This study looks at the forebears of Jonathan Couch and those of related families. It is a companion piece to another study, The Descendants of Jonathan Couch. It is hoped that both studies will be of use to academic researchers and anyone else who is interested in finding out more about the family into which Q was born.
An acknowledgement needs to be made to the pioneering work of Polperro historian Frank Perrycoste (1866-1929) and its development by Jeremy Rowett Johns of the Polperro Heritage Press and Trust. Family Trees for the three marriages of Jonathan Couch can be found in the appendices of Doctor by Nature and for the Quillers in The Smuggler’s Banker (p.166) by Jeremy Rowett Johns.
The Private Memoirs of Jonathan Couch, transcribed and edited by Alwyne Wheeler, records the name Couch associated with Launceston in1635 and earlier, while the Manor of Tywardreath was in the possession of a Couch before the reign of Charles I. In fact, the name Couch is not uncommon in Cornwall. Jonathan believed it to have derived from the Welsh ‘Quitch’ or couch grass. Rowse, however, is more correct in seeing its derivation in ‘cough’, a Cornish word for red, the ‘gh’ regularly hardening into ‘ch’ in Late Cornish. As Rowse says in Quiller-Couch, ‘the name is pronounced Cooch and means red and Q was a red-head’ (p.10). A footnote in Memories and Opinions says: ‘The derivation of the name “Quiller” is uncertain but most likely Breton. “Couch” is pure Cornish, “coch” signifying “red” and is properly pronounced as “Cooch” never “Cowch”. On many old tombstones it is inscribed as “Couch”.’ (p. 3). This must have come to the editor, S.C. Roberts, from Q himself.
In the Cornish Glossary of Courtney and Couch, Miss Courtney gives ‘cooche-handed’ as left-handed but only in the district of Stratton. Thomas Q. Couch, Q’s father, gives ‘stroil’ as the dialect word for couch-grass, and by this it has always been known to the present writer. A family name is hardly likely to derive from a pernicious weed.
The family of Couch has its roots in Celtic Cornwall and its language. Celtic red hair is a common feature of Cornwall, Devon and Ireland. It runs in my own family and in many others. Where Rowse is wrong is in seeing Q as half Cornish and half English. D.N.A. analysis has consistently shown the people of Devon to be as Celtic as the Cornish but of a different type. A rewriting of the history of south-west Britain is now necessary.
It is not known when Cornish was last spoken in the parish of Talland. In the early Tudor period the language was in general use from the Tamar valley to Lands End. When Jonathan Couch was born in 1789 it had disappeared. The Reformation is seen as a pivotal moment as the Anglican Church refused to use Cornish. Jonathan appears to have had little knowledge of the meaning of Cornish place-names, although Bond’s History of Looe shows some if inaccurate knowledge. As Polperro was peculiarly isolated and retained a connection with Brittany it was probably still spoken there when it had ceased at Liskeard. The last Celtic spoken in Polperro was probably a Cornish-Breton hybrid.
The earliest Talland parish registers evidence the Couch family in residence, for instance John and Tristram Couch, in c.1655. A direct line commences with a Jonathan Couch, Yeoman, of Trerest, slightly later.
All such records are problematic and transcriptions of records infinitely more so. Unfortunately, biographers and scholars in general seem insufficiently aware of this. Parish records were not always assiduously kept, were subject to damp and loss, and over time tended to become less decipherable.
Before spelling became standardised the vicar or parish clerk recorded what he believed he heard. Cough would have become Couch because English lacks the Celtic ‘gh’, sound as in Scottish ‘loch’.
A surprising number of individuals had little or no contact with the parish church and do not appear on parish records. Jews, Quakers, members of some dissenting sects, gypsies and the non-religious rarely if ever appear on such documents.
At some point a recorder of births, marriages and deaths was employed at a local town centre to keep an official record. Sarah Lander Roose’s second husband, James Lean, was such a recorder. A child could be born and baptised in one place, thus appearing on the parish register, while having its birth recorded officially in another.
