The Historical and Geographical Background

The novel is based on a stretch of the north Cornish coast from Gwithian in the south-west to Newquay in the north-east, with extensions to Bodmin, Q’s home town, and Oxford where he went to university. Fictitious place names have frequently been imposed upon identifiable locations, although these locations usually contain features taken from elsewhere.

The Bodmin and Oxford chapters appear as thinly disguised autobiography. Oxford comes under its own name but Bodmin is simply termed a ‘county town’. In Chapter I there are brief references to Tewkesbury and Honiton. In all four cases the details are precise and accurate. The extensive passages relating to the Atlantic coast combine scientific observation, stemming from the scientific traditions of the Couch family, with vivid dramatic expression. Q’s feel for and understanding of the sea looks back to his Quiller forebears. The body of the novel is based on a location called ‘Nannizabuloe’, which is a construct and includes features taken from Perranzabuloe, Gwithian and Perranporth.

Origin of characters

Some of the characters are fictitious while others appear to be based on actual individuals.

Rev. Samuel Raymond

The Rev. Samuel Raymond of Nannizabuloe has features reminiscent of the Revd William Haslem of Perranzabuloe (1842-46), who wrote a history of the parish, and of the Revd Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow (1832-75), who is mentioned in the introduction.

Jacky Pascoe

In his biography of Q, A.L. Rowse suggests a connection between the ‘Bryanite’ or Bible Christian ‘Jacky Pascoe’ and the ‘Bryanite’ Billy Bray (1794-1868) (1988, p. 70). Rowse came from a ‘Bryanite’ family and his forebears might well have known Bray. The chapters centred on ‘Jacky Pascoe, the King’s Postman’ appear to be a parody of sections of F.W. Bourne’s biography of 1890, Billy Bray, the King’s Son.

Sir Harry Vyell

The novel’s introduction claims Sir Harry Vyell to be based on a fox hunter recorded in W.F. Collier’s memoir of the Devonian Harry Terrell. Honoria Callastair is recorded as having Trevanion blood; while the family of Squire Moyle supposedly derive from the Moyles of Trevissick, a few miles from the Trevanion home at Carhays.

Other Factual Elements

Apart from its autobiographical aspects, the novel is fictitious although drawn from factual or supposedly factual material. The introduction claims that the wreck of the Samaritan, in Chapter XXV, to owe something to the writings of Hawker. The ‘devil hunt’ of Chapter XVII looks back to the hysterical episode involving Sir Deakin Killigrew at the ‘Three Cups’ inn in Chapter V of The Splendid Spur; and to a reputedly factual account given to R.S. Hawker and appearing in Baring-Gould’s The Vicar of Morwenstow (1886, pp.184-5).

The chapters dealing with ‘Trinity House’ and the building of the lighthouse are particularly effective. However, the reasons for Q using the name of an actual wreck, that of the Samaritan at Bedruthan Steps in 1846, are obscure. Although Bedruthan Steps is only a few miles from where the novel’s wreck took place, the two are quite distinct, with the fictitious wreck owing nothing to the historical one. Shipwrecks appear regularly in Q’s writings from Dead Man’s Rock onwards and it is possible that Q personally witnessed one or more such incident.

The novel opens in Bodmin but there is an immediate digression which takes the reader to Tewkesbury, the home town of the Revd Samuel Raymond, to Oxford where he gained a degree and to Honiton where he secured a wife. Raymond is the tragic figure of the novel, standing for the ‘Church and Crown’ like Jack Marvel in The Splendid Spur. An emphasis on his ‘Englishness’ is reinforced a few paragraphs later with a description of a family picnic under the shadow of the abbey church in Tewkesbury meadow. Yet in the mention of the Battle of Tewkesbury, in 1471, there is a premonition of battles to come in the Cornish parish of ‘Nannizabuloe’.


Between Raymond’s residences at Tewkesbury and ‘Nannizabuloe’, there is a ten year curacy in the ‘county town’ of Bodmin where the Cornish and English worlds meet. Both Taffy Raymond and Q spent the first nine years of life in the town. Q then went east to Newton College at Newton Abbot in Devon, while Taffy went west, across the Goss Moor, to ‘Nannizabuloe’.

Chapter II opens with Taffy Raymond looking out over Bodmin town square from the windows of the ‘gate-house’. How often must the young Q have looked upon the same scene, with the judges and lawyers ascending and descending the granite steps of the Assize Hall to the distant sounds of a military band on the far side of the square and the ‘turret clock’ striking in Fore Street. A special event for Taffy was the appearance each year of the ‘Royal Rangers Militia’. In Chapter II of Memories and Opinions (1944), Q expands upon the occasion from The Ship of Stars, explaining that his father, Thomas Q. Couch, was surgeon to the militia when it was stationed at Bodmin barracks and wore a captain’s uniform during parades.

