When protons and neutrons (nucleons) are bound into atomic nuclei, they are close enough to feel significant attraction, or repulsion, from the strong, short-distance part of the nucleon–nucleon interaction. These strong interactions lead to hard collisions between nucleons, generating pairs of highly energetic nucleons referred to as short-range correlations (SRCs). SRCs are an important but relatively poorly understood part of nuclear structure1–3, and mapping out the strength and the isospin structure (neutron–proton (np) versus proton–proton (pp) pairs) of these virtual excitations is thus critical input for modelling a range of nuclear, particle and astrophysics measurements3–5. Two-nucleon knockout or ‘triple coincidence’ reactions have been used to measure the relative contribution of np-SRCs and pp-SRCs by knocking out a proton from the SRC and detecting its partner nucleon (proton or neutron). These measurements6–8 have shown that SRCs are almost exclusively np pairs, but they had limited statistics and required large model-dependent final-state interaction corrections. Here we report on measurements using inclusive scattering from the mirror nuclei hydrogen-3 and helium-3 to extract the np/pp ratio of SRCs in systems with a mass number of three. We obtain a measure of the np/pp SRC ratio that is an order of magnitude more precise than previous experiments, and find a marked deviation from the near-total np dominance observed in heavy nuclei. This result implies an unexpected structure in the high-momentum wavefunction for hydrogen-3 and helium-3. Understanding these results will improve our understanding of the short-range part of the nucleon–nucleon interaction.