Port Isaac: of medical men and myths

Doc Martin: working hard to reproduce stereotypes of Cornwall and sell second homes

Ask people what they know about the village of Port Isaac on Cornwall’s north coast in Endellion parish and they’re likely to respond with ‘Doc Martin’. This apparently endless series about a lugubrious doctor in a ‘sleepy’ Cornish fishing village is a staple of British television. If people don’t reply ‘Doc Martin’, then they’re likely to come up instead with ‘fishing village’.

The real Doc Martin of 1861 was not some grouchy incomer frustrated by the local simpletons. In 1861 the village boasted a doctor in Frederick Trevan. Frederick was 58 years old and born in the parish. He was one of the ten children of John Trevan, the Principal Customs Officer at Port Isaac, who had married the daughter of a local merchant. Before his own marriage, Frederick wrote a manuscript, ‘The History of Port Isaac and Port Quin’, in 1833-34. The bulk of this is a short description of each householder and their family, details of local landholdings and a list of wrecks.

However, in at least one way, the real Doc Trevan mirrored the fictional Doc Martin. Trevan was prepared to be quite acerbic and gossipy when discussing his neighbours. For instance, John Adams was ‘fond of a tipple. His wife, Polly, being a queer kind of woman hunts him out of the Public Houses, differs with him sadly and frequently exclaims “My dear Jack Strivey, must my poker fly”.’ Nor was he too keen on some nonconformists. Burroughs was ‘an old, lame miscreant of a Baptist preacher … who got John Adams’ daughter with child.’

Readers of this fascinating insight into the village in the early 1830s might be surprised to find only four fishermen listed, while another three combined fishing with farming or shoemaking. Fishing there indubitably was in the 1800s, but the 1861 census shows that the picture of a village entirely dominated by fishing is very overdrawn. In that census, just five of the 87 men in Port Isaac aged between 15 and 69 were full-time fishermen. By way of contrast, there were 21 mariners, seamen and coastguards and another three retired mariners. Even the number of carpenters and farm labourers in the village exceeded that of fishermen in 1861. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Port Isaac as a seafaring village.

There is a hint that the number of fishermen in the village was on the increase in the second half of the nineteenth century. John May was the son of a mariner. However, in the 1860s, when his father died, neither John nor his brother followed him onto the high seas. Instead, they became fishermen, an occupation John May pursued at least into the 1890s. This is corroborated in the census. By 1891 the number of men in Port Isaac given the occupational label of ‘fisherman’ had grown to 20, although still outnumbered by the 30 mariners (with another seven being retired mariners).

One thought on “Port Isaac: of medical men and myths

  1. Does Doc Martin really peddle the idea of locals as simpletons? Seems to me there’s a good range of characters. A Doc Martin historical special based on the accounts you mention could be wonderful!

    Regarding the wife who tried to get her husband out of the pub, amusing yes, but no doubt he drank their living away making life really terrible for his family.

    Amazing to learn how few were full time fishers. It would be interesting to learn if this kind of data is common across similar villages in Cornwall.


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