Those who know of Polperro know of it as an exceptionally pretty fishing village on the Cornish coast. That it is. Even the thousands of tourists who wander its narrow streets every summer—wide-mouthed, peering in at windows, tripping over each other, and generally getting in the way of the fisherfolk here—fail to spoil its charm. Everything is just so, just right.
But what many of Polperro’s seasonal visitors may not know is its contribution to criminology. More precisely, dactylography, the study of fingerprints.
How did that happen? That’s all thanks to a peculiarity Polperro had in the olden days. Due to its relative inaccessibility in the late 19th century (you could only get to the village by sea or along a coastal path, possibly the pre-cursor to the South West Coast Path of today), Polperro was a closed, inter-married community. This was excellent news for Sir Francis Galton, who was looking to create typologies for fingerprints and investigating the possibility that they may be inherited in some aspects.
Galton heard of Polperro from a gent named Frank Perrycoste, who came to live on Talland Hill, and wrote to Galton in 1903 about the community where “nearly everyone is a cousin to everyone else—unless he is a still nearer relative”. Working with Galton, Perrycoste obtained 865 sets of fingerprints from Polperro inhabitants in 1903. He also mapped out elaborate family trees of the main families for Galton.
It certainly was a study that was before its time. Based on the data Perrycoste sent him, Galton went on to classify fingerprints into eight broad categories—and while at it, indulge in some moderate to severe plagiarism by forgetting to acknowledge Dr Henry Faulds, whose idea he was building on. But the study provided a scientific footing for fingerprinting, thereby contributing to its acceptance by courts.
As for the original families who took part in Galton’s study, their descendants have come together to form the Polperro Family History Society. It has some 250 ‘Polperro cousins’ as members today, some of them now living as far away as Australia, North America, and New Zealand. Every year, though, many of them gather in Polperro for a happy family reunion. Isn’t that nice?