John Quiller Couch: a study


It is possible that John Quiller Couch of Penzance had a significant influence on his nephew Q. It is also possible that he had none.

John Quiller Couch was the youngest and last surviving son of Jonathan and Jane (nee Quiller) Couch of  Polperro. He was born in 1830 and died in Penzance in 1900, at the age of 70. In that year Q was a married man of 37, with an established literary reputation and a secure income. In the 1880s and 1890s Q stayed in Penzance with the children of Richard Quiller Couch, who had died in 1863. Nothing is precisely known of a contact between Q and his Uncle John. Following John's death in 1900 his will was disputed, with a court case resulting in 1901. The case was given coverage in local papers, particularly the Evening Tidings. John's ambiguous relation with his family was high-lighted. However, Q and John attended a mayoralty banquet for Richard Pearce Couch at Penzance in 1898, and Q attended John's funeral in 1900. It is possible that Q did not attract the same antagonism as other members of the family. Nor is there any evidence of conflict between John and Thomas, Q's father.

John Quiller Couch knew personally all the children from his father's three marriages except for John (who died in 1826) and Lydia and Clarinda, who were born in 1863 and 1867. From the marriage of Jonathan Couch and Jane Prynn Rundle in 1810, he knew Jane Rundle Couch, but only as the wife and widow of Peter Hitchens. Jane Prynn Hitchens lived until 1891, dying nine years before John.

From the second marriage (Jonathan Couch to Jane Quiller) John knew all five of his sister and brothers except for John, who died at the age of eight. John Quiller Couch outlived them, although only surviving the epileptic Jonathan by three years. John and Thomas disagreed on the subject of Jonathan's third marriage, in 1858, but there is no evidence of antagonism between the brothers. In fact, John appeared amiable to his sister and brothers.

This cannot be said of his attitude to Jonathan's third wife and the four resulting offspring. Jonathan married 22-year-old Sarah Lander Roose in 1858. In 1860 Bertha, the biographer of Jonathan, was born, followed in 1862 by Sarah and in 1863 by the short-lived Lydia. Lastly, in 1867, three years before the death of Jonathan, Clarinda was born.

John Quiller-Couch disapproved of his father's third marriage and relations soured. Following the completion of his training at Guy's Hospital in London, in 1862, John moved to Penzance, where his brother Richard had a practice. Although Jonathan travelled to Penzance during Richard's illness, in 1863, and John must have seen him, further communication appears to have been rare. When Jonathan died in 1870, leaving his wife and daughters poorly provided for, John was the one relation in a position to offer financial support. He seems not to have done so. Nor is there any obvious mention of them in his various wills. He failed to subscribe to Bertha Couch's Life of  Jonathan Couch. Bertha Couch responded by virtually leaving him out of the text, but including a lengthy defence of her parents' marriage.

John remained close to his Quiller relations. Although most male Quillers had been lost at sea before the end of the Napoleonic War, John was still able to befriend individuals such as Mary Quiller Fowler and her daughter Mary Quiller Edgcumbe, the wife of William Edgcumbe. John had available to him through his mother and through relations such as Mary the family memory of the seafaring Quillers. If Q formed a close relationship with his Uncle John, such a memory would have been made available to him because John liked nothing better, especially during his Penzance years, than talking of Polperro and its past.

As Jonathan Couch was born in 1789, the opening year of the French Revolution, and John died in 1900, near the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, Q could have accessed a family memory of one hundred and eleven years, and an extended memory stretching back to before the American War of Independence. Q would have heard stories of Thomas Bond of Looe (see Dictionary of National Biography), Zephaniah Job of Polperro, the 'smugglers' banker', the privateering Quillers, and the ghost-laying Parson Dodge of Talland. Although John Quiller Couch appears to be a peripheral figure, the reality could be somewhat different. A body of material included in Q's writings could have originated with John.


Chronology from 1789 to 1901


Birth of Jonathan Couch (father) in Polperro. 

The opening of the French Revolution.

1808-10  Jonathan Couch trains at the united medical school of Guy's and St Thomas' in London – aged 19-21.
 1810  Jonathan Couch returns to Polperro and marries Jane Prynn Rundle, who dies in childbirth, leaving a daughter, Jane Rundle Couch (1810-1891). Jane died when Q was 28.

Jonathan Couch marries Jane Quiller (1790-1857) of Polperro, daughter of Richard who had been lost at sea.

The Napoleonic War ends.

