The Polperro Fingerprint Man
Local family historians owe much to Frank Hill Perrycoste, the amateur antiquary who compiled the original Polperro family pedigrees 100 years ago. He and his artist wife Maud came to live on Talland Hill shortly after their marriage in 1898.
Frank Perrycoste had by then come to realise what a closed, inter-married community he had come to live among and conceived a remarkable project. His interest in the study of eugenics had already brought him into contact with Sir Francis Galton, the scientist who pioneered the study of fingerprints. In 1903 he wrote to Galton offering to fingerprint the entire population of Polperro; the resulting material could then be used to show whether or not fingerprints were an inherited characteristic. Galton gladly accepted the offer. It was a scientific ambition before its time.
In June 1903, Perrycoste wrote to Galton: ‘If manual labour does not spoil the fingers for impressions, the fishing folk here ought to offer a good field for study, for the families are long, and nearly everyone is cousin to everyone else – unless he is a still nearer relative.”
By the end of the summer of 1903, Perrycoste had obtained 865 sets of fingerprints from the inhabitants of Polperro. More importantly, he compiled pedigrees of the main Polperro families - 52 in total - which he sent to Galton, keeping copies for himself.
In 1925 Perrycoste spent several months updating the pedigrees before depositing them at the College of Arms where they remain to this day; copies were recently obtained by the Polperro Heritage Museum and can be viewed on microfiche there.
He also wrote an account of his findings, serialised in the Cornish Times and later reprinted as a booklet: Pedigrees of Polperrol. Over the next four years he examined three collections of historical documents: the parish archives of Talland and Lansallos (published in booklet form) and the accumulation of papers and ledgers left by Zephaniah Job, the ‘Smugglers’ Banker’ of Polperro in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, also published as Gleanings from the Records of Zephaniah Job of Polperro.
When Perrycoste saw the job papers, they were still stored at Crumplehorn Mill. A huge bonfire destroyed many after Job’s death in 1821, but still half a hundredweight survived for Perrycoste to see. Many have since vanished, but some remain today in the Courtney Library at Truro.
Frank Perrycoste remained in Polperro until his death in 1929. He must
have presented an odd figure to the villagers; for many years he walked
to his early morning swim dressed in pyjamas and a tam o’shanter!
For information about the Polperro Family History Society, click here.
© Jeremy Rowett Johns, Polperro Family History Society 2004