a busy and happy 

ten years or more treading the boards

in amdram.

Brenda carol singing at the pub at Four

Lanes, with her French agent Olivier Gluzman's family

ONE NIGHT IN 1965, 

Brenda joined the audience at the Count

House Folk Music Club at Botallack, St Just. 

Curious to see what this new venture was

all about, and hearing much-loved songs

she knew, she couldn’t resist joining in.

The resident singers eventually managed

to persuade her onto the stage, and she

was hooked, and appeared there regularly,

singing the popular local songs she had

grown up with. 

When the Count House suddenly closed a year

or so later, she straightaway opened her own

club, Pipers, in St Buryan. Then came an offer

from a friend to perform at his club in Norwich,

with her accompanist and musical colleague,

John the Fish. 

 

Over the next few years, this led to tours all

around Britain, and eventually to France and

elsewhere on the continent.

Brenda performing with Alastair (Al) Fenn, Pipers Folk Club at Meadhouse, Gulval, 1978

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Brenda performing with Alastair (Al) Fenn, Piper's Folk Club at Meadhouse, Gulval, 1978

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Brenda performs on-stage

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Brenda performing with Alastair (Al) Fenn, Pipers Folk Club at Meadhouse, Gulval, 1978

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Brenda with Richard Gendall

Cusk yn ta

Brenda in the recording studio

Brenda with Richard Gendall

Brenda met someone who had profound effect on her musical career: Cornish Bard and composer, Richard Gendall

Gorsedh seen from a distance

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Brenda in bardic robes with grandsons Davy and Jan, 1984

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Gorsedh seen from a distance

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‘As far as being a professional artist is concerned, I’m very grateful that 

something I’m really interested in and love is being asked of me.’

‘I didn’t think it could be commercial, because how 

can it – what I’m doing? But I suppose it’s because 

they like the personality, they recognise the fact that 

I’m a deeply-rooted person, heritage-wise, and they

want to know about it … I don’t really think I’ve learned

my trade too much yet. But I know who I am at last. 

I found that out about 18 months ago…I’m a Cornish 

woman, middle-aged – and I’ve stopped being ashamed

if I can’t get the housework done. I’ve stopped worrying

about all that sort of thing, which did bother me, because

I was brought up very traditionally in Cornwall.’

 

(Brenda Wootton, 1979)

Introduced in 1972, their musical relationship continued for over ten years. The body of work Richard produced for Brenda is remarkable. 

He wrote over 460 songs, about

a third in the Cornish language.

 

Although she never became fluent, Brenda used the language at every opportunity, and pledged to sing at

least one song in Cornish at every 

one of her performances, a pledge

she kept. Richard himself was not a performer, but he loved creating his music. In a letter to Brenda, he commented: ‘your use of these songs

is tremendous joy to me…it makes

me feel proud.’

Brenda in bardic robes at the Gorsedh in 1977

Brenda outside BBC Radio Cornwall

Eles (She-Angel)

BRENDA'S CAREER TOOK OFF

She was invited as a special guest to the Kernewek Lowender Festival in South Australia on three 

occasions, and regularly performed at the largest 

Interceltic Festival in the world at Lorient in 

Brittany, a country she felt was hers as much 

as Cornwall. She toured in Canada twice, and all 

the major European countries: Spain, Germany, 

Belgium, Holland, Switzerland. Her Walk Across 

the World maxi single reached number one in the 

Japanese pop charts for several weeks. She met 

and mixed easily with the great, the good and the

powerful, from presidents to rock stars.

But for Brenda, her love of her country really became the central core of her programme on stage, everywhere she

went. As well as singing two or three

songs in the Cornish language every night, lots of her repertoire concerned aspects of Cornish history or characters, the struggles of the fishermen or the miners, the legends, the culture and the customs, the towns

and villages, or simply, how much she

loved Cornwall. 

It wasn’t all she sang but it formed

a significant part. She loved to sing

blues and jazz, burlesque, and some comedic numbers too.

On-stage in Paris

Brenda performs for an outdoor crowd at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, 1984

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Giving a TV interview on tour, 1985

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Brenda with Ben Luxon and broadcaster Kenneth Kendall

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Brenda performs for an outdoor crowd at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, 1984

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