 1816-1826  Birth: Richard (1816-1863); Margaret (1817-1858); John (1818-1826); Jonathan, epileptic (1820-1897); Thomas, Q's father, (1826-1884).
 1830  November 12, birth of John Quiller-Couch, the sixth and last child. The Couch house by the bridge at Polperro contains at least eight individuals. All attend the Wesleyan Chapel in Polperro.
 1831  June 2, Wesleyan Register: John Quiller, son of Jonathan and Jane Couch of Polperro, parish Lansallos (surgeon) baptised by Walter Oke Croggan.
1832   The Reform Act – Looe loses 4 MPs. 
1835 Richard goes to Guy's Hospital in London. 
1838 Richard returns to Polperro from Guy's. 

Jonathan and Richard publish work on the fauna, flora and geology of south-east Cornwall.

1844-5 Richard establishes a medical practice in Penzance.
1846 John goes to Guy’s Hospital in London. 

The fear of revolutions in Europe. Thomas publishes The Botanical Register of Polperro in the journal of the RCPS.

1849 Thomas goes to Guy's hospital in London. 
1851 Thomas returns to Polperro from Guy's Hospital in London.

Richard marries Lydia Pearce in Penzance. Thomas acts as locum for the honeymoon in London.

Thomas becomes assistant to John Ward, surgeon, of Bodmin.


John goes to London as assistant to William Rendle of Polperro, surgeon, previously Liskeard, the Medical Officer of Health for St George's parish, Southwark, London.


Jane Couch, mother, dies in Polperro.    

John returns to Polperro.


Jonathan Couch marries Sarah Lander Roose, aged 22. The marriage supported by Thomas but not by Richard and John. John is now living with a 22-year-old step-mother.


John goes for medical training to Guy's Hospital in London, the fourth member of the family to do so.                                              

Darwin publishes Origin of Species.


May 11, John obtains a Diploma at the Royal College of Surgeons.

August, John obtains a Licence from  Apothecary's Hall.

Richard's health deteriorates in Penzance. It appears that John travels to Penzance to help in the practice on a temporary basis.

John maintains a close relationship with William Edgcumbe (farmer) and his wife Mary Quiller Edgcumbe, related to him through his mother, Jane Couch nee Quiller.


Richard's health fails. Jonathan Couch travels from Polperro to Penzance.

Richard dies. John assists the family of Richard.  

Birth of Q to Thomas and Mary Couch of Bodmin.


Coulson's Directory of Penzance:

10 Chapel Street:   Mrs Henry Rickard, John Q. Couch, surgeon

22 Chapel Street:   Miss Pearce, Mrs Richard Q. Couch

Thomas Q. Couch commences publication of the Botanical Register of Bodmin in the journal of the RCPS.


Jonathan Couch completes the publication of the Natural History of the Fishes of the British Islands.


Jonathan Couch dies in Polperro leaving a wife and three daughters in straightened circumstances.

The medical library of Jonathan is divided between Thomas and John.

The Franco-Prussian War and the Unification of Germany is completed.


P.O. Directory of 1873:

Resident & Commercial: 10 Chapel Street: John Q. Couch. Penzance Public Dispensary, St Clare, (open Tues. & Fri.): J.B. Montgomery, M.D. Physician, John Couch, one of three consultant surgeons.


John Quiller-Couch makes his first known will.



Early Ambitions

It appears from subsequent events that Richard, Thomas and John were destined  to be doctors; but in the case of John this is less than certain. Richard and Thomas went to Guy's at the ages of 19 and 23; John was 29, suggesting medicine to have been the second choice. What was the first?

There is a suggestion of John having been trained for the Indian Civil Service under the patronage of Col. Hamelin Trelawny, the third son of Sir Harry Trelawny, friend and mentor of Jonathan Couch. Col. Hamelin Trelawny (1782–1846) had served in Holland in 1799 and in the Peninsula from 1813 to 1814. In 1841 he was made Governor of St Helena. It is possible that Hamelin was expecting to end his career in India, where his younger brother, Col. Jonathan Trelawny, had served.

Hamelin died in 1846, when John was only 16 years old. If John desired and failed to find a posting in India, there must be reasons other than the death of Hamelin to account for it. When seeking for an explanation of John's later irascible temper, it is possible that such a disappointment played a part.

Public Offices Held 

Medical Officer to District Council Railway Company Insurance Offices, presumably the Great Western Railway.

1881 Census: Civil Parish, Penzance; Ecclesiastical Parish, St Mary's

John Q. Couch, 10, Chapel Street, unmarried, surgeon, MRCS, age 47.