Another regular event for Taffy and Q was Bodmin’s ‘Whitsun Fair’ which occurred when the militia were in town. This is the fair visited by Jack Marvel and Joan of Tor in the English Civil War novel The Splendid Spur. It is the fair at which Fortunio sells his geese in the short story of that name from Noughts and Crosses.

Bodmin town square is important in the development of the plot in that it is the place where Taffy first meets Squire Moyle and Honoria Callastair. Squire Moyle has come to Bodmin to interview Raymond about the vacancy in ‘Nannizabuloe’ church. Moyle is dressed like a figure from the eighteenth century while Honoria sports a ‘Leghorn hat’, almost certainly the gift of a smuggler. Her attitude to Taffy is one of innate superiority, as it is in the soliloquy which closes the novel.The Pantomime at Plymouth

The Pantomime at Plymouth

The event having the profoundest influence on Taffy and Q was the pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. Q attended with his parents, as he describes in Memories and Opinions (p.17), but Taffy was taken by Sir Harry and George Vyell, as described in Chapter XII. With Sir Harry the event inevitably has a seamier side. For Taffy it proved what Richard Ellman in his biography of James Joyce calls a ‘secular baptism’ (1965, p.243). In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Chapter four, Stephen Dedalus turns from Catholicism following a visionary experience inspired by the sight of a girl on the beach at Howth. Following the Plymouth visit Taffy turns progressively away from Anglicanism, symbolised in the discarding of a copy of the Imitation of Christ on the chancel steps of his father’s church. But this comes much later in the novel.

The Journey to Nannizabuloe

Chapter III has the Raymond family exiting Bodmin for ‘Nannizabuloe’ in ‘Joby’s Van’. The van proceeds along the present A30 to a ‘church town’ which is Lanivet. From there it crosses the watery expanse of the Goss Moor with the clay-works of Hensbarrow above it to the south and Castle-an-Dinas, later to feature in the novel Castle Dor, rising to the north. Finally the party reach the Indian Queen inn, although the moor is less extensive than the novel suggests. The Raymonds alight at the inn, which today stands in the hamlet of Indian Queens. It was to the Indian Queen inn which Linnet and Mark Lewarne repaired for the publicans’ annual dinner in Castle Dor.

As Mr. Job ominously refuses to proceed further, the Raymonds hire a farmer’s cart for the rest of the journey. This takes them along the A30 to the junction with the B3285, from where it journeys to Goonhavern and then left along the A3075 to Perranzabuloe in the vicinity of St. Agnes, otherwise ‘Nannizabuloe’ and ‘St. Ann’s’. One of the fellow travellers, a sailor with a ‘ship of stars’ tattooed on his chest, will later be washed up on the beach from the wreck of the Samaritan.

The area was one of singular importance for Q. At the time of the Napoleonic War, the Quillers of Polperro were one of Cornwall’s leading smuggling, privateering and coastal trading families. Between 1796 and 1823 seven Quillers were lost at sea, including in 1804 John Quiller, Q’s great, great grandfather. His body was washed ashore on the north Cornish coast in the area where most of the novel is set.

The corpse of John Quiller was discovered and conveyed to Polperro through the efforts of Zephania Job (1750-1822). Job had originally been trained as a St. Agnes mine captain but had finally established himself at Polperro as a banker, solicitor and clerk to the local smuggling and privateering companies, including that of the Quillers. Some of the Quillers were illiterate and signed their name with an X. Jonathan Couch would for a short time have been Job’s doctor.

As Job appears in a number of Q’s stories, either under his own name or a pseudonym, Thomas Q. Couch must have spoken of him in the family circle at Bodmin. We know of the activities of the Quillers from a residue of Job’s papers which were discovered at Crumplehorn Mill by Frank Perrycoste and investigated by Jeremy Rowett Johns of the ‘Polperro Heritage Press’. As with Sir Harry Vyell, Job appears to have been the product of a Cornish secular culture. Maybe this was in part true of the Quillers. When the Revd Samuel Raymond arrived at ‘Nannizabuloe’, he faced the Nonconformist culture of Jacky Pascoe and the secular culture of Sir Harry Vyell, with Squire Moyle caught dangerously between the two. This is a true reflection of the historical period.