When chapels became officially licensed, they kept their own records. Jane Couch, Jonathan’s daughter by Jane Prynn Rundle, was baptised at Talland parish church, but his children by Jane Quiller were baptised at the Wesleyan chapel in Polperro, and his children by Sarah Lander Roose were baptised at the United Methodist Free Church building in the village.
Key to abbreviations
(F.N.2) the original folio number from Jonathan Couch’s ‘Private Memoirs’, edited by Alwyne Wheeler in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 1983.
The family of Couch appear as residents in the parish of Talland from before the reign of Henry VIII.
Tristram Couch of St Germans and James Couch of Liskeard appear on registers, while a little while later the name of Couch appears at Launceston and Tywardreath. Sarah Roose Couch was later again to marry a Jonathan Couch of Tywardreath who was born in 1853.
The Oldest Talland Register of 1653 (F.N.84)
On page one appear the names of John Couch and Tristram Couch. A Roger Couch was buried on April 15, 1701. This is followed by Richard Couch, husbandman, buried November 30, (probably of Trerest), John Couch on February 8, 1705, Grace Couch on January 10, 1710, and Catherine Couch, widow on April 2, 1710. There is possibly a gap until a Tristram Couch on November 4, 1738, and Jane Couch on November 30, 1738. A Dorothy Couch was buried on February 11, 1740, followed by Jonathan Couch on April 30, 1740 (Jonathan’s grandfather).
Samuel Couch, the son of Jonathan Couch (above) of Trerest.
Samuel had twelve sons, eleven of whom left the parish. The youngest, Jonathan, inherited the property of Trerest.
The individuals below derive either from the eleven sons of Samuel or from earlier leavers:
1. Peter Couch of St Germans. The reference in Jonathan Couch’s Private Memoirs states: ‘the last of the family living at St German’s was my great uncle Peter, who left my father a legacy of £50.’ Peter Couch seems to be a son of Samuel and farmed in the same parish as his St Germans’ relations. He was alive in 1740.
2. Couch of London
3. Couch of Plymouth. From him descended Benjamin Couch, a master Mast Maker in the Dockyard; James Couch, an inventor; and Lieutenant Edward Couch, who lost his life aboard the Erebus on Sir John Franklin’s fateful expedition to discover the Northwest Passage in 1846-7. Possibly also Edward Couch of Torpoint who in 1794 was pressed into service aboard the HMS Bienfaisent and was later a POW.
4. Couch of Wales and America. Robert Couch was a British army surgeon who died in Virginia c.1680. From him or another Couch of Wales came Lieutenant Darius N. Couch of the Union army, who in 1856 conducted a scientific journey to Mexico, as Jonathan Couch read about shortly afterwards. (F.N. pp. 122 &131).
5. Couch of Trerest and Porthallow in Talland. Jonathan Couch, the youngest of the twelve, inherited the Talland properties. His father Samuel died in September 1738. When Jonathan was born is unknown, but he married Margaret Rowett c.1738. They had one son, Richard Couch, who was born on April 30, 1739. Shortly afterwards Jonathan, who must still have been comparatively young, died and was buried on April 30, 1740.
Margaret Couch, nee Rowett, remained a widow for four years. She was an early convert of John Wesley for Methodist class tickets dated to 1743 and 1744 survived.
In 1744-5, Margaret Couch married a local mariner called Thomas Frethy or Freethy. She left Trerest, although retaining the property, and settled in Polperro. Richard Couch followed his step-father into seafaring, but the life ill-suited him and in the 1750s he established himself as a fish merchant in the village. Presumably, he exported fish to Spain and Italy. Margaret Frethy or Freethy (Couch, Rowett) was buried on October 30, 1786.
Having been born in 1736, Richard remained a bachelor until two years after his mother’s death. In 1788, he married Philippa Minards, with Jonathan Couch their only child, being born on March 15, 1789. Jonathan would have been baptised at Talland parish church as Methodists still worshipped on Sunday with Anglicans. He inherited the Couch property of Trerest. Jonathan never knew his grandparents.
