Polruan – a village of seafarers

The village of Polruan in Lanteglos by Fowey could in the 1800s lay claim to possessing the greatest collective knowledge of seafaring of any place in Cornwall, in relation to its size. Polruan’s association with the sea was a longstanding one, having sent a ship and 60 men to join the siege of Calais in 1346.

By 1861 the mariners of Polruan were more peacable but also more numerous. The 23 mariners who were heads of household in 1861 accounted for just over a fifth of all the households in the village. Another seven were retired mariners, while 17 more were either active or retired coastguards and navy men.

However, this greatly underestimates the total number of mariners in Polruan. Another 48 women heading households in 1861 were described as wives of mariners, their men being absent at sea at the time of the census. Add these to the picture and almost half of the households in the village were headed by a sailor.

William Martyn and Edward Dobson were two young sailors from Polruan who appear in the Victorian Lives database but who lost their lives to yellow fever in Dominica in 1871. The Register of wages of deceased seaman records their deaths.

Much has been written about the trials and tribulations of women left at home while their husbands sought their fortunes on the mining frontiers. However, the proportion of women who were at any one time without the presence of their husbands in Polruan most probably far exceeded that of mining communities, although they would not have faced the anxieties of waiting for the sometimes infrequent remittance to arrive.

Let’s take one example from Polruan. Thirza Climo, born in 1849, was the daughter of John and Catherine Climo. By the time he was 40 John, a master mariner, had retired, taking up a smallholding of two acres although still living in the village. Catherine had died in 1862 and in 1871 Thirza was acting as her father’s housekeeper. She had already met and married Thomas Harvey in 1869 but Thomas was away at sea.

Thomas was also absent at the time of the 1881 and 1891 censuses, although he must have been home at regular intervals, as the steady flow of children implies. In 1901 he finally made an appearance in the census. He gave up seafaring in his 60s and the couple moved to the coal port of Barry in South Wales in the new century, living at Dock View Road. There, Thomas could keep an eye on the coastal shipping vessels on which he had spent his working life. Meanwhile, the couple had raised 12 children, 11 of whom were still alive in 1911.

The impressive frontage of Dock View Road in Barry, built in the early 1890s

3 thoughts on “Polruan – a village of seafarers

  1. Very rich and fascinating, such diverse lives. I always find it amazing and moving to think of village folk losing their lives in far-off lands, of course in the case as part of the huge colonial endeavour. This endeavour was devastating in terms of slavery and its impacts. And of course the two lads mentioned here were just tiny cogs, the footsoldiers, in that vast wheel – probably just to get sugar to put into a cup to tea.

    Wonderful to have a rare photograph of one of your Victorian Lives. Thirza. She looks like she took a lot of pride in her hair, particularly, and must have been very striking tossing her locks around Polruan. And smartly dressed, too.


  2. Really interesting article. Even moreso as, after moving here 3 years ago and having traced most of my family history (so far….) to Kent, I discovered Elgars(ers) in St Anthony graveyard (after living at nearby Bohortha), and a John Elger(ar) who settled in Polruan as a mariner having been born in Dover, Kent. I am currently trying to piece together his earlier life to see if he is in anyway linked to my own Kent ancestors, and to find out what brought him to Cornwall, where he married in 1860 and raised a family. Could you recommend any sources I could research relating to his life in Polruan/ Lanteglos?


    1. Hi Richard. Coastal trade led to a small but noticeable interchange betwen Cornwall and Kent in the 19th century. For details of life in Polruan you’d best contact Helen Doe, who might be able to point you in a helpful direction. You can contact her via her website at https://www.helendoe.uk/


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