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.
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.