Richard Couch, although a cripple in the second half of his life, lived to be about 84 and his wife Philippa to be 89. Richard was born during the great Whig administration of Robert Walpole and could possibly just remember hearing of the landing of Bonny Prince Charlie in 1745. He was about 36 when the American war of Independence broke out, with George Washington becoming the first President of the United States in the year Jonathan was born. Richard and Philippa would also have known John Wesley. Jonathan would have heard all this from his parents as recent history. Remarkably, the last surviving grandchild of Richard and Philippa, Sarah Roose Couch, died in 1944.
Some may see the eighteenth century as marginal to any understanding of Q’s writings. Yet he set a number of his novels, including Lady-Good-For-Nothing, Sir John Constantine and Fort Amity in this century, while Hetty Wesley is a biographical novel based on the Wesley family of 1700 to 1750.
The first marriage of Jonathan Couch was to Jane Prynn Rundle. Jonathan was born in 1789 and Jane three years later in 1792. They first met at the home of Dr Prynn of Looe, possibly when Jonathan was training under Mr Rice of East Looe. Jane lived at Portallow farm in Talland, between Polperro and West Looe.
Portallow: originally probably ‘porth’ or cove and ‘alsyow’ or cliffs, a good description of Talland Bay as can be seen from Q’s story I Saw Three Ships. In chapter two the farm, under the pseudonym ‘Sheba’ is described, with its ‘courtlage’ and ‘mullioned windows’, and with ‘Ruan Cove’ below, its ‘whitened water, close under the cliffs’ (Chapter 1).
In Cornish Place Names, O.J. Padel dismisses the notion of the church being named after a saint called Tallana or Tallanus, recording the older dedication to St Katherine of Alexandria, one of a number of local connections to the eastern Mediterranean. Another was a fresco discovered in the church during renovations in 1848. Jonathan Couch’s History of Polperro gives a description which Q was later to use in Q’s short story The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem. Padel suggests ‘tal’and ‘lan’ as a church over-looking the brow of the hill. As can be seen from Q’s short story The Haunted Dragoon, the church tower overlooks the brow of a ridge to Talland Bay. In local speech the ‘t’ is never articulated. A mile to the east of the church are the remains of the monastery of Lamana, originally ‘lan’ or ‘lann’, a monastic enclosure, and ‘managh’ or monk. Again there are eastern Mediterranean associations.
The Rundle family had been long established in Talland. Jonathan Couch believed them to have been related to ‘the Prynns—the famous Puritan barrister.’ (F. N. 15).
Jane Prynn Rundle was about 17 and Jonathan Couch 19 when he went to the united medical school of Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London in the autumn of 1808. He completed his training in 1810, returning to Polperro to find Jane pregnant. It was customary in Cornwall for pregnancy to precede marriage. Johns informs us of how the marriage took place at Talland parish church on August 14, 1810. However, on September 30, Jane developed a fever which resulted in the premature birth of a daughter on October 5 and Jane’s death on the morning of October 14. (pp. 22–24).
Nearly 50 years later Jonathan was still lamenting her demise (F. N. 16). In what appears to be a remembered conversation, Bertha Couch records in her Life: ‘I (Jonathan) saw her (Jane) standing by the bedside looking more radiant than ever I had seen her in life, and in a voice as clear and distinct as possible, told me she was quite happy, happier than I could imagine.’ Bertha continues: ‘from that time his mind was at rest, looking on it as a special message from the Master whom he served.’ (p. 28).
Such experiences were not uncommon in the Quillers, as Bertha elsewhere relates, but they were of the living. In his lecture Some Seventeenth Century Poets, Q relates a visionary experience by John Donne of his distressed wife. Jonathan does not claim the presence by his bed of an actual person but as a ‘special message from the Master’ or Christ. Baby Jane was probably placed in the care of Jonathan’s 68-year-old grandmother, Philippa Couch (Johns, p. 26).
As Johns relates, Philippa, who lived to be nearly 90, had the pleasure of seeing her granddaughter married to Peter Hitchens of Tregue farm in Lansallos on July 19, 1832. The farm lies just to the north of the Polperro–Lansallos road. Jonathan had the sorrow of seeing the death not only of Jane’s mother but also of her husband. Peter Hitchens died of tuberculosis on May 20, 1846, aged 37. Jane was left to rear six children. Sadly, Jonathan was to witness the death of four of them. Only two outlived their mother, who died in 1891. The sixth daughter, Rebecca, died in 1897 and the fourth, Hannah, died in 1914, aged seventy-five.