1883 Kelly's Directory of 1883

(53) 10 Chapel Street, John Q. Couch, Penzance Public Dispensary, J.B. Montgomery, M.D., Physician. No mention or any further mention of John Q. Couch at the dispensary.


1891 Census

10 Chapel Street, single, age 58, Surgeon Duly Registered. (61)


1893 Kelly's Directory of 1893

(63) 10 Chapel Street, John Q. Couch

21 Chapel Street, Mrs Couch, Richard Pearce Couch

(timber merchant of Batten & Couch)

No. 5 District Penzance: John Q. Couch, surgeon and medical officer & public vaccinator.


John was also a medical officer to the Great Western Railway Company and to local insurance companies.


1894    The Cornishman, February 1

Penzance Medical Board, No. 5 District, the report of the Medical Officer, Dr J.Q. Couch:

'Mr. Couch's monthly return stated that he had little to report except that which was of a favourable nature. Scarlatina was on the decrease and mild in character.

There were eleven cases last month against six in January and these were confined  to two families – one at Chyandour and the other at Tolcarne. The district generally was fairly healthy. He desired to point out that measles were omitted from the list of diseases which had to be notified.'


1898    The Cornish Telegraph, November 17.

Report: Richard Pearce Couch becomes Mayor of Penzance. The Mayoral Banquet is attended by John Q. Couch and Arthur Quiller-Couch, speaker.


1898-1900  The Final Years

When John Quiller Couch arrived in Penzance in 1892-3, he provided assistance to Richard's wife and widow, but eventually quarrelled with them. He took over the property at 10 Chapel Street, retaining the freehold until his death. Relations were sufficiently restored for John to attend the mayoralty banquet for Richard Pearce Couch in November 1898, two years before his death; an event attended by Q, a speaker. As John's hearing was deteriorating, he decided to sell the property and return to Polperro. The practice failed to sell. By 1900 his health was giving concern. He was attended by Dr John Symons, surgeon, who lived at Buritan House, Alverton. Symons had a private practice and was surgeon at the West Cornwall Dispensary and Infirmary in St Clare Street.

In July, the sisters of Richard Peace Couch moved into 10 Chapel Street to help care for him. On the 19th Margaret Quiller Couch, then aged 38, wrote to the Edgcumbes in Polperro, who promptly travelled to Penzance, remaining with John until his death. With gangrene in the leg John's death was inevitable.



West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser

Thursday Evening, November 8, 1900

'Couch. - At Penzance, November 6, John Quiller Couch, M.R.C.S., only surviving son of the late Jonathan Couch, M.R.C.S., F.L.S., etc of Polperro, in his 70th year.'

Also in the West Briton on the same day: the War in China; the re-election of McKinley as president of the U.S.A.


Evening Tidings

Thursday, November 8, 1900

Local and District News

'The funeral of the late Dr. Couch, of Chapel-street, Penzance, took place at the cemetery this morning. The chief mourners were Mr. R. Pearce Couch (Mayor of Penzance) and Mr. Quiller Couch (Q), nephews, and Mr. W. Edgcumbe, Liskeard ...Messrs Hosking, Boase and Bennet J.P., J Barclay Montgomery  and Hugh Montgomerie. W. & L. Bettany, ...the Great Western Railway Company was represented by Chief Inspector Harris … the Rev. W.A. Labrum officiated.'

The Rev William Arthur Labrum, who entered the ministry in 1877 and died in 1930, was the minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Chapel Street, Penzance. J.B. Montgomery was the consulting surgeon and H.M. Montgomerie the assistant surgeon at the West Cornwall Dispensary and Infirmary at St Clare, Penzance.


Evening Tidings, November 8, 1900

All persons having any CLAIMS or DEMANDS against the estate of JOHN QUILLER COUCH , late of Penzance, in the County of Cornwall, surgeon, deceased, who died on 6th day of November, 1900, are requested to send full particulars thereof in writing to me, the undersigned, on or before 17 November instant.

                                    J. Vivian Thomas

                                         3 Clarence Street, Penzance

                                                Solicitors for the Executors.'


Also in the Evening Tidings of November 8:

'The Fradgen Tragedy: The latest additions to the Fradgen tragedy are that five spectators have seen the ghost of the drowned child near his father's house ('Q' ought to get another tale out of this)...'


