Arthur Quiller-Couch

by David Fryer


Q was a Great Cornishman. He was a novelist, poet, critic, essayist, journalist, editor, anthologist, classical scholar, Cambridge professor, education committee chairman, sportsman, commodore of yacht club, folklorist, historian – and uncrowned 'King of Fowey' and a Cornish sage.

The following chronology identifies some of the many and varied highlights of his life.


1863, 21 November: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch was born Bodmin, the eldest of five children. His father (Thomas) was a Bodmin doctor and his mother (Mary Ford) was from Newton Abbot, Devon. Q had a famous grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch of Polperro, whose major book on History of British Fishes, 1862-1865, was a classic work of natural history. Perhaps Thomas passed some of his DNA to Q. His grandmother was Jane Quiller of Polperro who was of French descent.

1880: He won a scholarship to Clifton College. (This followed seven years of schooling in Newton Abbot.) Q was a school-friend of Henry Newbolt whom he beat in Clifton's poetry prize.

1882: He went to Trinity College, Oxford (who hold Q's main archive). He was befriended by Charles Cannan whose daughter May was to be engaged to Q's son Bevil who, tragically, died in 1919. (A separate love story described in Tears of War by Charlotte Fyfe in 2000.) Quiller-Couch, with Cannan, contributed to the Oxford Magazine with some of his best poems and parodies and began to use 'Q' as his signature.

1886: He graduated with only a 2nd class degree so did not receive a fellowship (which was probably a blessing for Q's literary career). Suddenly he had to earn a living to bale out disastrous family finances, but this did not stop him asking for the hand of Louisa Amelia Hicks from Fowey. (The marriage postponed through lack of funds.)

1886: He had a one-year lectureship at Trinity College and some private tutoring at Petworth House for Lord Leconfield's son.

1887: His first novel, Dead Man's Rock was published by Cassell with whom Q began long association. The novel, which was strongly influenced by R.L. Stevenson, sold well as did Q's next book in 1888 – The Astonishing History of Troy Town – a comic portrayal of Fowey. His Civil War adventure novel, The Splendid Spur followed in 1889.

1889: Literary success paid off debts and so he married Louisa in August. He was now in London 'writing for his life', producing many freelance articles for Cassell.

1890: He was writing for The Speaker, covering politics, literature and the arts with a liberal/radical slant. He made many literary contacts including his friendship with J.M. Barrie.

1890: Q’s son Bevil was born in Fowey. He eventually went to Trinity College in 1910 where he proved to be no academic but a fine oarsman. Bevil’s sister, Foy, was born in 1912. She did not marry but looked after Q in his later life. She was a particular friend of the young Daphne Du Maurier and of the last of the Robartes family at Lanhydrock.

1891: Q had a nervous breakdown due to overwork. He moved out of London to Fowey in 1892 and then rented The Haven for a period before purchasing the house. He lived there until his death in 1944.

1893: Q recovered his health. Over next seven years he wrote or edited 15 major works including The Delectable Duchy (1893). This title became synonymous with Cornwall and did much to promote Cornwall as a holiday destination and influence GWR and LSWR publicity – and the idea of the Cornish Riviera (although Q did not care for that term). See the book by S. P. B. Mais for GWR in 1928 and GWR book of 1905 called the Cornish Riviera. It is thought that Q may have had a chance to comment on the drafts.

1893: A letter from Robert Bridges (future Poet Laureate) began their friendship and Bridges visited Fowey.

1895: Q’s first poetry anthology – The Golden Pomp was published by Methuen.

1896: He was asked to finish Stevenson's novel St. Ives and wrote final quarter. This was a foretaste of 1961 when Daphne Du Maurier finished Q's Castle Dor. (This work and Q's influence on the young Du Maurier is being researched by Q Fund recipient Polly Gregson.) Also in 1896, Adventures in Criticism was published,showing an eclectic mix of writers including Sterne, Scott, Zola and Ibsen.