The first to die was Jane Rundle Hitchens in 1847. On contracting ‘consumption’ she resided with Jonathan for about eight months, but died not quite 13, there being no cure at the time. Unfortunately, the burial led to a conflict between the vicar of Lansallos and Jonathan Couch which is fully described in his Private Memoir, F. N. 44. One interesting fact is that the Hitchens were reared as members of Jonathan’s Wesleyan Association, as Peter Hitchens was a shareholder in the building of the chapel. (Johns, p. 60).
Jonathan Couch’s Private Memoirs (F. N. 44,59,129) provide further interesting information. In 1848, Jane’s first child, Richard C. Hitchens (1832–1867), sailed with his uncle, Captain Richard Rowett, aboard the Canopus. It called at Polperro on July 8 before sailing to Valparaiso, the main port of Chile. Hitchens possibly remained to establish business connections. Hannah Hitchens, who was born on April 20, 1839, married a Joseph Clark, who in 1865, two years before Richard Hitchen’s death, was in Valparaiso. Richard Hitchens died of yellow fever in April 1867 at the main port on the island of Mauritius, where he held a lucrative position, leaving a widow and two children.
Someone not mentioned in Wheeler’s edited Private Memoirs of Jonathan Couch is George Rundle Prynne of West Looe, in the parish of Talland, whose parents almost certainly attended the marriage of Jonathan Couch and Jane Prynn Rundle and the subsequent funeral. He was an early Tractarian who from 1848 to 1903 was vicar of St Peter’s in Plymouth. Coming from a similar religious background he moved in the opposite direction to Jonathan, as his biography shows.
Jane Prynn Rundle died in 1810, with Jonathan remaining a widower for about five years. On June 12, 1815, he married Jane Quiller (1790 or 1791–1857), a lady a year or so younger than himself. While the first marriage had been passionate, the second was conventional. Jane was the daughter of the late Richard Quiller (1763–1796) and Mary Tomms whose wedding had taken place at Talland on May 16, 1784. Jane was the granddaughter of the late John Quiller (bp. Lansallos, September 1, 1741–d. November 4, 1804) and Jane Libby, with the marriage taking place in 1763.
John and Jane had seven recorded or surviving children, of whom Richard was the oldest. Richard had seven recorded children. Jane had a twin sister called Elizabeth. Johns gives the baptisms of Jane and Elizabeth at Talland as October 21, 1790; while the Private Memoir of Jonathan Couch gives it as September 23, 1791. Both agree that Jane died on September 6, 1857.
As a detailed account of the Quillers is to be found in The Smuggler’s Banker by Jeremy Rowett Johns and the family are frequently referred to on the website, no further details will be included until a specific study is made.
All that needs to be said is that the Quillers ran a successful smuggling, privateering and trading operation from Polperro, becoming relatively wealthy. However, most of the male members, including Jane’s father and grandfather, lost their lives at sea. Even though Jane successfully bore six children, her health was never robust, possibly because of the tragedies which afflicted her early life.
According to the Private Memoirs (F. N. 116), Jonathan Couch believed the name Roose to originally have been Rouse, with Robert Roose, a superannuated coastguard of Polperro, father of Sarah Lander Roose, having an ancestry in common with the Rouse family of Halton, near Saltash. Anthony Rouse, armiger, was Sheriff of Cornwall during the reign of Elizabeth I. His son, Francis Rouse, whose writings Jonathan disapproved of, was Provost of Eton and a Calvinist.
In Tudor Cornwall, A.L. Rowse gives the wife of Anthony Rouse as the mother of John Pym by her first marriage. John was foster-brother to Francis Rouse ‘one of the more voluminous of Puritan writers, Speaker of Barebones’s Parliament’ (p. 426).
Whether there is any genuine connection appears dubious. That Jonathan believed Robert Roose to have come ‘reduced in circumstances of late date’ from a common ancestry (F. N. 116), probably reflects more upon Jonathan wishing to justify his marriage to Sarah Lander Roose than on genuine scholarship.