Introducing the Collection

I Saw Three Ships and other Winter's Tales was Q's second collection of short stories, coming out in 1892, a year after Noughts and Crosses. Both collections consisted of stories previously published in national magazines. Q used the hours travelling by train between Cornwall and London for the writing of his shorter works. It was a pivotal time in his life when he came to understand that residence in Cornwall was essential for his mental and creative health.

Q's son Bevil was born at Fowey in October 1890, shortly before the family settled in London, presumably with permanence in mind. However, London life brought Q to the edge of a nervous breakdown, although not one as severe as described in story three of the collection 'A Blue Pantomime'. As a consequence the family returned to Cornwall, with The Haven at Fowey being purchased in 1892. This was his home for the rest of his life.

According to his biographer A.L. Rowse (1988, p. 49), Q corrected the proofs of I Saw Three Ships in 1891, with Cassell's paying a retainer in expectation of publications in the USA and the UK. This must have given a certain financial security during a very troubled time. Not surprisingly, the collection was dedicated to T. Wemyss Reid of Cassell's. Reid's faith in expected sales was more than justified.

By the time I Saw Three Ships came out in 1892, Q was an established writer, with a number of successful novels behind him. Dead Man's Rock had come out in 1887, with Troy Town following in 1888 and The Splendid Spur in 1889. Nothing appeared in the domestically troubled year of 1890, but 1891 saw the publication of The Blue Pavilions and his first collection of short stories, Noughts and CrossesI Saw Three Ships is the first publication to root Q back into the home parishes of the Couch and Quiller families. The church mentioned in the short story 'The Haunted Dragoon' and the extended short story 'I Saw Three Ships' was where the Couches had worshipped for generations, with the Quillers attending the more western church at Lansallos. Below it stretches the sands, cliffs and shoals of Talland Bay. By the time of Q's writings the geology, flora and fauna had been well investigated by Jonathan Couch, his son Richard Quiller Couch and his friend (Sir) William Pengelly.

At first reading the stories appear to be the sort of folk tales told and retold at the hearths of homes and inns throughout Cornwall. Such stories had been collected and published by mining engineer Robert Hunt, F.R.S. (1865, 1871), a friend of Q's father. The two biographies of A.L. Rowse (1988) and F. Brittain (1972) provide no more than superficial assistance in understanding Q's short stories. What is clear is that Q was drawing from a body of material emanating from his Couch and Quiller forbears.

The collection I Saw Three Ships consists of four shorter and one longer story. The penultimate piece, 'The Two Households', must be considered a filler as it first appeared in Noughts and Crosses and will not be re-examined here. 'I Saw Three Ships', the extended work, 'The Haunted Dragoon' and 'The Disenchantment of 'Lizabeth' are set in a geographical area covered by the adjoining parishes of Talland, Lansallos, Pelynt and Duloe, the home area of the Couch and Quiller families. Jonathan Couch's medical practice must have extended to all four. 'A Blue Pantomime' is set at Indian Queens, about ten miles to the west of Bodmin, where Thomas Quiller-Couch had his practice.

Although no such mention is made, it is interesting that the Couches would have been present at the Christmas morning service in Ruan Lanihale church (Talland), as Methodists who still adhered to Anglicanism, which opens 'I Saw Three Ships'. The Quillers and the Couches would also have observed, with considerable misapprehension, the descent upon Polperro of the dragoons from Plymouth, following the shooting of a preventive officer (a customs official) off Ramehead in December 1798, as is described in 'The Haunted Dragoon'. Q's fiction is not just based on historical fact, but on family history. It is possible that when Q published I Saw Three Ships, some of the characters would have been known personally to Dr. John Quiller-Couch of Penzance, Jonathan's youngest and only surviving son.

Q inherited more than just information from his forbears, he inherited a methodology. Jonathan Couch was a London trained medical practitioner and a child of the Enlightenment. He imbibed from his teachers a form of Humean empiricism, one centred on observation and testing, and with a concern less for theory than for what worked in practice. Science was about fact, theory being left to the philosophers, with a clear line of demarcation. This is what Jonathan passed on to his three doctor sons: Dr Richard Quiller-Couch of Penzance, Dr Thomas Quiller-Couch of Bodmin, and Dr John Quiller-Couch of Penzance. It is essential to understand that Q was reared in an empiricist tradition, although not in a rationalist one. This is where the Quillers interposed. They appear to have possessed a faculty, common enough in Cornish families, which operated independently of the five senses, as can be seen from Bertha Couch's Life of Jonathan Couch. Even the family of the arch-rationalist Rowse was not devoid of it.