1898-99: Q founded and edited the Cornish Magazine which came out in instalments. The magazine folded after two years as it was too time-consuming and could not sell enough copies. However, it showed Q as the arch educator and populariser of all Cornish matters. Within it he brought in a debate by letters about the Cornish economy and tourism from many of the great and good of the time. It was the precursor of Denys Val Baker's two valiant attempts to sustain his Cornish Review – from 1949 to 1952 and then 1966 for a few more years – making 37 issues in all and a fascinating record of Cornish cultural life. No. 1 of spring 1949 has an article on Q by E.W. Martin which concluded that 'for those who wanted a general view of the county, to become familiar with its alien atmosphere, Q was Cornwall’.

1899: Q met Kenneth Grahame and the two became great friends. Grahame married in Fowey in 1900 and stayed with Q. Fowey influenced The Wind in the Willows – e.g. Sea Rat describes the 'little grey sea town that clings along one side of the harbour'. Q may have inspired the Sea Rat character and Toad Hall was influenced by Fowey Hall above the town – home of the Hanson family.

1900: Q's most famous work – The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (OUP) was published. It went to 20 editions and was revised and expanded in 1939 to bring in poetry up to 1918 – including some of the war poets like Owen, Sassoon and Edward Thomas (providing an early outing for 'Adlestrop'!). It was the progenitor of scores of OUP anthologies and Q contributed three more.

1900 to 1912: Q wrote or edited some 20 books of which 13 were novels – as well as scores of short stories, reviews and introductions. Hetty Wesley is the unhappy story of Hetty and her famous family – it was denounced by the Methodists but sold well!

Shining Ferry is based on Q's work to establish Cornwall's school system and The Mayor of Troy also came out in the same year.

Q's 'public life' in Cornwall started in earnest in the early 20th Century. His main contribution was to education. Q joined Cornwall Education Committee (as an alderman) and was a crucial influence in 3 key areas following up the Balfour Act of 1902:

  • establishing a coordinated and well governed system of Elementary Schools
  • expanding secondary education (which was then selective) – often against the opposition of many county councillors – as Q said, 'with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other'.
  • the chief conciliator in the furious row between the Non-Conformists (Dissenters) and the Authorities about the use of rates to pay C of E schools brought within the state system – an issue that is still debated today!

Q became Chairman of the Education Committee and remained on the committee until 1933 when he reached 70. The 1927 souvenir handbook of Cornwall Education Week is notable for Q's marvellous opening essay – expounding a philosophy concerning education still valid today.

Q opposed the Boer War, which made him unpopular for a short period. An 1899 meeting at Liskeard was chaired by Q and involved Lloyd George and Emily Hobhouse ('that bloody woman' as Kitchener put it). There was a near riot with Lloyd George escaping out of the back door! Q's popularity soon returned and he played a part in the Liberal revival – supporting Liberal parliamentary candidates.

He was active in Fowey Yacht Club, which became 'Royal' in 1907. See Joan Coombs' book  A Fowey Jigsaw of 2000. Q was really into boats, ships and sailing as well as being Chairman of the Harbour Commissioners. He became Commodore of the Yacht Club in 1911 following the accidental death of his very close boating friend, Edward Atkinson (Atky). He remained commodore until his death in 1944; his successor was Lt General Sir Frederick Browning of Arnhem fame and husband of Daphne Du Maurier. (They lived over the river at Ferryside, Bodinnick.)

1910: Aged 47, he received knighthood from the Asquith government for his literary, educational and political services. He took a leading part in Fowey's 1911 Coronation celebrations and wrote the Pageant. (Some live film of this is preserved).

1912: He was appointed second King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge after the short tenure of Arthur Verall. This was a controversial appointment as Q was not an 'academic',  but became popular very quickly and established the new English Tripos. Q lectured to packed rooms and his books based on his lectures such as On the Art of Writing (1916) which was strongly influenced Helen Hanff and On the Art of Reading (1920) are one of the most important aspects of Q's legacy.

After 1912: He became a Fellow of Jesus College and had a room there until his death. Thus began a life in two parts – Cambridge in term-time and Fowey in vacations – connected by the railway system. Q had the respect of the railway companies, particularly GWR, and his journeys from Cambridge to Fowey via Paddington became legendary, like some form of Royal Progress – saluting staff and glasses of a good claret on the way!

