02/05/2017
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Spotlight on The Polperro Family History Society

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Find your Polperro ancestors with the help and guidance provided by The Polperro Family History Society.

The Polperro Family History Society owes its existence to an extraordinary experiment conducted in 1903 when Frank Perrycoste, a local antiquarian, obtained the fingerprints of every man, woman and child in the little Cornish fishing village. The fingerprints were sent to Sir Francis Galton who was endeavouring at the time to demonstrate that related individuals had similar fingerprints.

In order to record the relationships of the individuals whose prints had been taken, Perrycoste drew up pedigrees for 55 Polperro family surnames. These were eventually deposited in the College of Heralds in London until 1999 when they were copied for the Polperro Museum.

Genealogists with Polperro ancestors soon realised what a rich source of information Perrycoste’s pedigrees provided, since many of them traced back several generations to the seventeenth century. Soon a few Polperro ‘cousins’ arranged to meet up in the harbour-master’s office and share their family histories and the following year nearly 100 met again and decided to form a Family History Society.

Polperro Family History Society

More than fifteen years later, the Polperro Society now has an active membership of over 250, some as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and North America. Every year, many of them meet up in the village hall for a weekend-long programme of talks, walks, entertainment and local visits.

“It’s like a huge family gathering,” explains Jeremy Rowett Johns, the Society’s Secretary. “We are, after all, mostly related one way or another which makes our annual get-together a rather special occasion. Meeting up in Polperro every year always feels like coming home.”

The Society also produces a 64-page Journal twice a year, featuring articles and photographs submitted by members. It also has its own dedicated website and, more recently, has created an Archive in the village hall library in Polperro containing details of individual family members and the houses they lived in. A long-term project is the building of a huge database of Polperro families that currently has details of over 60,000 related individuals.      

While Perrycoste’s pedigrees led to the formation of what must surely be one of the smallest communities anywhere to have its own family history society, Polperro is also blessed with a remarkably well-documented history of the smuggling trade that flourished there in the 18th century, thanks to the surviving records of the notorious Smugglers’ Banker, Zephaniah Job.

Add to that a wonderful collection of some of the earliest photographs taken in Cornwall by Lewis Harding, another local resident and Polperro family historians have a very special collective family history indeed. Harding photographed almost all the fishermen in the 19th century as well as many of the local women and children, most of whose family details are housed within the Society’s archives.

Today, Polperro attracts thousands of visitors every year who come to enjoy the spectacular scenery around the harbour and stroll through the quaint narrow streets that lead down through it. But few are aware of just what a rich history this small Cornish fishing village has hidden away behind the picturesque facades.

So, if you think you have Polperro ancestors, contact Jeremy Rowett Johns via the PFHS website or e-mail for further details. A small sample of some of the Polperro families’ details can also be viewed here

Images from top: A sample of one of the Perrycoste pedigrees from 1903; Six officers of the Society: (L-R) Judith Puckey, Kris Webb, Jeremy Rowett Johns, Christine Hipperson (Chair), Richard Barrett and Paul Lightfoot.

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