It is profoundly unfortunate, and in the case of Rowse incomprehensible, that the importance to Q of the Couch and Quiller inheritance was not recognised, especially as the information was readily available from:

  • The Dictionary of National Biography
  • The Life of Jonathan Couch by Bertha Couch (1891)
  • The published works as listed in the Bibliotheca Cornubiensis of Boase and Courtney (1874, 1882)
  • The Couch archive at the Royal Institution of Cornwall in Truro
  • The Jonathan Couch archives at the Linnean Society in London, McGill University in Montreal, the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, etc.
  • The surviving records of Zephaniah Job of Polperro, researched by Frank Perrycoste, who died in 1929, and latterly by J.R. Johns (1997)

The only story to be set outside of the four parishes is 'A Blue Pantomime'. It is set at Indian Queens, a hamlet on the present A30 road at the north-western edge of the clay-country or St. Austell Moors. The narrative purports to describe a nervous breakdown, although the nature of the condition is called into question at the close of the story. The nervous trouble Q experienced in London could scarcely have acted as a basis for the work as the main character lies prostrate at the Indian Queens inn for months. Indian Queens is about ten miles west of Bodmin.

In all his tales from I Saw Three Ships Q used actual personal, place and boat names or a pseudonym easily penetrated. However, this is complicated by a tendency to relocate features to accommodate the narrative. For instance, Q relocated a reef called the Raney from Polperro to Talland (there is another Raney or Ranney off Looe Island) to facilitate a wreck. While some personal names are fictitious, such as the Revd Samuel Wraxall from 'A Blue Pantomime', others are factual. Old and Young Zeb Minards of Porthlooe from 'I Saw Three Ships' were seamen personally known to and probably related to Jonathan Couch. The Unity smuggling lugger from 'The Haunted Dragoon' actually existed, although it was the Lottery that was implicated in the death of the preventive officer.

I Saw Three Ships

'I Saw Three Ships' is an extended short story of ten sections. The first six are set at Ruan Lanihale or Talland, with Sheba Farm as Porthallow Farm, where Jonathan Couch courted his first wife. The seventh is set at the Jolly Pilchards inn or the Three Pilchards in Porthlooe or Polperro. The eighth is set on the coast road from Polperro to Polruan. The main section of the ninth takes place at an encampment on Bury Hill, called a Roman camp in the story, but relocated nearer to Talland. The final chapter brings the reader full circle to Talland church. The first chapter can be dated to Christmas Day in 1803, with the rest of the story taking place in the final months of the 'Peace of Amiens'. The frigate which passes up the Channel in the last paragraph of the story, carrying the mysterious stranger, is going to war. Parson Babbage can be identified as C. Kendall (1793-1806). He is sympathetically presented. It was his successor, N. Kendall (1806-1844), who virtually drove Anglican Methodists such as the Couches from Talland church by preaching against them.

The Haunted Dragoon

The second story, 'The Haunted Dragoon', can be dated to a few years earlier. The narrative opens with a beautiful description of Talland church. Below its detached tower, groups of harvesters are supposedly awaiting a signal from the narrator's father, who is ensconced on the leads, so as to unload contraband from the approaching Unity smuggling lugger. It is appropriately a ghost story because the church was famous from the time of Parson Dodge (1713-47), the ghost-layer, who died at the age of 93, for its supernatural associations. From Talland the story moves to Polperro and then to Bodmin jail, of which Thomas Quiller Couch was later to have medical oversight. The place of hanging is so accurately described that Q must have seen it at first hand.

The Disenchantment of Lizabeth

The concluding story of the collection is 'The Disenchantment of 'Lizabeth', which is almost certainly set in the valley of the West Looe River, at the time a remarkably isolated area. The present writer's great-grandmother lived on the river at Shollapool. The doctor mentioned in the story could be Jonathan Couch.

Although 'I Saw Three Ships' has a certain Anglican context and the central figure of 'A Blue Pantomime' is a man in holy orders, the society 'I Saw Three Ships' presents us with is essentially secular, dominated by land, money, love and death. Methodism is peripheral. It is secular but not pagan, with superstition a minor influence. Q's stories are a corrective to a former tendency of seeing Cornwall as a largely Methodist area, and a contemporary tendency of romanticising it for an escapist urban market. Nor can those looking for pagan survivals take any comfort. (A pagan belief that it is unlucky to save a drowning man, which looks back to the idea of a sea god, is a theme in 'I Saw Three Ships', but by the end of the story the pagan element has been subverted.) Yet there remains a substratum of religious feeling and this was exploited by Methodism throughout the nineteenth century, led by figures such as Jonathan Couch. The balance between sacred and profane was never totally lost.