Q's hatbox with personal and GWR labels, complete with brown bowler is a memento of these times. Q was a 'snappy' dresser from a young age – fond of loud colours and checks. His contemporary, E. F. Benson, said Q dressed like a racing tout but came to like and admire him. Another admirer and a student of Q's was Alistair Cooke who has vividly recalled his tutorials and being told not to be afraid to 'murder his darlings' (literary ones, of course).

1914-18: The First World War was a disaster for Cambridge life – many students did not return. Q's personal world crumbled with Bevil's death from disease rather than war in 1919 – serving with the occupation forces. Q considered resigning his professorship but soldiered on and threw himself further into his work.

1915: Q had a spell as 'Recruiting Sergeant', being asked to raise a battalion of the Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry (see their Bodmin museum). He was given a temporary commission and became a somewhat unorthodox and eccentric commander – including teas on his lawn for the men and personally cutting their toenails when necessary. However, he did the job, at the expense of annoying his Cambridge colleagues who desperately needed his exam papers.

1928: Dent published a 30 volume edition of Q's works with new introductions by Q.

In the same year, Q was installed as a Bard of Gorsedd Kernow – with the title of 'Red Knight' – a phrase also used by Jesus College students and colleagues – probably after the reddish background to William Nicholson's painting of him at Jesus.

At Cambridge there was an 'academic spat' between Q and F. R. Leavis supported by his feisty wife, 'Queenie'. This depressed Q who was trying to defend traditional values against the new and trendy. Leavis championed T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound etc. and 'breathed fire' on Milton and Shelley as well as campaigning for D. H. Lawrence. All this is captured in an excellent BBC film of 1991, The Last Romantics, with Leo McKern as Q and Ian Holm as Leavis. When McKern played his beloved Horace Rumpole (by John Mortimer), he was always quoting from Q's Oxford Book of English Verse.

1933: Hitler came to power in 1933, followed by the Second World War. Q felt unable to speak out against the many 'appeasers' of that time because of his political and university links.

1936 and 1937: Honours flowed to Q; he was made a Freeman of Bodmin, Truro and Fowey.

1938: Henry Lamb's portrait of Q was presented to the RIC in Truro, showing Q in his 'mac' holding his pipe in hand. It can be seen in the Courtney Library at the RIC.

1944: Q wrote his Memories and Opinions (CUP) – an unfinished autobiography that described his Polperro connections, schooling at Newton Abbot and Clifton College, his time at Oxford and his tutoring at Petworth whilst writing his first novel.

1944, 12May: Q died in Fowey following a fall involving a military vehicle. Shock weakened his resistance to his mouth cancer – the result of a lifetime of smoking. Q slipped away almost unnoticed, as ships gathered in the River Fowey in preparation for D-Day.

1948: A memorial to Q was unveiled on Hall Walk looking down the Fowey estuary to The Haven and the open sea. Q had tended his garden just below the site – rowing over with his wife and Atky etc. In the Second World War, a German stray bomb had dropped near the garden but Q survived. The garden was behind Prime Cellars and Q called it 'The Farm' – Q took most of his guests there.

The memorial has handsome crests and includes the words:

            '...he was eminent alike in learning and in his long service to universities and to education in Cornwall, courteous in manner, charitable in judgement, chivalrous in action...'

The Q Memorial Fund was formed by subscription shortly after Q's death and is still operating with support from Cornwall Council. The Committee makes grants to writers and researchers on Cornish and allied subjects on a wide range of topics – such as Jack Clemo, John Blight, Delabole Slate, Daffodils, Henry Scott Tuke, Cornish Flora, Bodmin Asylum – and many more, including the current project about the links between Q and Daphne Du Maurier. The Q fund also promotes Q's name and works and produced a DVD in 2008 which brought much material about Q together – including a new film, interviews, recordings, bibliography and listing of archives with locations. The Committee also raises funds to increase the capital available to award grants.