The Towans

In Chapter IV, Taffy Raymond wakes on his first morning at the rectory to observe the ‘towans’, Cornish for sandhills, stretching from the church to the sea, with a lighthouse backed by three cottages on a peninsula to the north-east. Perranzabuloe is sited almost two miles from the coast and St. Agnes has no lighthouse but a rocky coast. Q’s description fits the village of Gwithian, with its church, ‘towans’ and lighthouse. The lighthouse at Godrevy to the north-east of the church also appears in the novella Ia. It is also the inspiration for the lighthouse that features in Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse.

The disagreeable scene which closes Chapter IV, where Taffy renews an acquaintance with Squire Moyle and Honoria Callastair, in the process of which he has his face smeared with the blood of a newly killed fox, is almost certainly set on Gwithian Towans. To accommodate the plot, however, Q has relocated Gwithian eastwards to Penhale Sands and Kelsey Head, the fabled land of ‘Lagona’. The old lighthouse with a crumbling base is sited at the end of Kelsey Head, with the newly proposed one to be built on ‘The Chick’ rock beyond it.

Chapter X is dated to the second morning of May, presumably in the middle years of the nineteenth century. It is based on the legends and celebrations of the area, although these were quickly falling into desuetude. Honoria collects Taffy from the rectory so as to go trout fishing with George Vyell at ‘Vellingsey Bridge’ on the River Gannel. They travel for a mile across the ‘towans’, at which point they observe mine-buildings on a sandridge. This ridge is Carn Haut and Carn Clew on Penhale Sands to the north of Perranporth, with the mine buildings belonging to Wheal Vlow. Beyond is the fictional lighthouse.


At this point Honoria and Taffy meet a miner who informs them of the Maying festivities and the ‘hal-an-tow’ of the previous day. The miner is dressed in the fashion of the early part of the nineteenth century, with a candle attached to a felt hat by a lump of clay, and mineral-stained clothes. He speaks of a ‘grass captain’, the man in charge of the surface workings. This meeting occurs immediately before Honoria and Taffy come to the stream which rises above Callestick and flows to the sea at Perranporth.

The miner also informs them of three local mines:

  • Wheal Vlo, a lead mine, in real life Wheal Vlow, a tin mine, active from the 1860s and whose site is now occupied by a holiday camp
  • Wheal Gooniver, a tin mine – of which no evidence remains
  • Wheal Penhale, a producer of iron ore – it lay on Penhale Point at the termination of the Great Perran Iron Lode and was worked from 1858 to 1890, first as an open caste and then as a shaft mine.

The area was mined for copper, tin, iron, lead and zinc. Some of the mines were extensive and wealthy, providing mining dues to landowners such as Sir Harry Vyell and Squire Moyle. The engine-houses spewed out smoke and noxious fumes, while the pumps polluted the streams and rivers with mine water, discolouring the sea for miles. This would have been the case at the time the novel is set, but when Q visited the area researching for the novel, mining had virtually ceased, with only the engine-houses, gaunt and neglected, and the spoil heaps giving evidence of a former glory.

Taffy and Honoria cross the stream where the ‘bal maidens’ are ‘spalling’ or breaking ore with long-handled hammers so that the pieces can be fed to the ‘stamps’, tree trunks shod with iron. When young, Q would have seen the process and it had not totally died out at the time the novel was written. The dressing of ore required running water, hence Q has placed the process by a stream. After leaving this scene of industrial activity the pair walk inland along the present B3285, encountering the A3075 at Goonhavern.

From there they walk north to Rejerrah, east along a tree-lined valley and then through Shepherds to Penhallow Moor. The trout stream can be identified as the upper reaches of the River Gannel, which rises to Penhallow Moor and descends the Lappa valley to the sea between Crantock and Newquay. At the time of the novel the stream would have been polluted by the waters of the Penhallow and Newlyn mines and the atmosphere would have been thick with fumes.

The River Gannel and Crantock Beach

On meeting George Vyell, Honoria and Taffy are regaled with the legends associated with the River Gannel and Crantock beach. George explains how a city of seven churches and extensive quays had once stood beyond Pentire Point, but was overwhelmed by sand and sea with only Crantock church surviving. George’s story is an adaptation of an account found in Robert Hunt’s Romances and Drolls of the West of England under the heading ‘The City of Langarrow or Lagona’.

Q’s father, Thomas Quiller Couch, knew Robert Hunt well and contributed to the book, as the introduction acknowledges. Hunt relates what is a legend of the area. A footnote informs the reader that Crantock church is locally called ‘Lagona’. Hunt was a mining engineer from Devonport who collected his material as he travelled through Devon and Cornwall at about the time the novel is set.


While Chapter X recreates the joys of childhood, no chapter is as elegiac as number XIX, ‘Oxford’, in which Q describes Taffy Raymond’s trip to the university in the hope of securing a scholarship. Q passes over his own examination briefly in Memories and Opinions (1944, p. 68), no doubt because nothing could subsequently equal what he had already written in The Ship of Stars. In The Splendid Spur he also gives us a vivid description of the university town, but it is an historical reconstruction. In The Ship of Stars it is very much the Oxford of 1882, even if dated earlier in the plot.

Taffy’s time at university is cruelly cut short. It is covered in the novel by the vehicle of three letters to him from Honoria from which the reader must take the echo of his to her. In December, Taffy is informed of the approaching death of his father as was Q at the end of the summer vacation in 1884 (1944, p. 92). The novel provides the reader with the emotion denied in the autobiography. With both Taffy and Q there is no question of having to surrender the possibility of continuing at the university, but both receive the means of continuing.

The first two paragraphs of Chapter XXII return the reader to Oxford and restore the elegiac tone of Chapter XIX; but then there is the blow which Q himself must have feared, discontinuance for moral and financial reasons. However, at this point the autobiographical nature of the writing fades. Taffy becomes a character in his own right. Although Q was a thoroughly practical person, it is difficult to see him developing as does Taffy Raymond from this point in the novel.

Following Taffy Raymond’s refusal of future financial assistance from the woman who is now Honoria Vyell, not having been previously aware of its origin, and having become increasingly aware of the rumours associating him with Lizzie Pezzack’s illegitimate child, which are being spread by George Vyell, the boy’s actual father, Oxford is renounced in favour of a paid post with Trinity House.

Trinity House

Q appears to have had some connection with the lighthouse association but it is unlikely that he ever considered working for them, even if he had had to leave Oxford prematurely. Having become quickly cognisant of the fissiparous rock below the existing lighthouse at ‘Nannizabuloe’, Taffy proposes to the association’s ‘Chief Engineer’ the urgent need for a new lighthouse on a rock off the point whose material is ‘elvan’. This is a local term for dykes of quartz porphyry felsites. Q appears to have ‘The Chick’ rock, off Kelsey Head, between Perranporth and the Camel estuary, as the site for Raymond’s lighthouse.

Chapter XXIV brings the reader to the wreck of the Samaritan. In the previous chapter Taffy Raymond had been enlisted by the Chief Engineer of Trinity House to oversee the work of building the new lighthouse. Trinity House invariably employed a local contractor to do the work, with the money coming out of the ‘Mercantile Marine Fund’. This fund was built up from shipping dues. The Godrevy lighthouse was built by Eva and Williams of Helston in 1858, with James Walker of Trinity House as engineer in charge and James Sutcliff as Superintendent of Works.

The wreck occurred in the late afternoon of November 16, after worsening weather had forced the closure of work on the lighthouse. Taffy was in the area of Langona creek and had to cross a footbridge of the River Gannel so as to confront George Vyell about the paternity of Lizzie Pezzack’s son. The Samaritan appears to have struck the headland of the lighthouse to the west of Langona, presumably Kelsey Head. The wind and tide between Kelsey Head and The Chick sweep the vessel eastwards into the mouth of the creek and onto Crantock beach. The search party stand to the sheltered eastern side of the point. The force of the elements drive the wreckage across the tide covered beach and a half mile up the estuary of the Gannel. Taffy is amazed that a vessel of three hundred tons can be washed up so far. Later he returns to the point to see the damage done to the base of the lighthouse, thus vindicating his opinion of relocating it to more solid rock off-shore.

The Couch Inheritance

Throughout the novel there are subtle evidences of the scientific traditions of the Couches. Q’s precise understanding of flora and fauna, his references to the aneroid barometer when predicting the storm, and his understanding of the tides, all point to the Couch inheritance.

In his preface to the Duchy Edition of 1928 Q reveals something of his true motive for the writing of The Ship of Stars. During the 1890s he addressed meetings throughout Cornwall and beyond on the subject of a harbour of refuge on the north Cornish coast, but shipowners were uninterested. In good Liberal fashion Q was taking on a vested interest – but lost. As he could not make a case based on ‘commercial profit’ the shipowners were uninterested in a project so expensive, especially as their ships were satisfactorily insured. Such a project had long been considered. The plans for a harbour of refuge at Pendeen in the parish of St. Just, following a report of March 17, 1854, can be seen today in the archives of the Morrab Library in Penzance (Map/57 Pendeen). The novel brings together a number of strands important to an understanding of Q’s writings: political considerations, social justice, creative dynamic and humanitarianism.