Evening Tidings for January 4 and February 26 included the following:


'The Proprietors of the Cornish Telegraph have arranged for the sole rights of publication in Cornwall of a serial story by Miss Mabel Quiller Couch, one of the talented sisters of Mr. A.T. Quiller-Couch ('Q'). The first instalment will appear on January 23rd.'

Mr. Quiller-Couch on the Boer War: 'This war has been detestable to me from the first, because I believe it could have been avoided by honest policy...'



Dr John Quiller Couch made a number of wills, the first apparently in 1878 and the last in the hours before his death. When he died the last will was disputed, with the matter eventually coming to court.


First will

The will of 1878 left legacies to Richard Pearce Couch of Penzance, the son of Richard Quiller Couch (d. 1863), Dr Thomas Quiller Couch of Bodmin and Jane Rundle Hitchens, the only child of Jonathan's first marriage. £50 went to Mary Quiller Fowler of Polperro, a friend and relation. Mary's mother must have been a Quiller. Mary married Charles Fowler, who in 1873 and 1878 is designated in directories as a master mariner. By 1883 he had left the sea, becoming an insurance agent for the 'West of England'. Mary and Charles lived at Hillside in Polperro. As there is no mention of either in the directory of 1893, they presumably had died. Their daughter, Mary Quiller Fowler, married someone who in court called himself a gentleman farmer, William Edgcumbe, who in 1893 owned Hillside in Polperro. Edgcumbe is a reasonably common name in Cornwall, but no William Edgcumbe farmed. Presumably he was a landowner. John Q. Couch maintained his friendship with Mary Fowler's daughter, to the extent of Mary and William Edgcumbe staying with him at 10 Chapel Street during the final weeks of his life.

John Q. Couch left what remained of his estate to his nieces, unnamed by the newspaper report. The executors were a Mr and Mrs Jenkin.

There is no mention in the will, at least as it is reported, of the only one of Jonathan and Jane's children who remained in the Polperro area in 1878, the epileptic Jonathan, (d. 1897). He was cared for by the Braddon family in Lansallos Street and presumably had been fully provided for. He died in 1897. More pointedly, John left nothing to Sarah Lander Couch and her three surviving children: Bertha, who wrote a 'Life' of her father and who became a governess at Launceston; Sarah Roose, who married a Jonathan Couch (?) in 1884; and Clarinda, who married Henry Sherwood in 1897. Sarah Lander Couch remarried, but was a widow for a second time two years later.

Will of August 1900

In August 1900, when suffering from gangrene in his leg, John made a new will. As it mentions £10 to a servant he had not lived totally alone. He left £100 to the Wesleyan Chapel in Chapel Street, the Wesleyan minister later taking his funeral, and £50 to the Naval Borough Chapel (?). Also mentioned is Mary (Quiller) Couch, the widow of Thomas, now living in Oxfordshire. Otherwise the estate went to the Edgcumbes and the Couches. Jane Rundle Hitchens had died nine years and Jonathan Couch of Polperro three years before.


The Disputed Will of November 1900

Unfortunately, on November 5, in considerable pain and facing death, John amended his will, using William Edgcumbe's Liskeard solicitor, Mr Strong. It was attested by Mr Strong and Mr Inch. This brought Edgcumbe into conflict with Richard Peace Couch who regarded himself as having sole authority as a blood relation. The amendment was slight. John died on the 6th, and the will was read on the 7th. Doubly unfortunate, it resulted in a court case. Yet for the student of the life of John Quiller Couch the information resulting from the newspaper reports is invaluable. All parties were probably acting in good faith but the situation took on a life of its own.

The Evening Tidings  of Friday and Saturday, July 26 and 27, 1901, while confusing some names, provides a detailed account of court proceedings, and an insight into John's character. The brackets are mine. It was said in court:

'He could hardly be described as a good tempered man, and if he took offence was apt to recollect it for a long time. Whether he disliked his relations because he did not see enough of them [presumably the children of Thomas in Oxfordshire] or because he saw too much [presumably the daughters of Richard during John's illness] was not clear. But he took honest, thorough going dislikes, and among them were a considerable number of his relations [certainly Sarah Lander Couch and her daughters].'

Whether this is a balanced assessment is open to discussion, but there is certainly an element of truth. The account continues:

'He was a man of very saving habits, and, being single, he spent very little money on the pleasure of life which might involve expenditures …...he had filled various public offices....he was in communication with Mrs. Edgcumbe [and] her husband. He communicated with these people and they came to see him.'

According to Dr Curnow, John was 'a very clever man, and much in request'. He took 'a great interest in the South Africa War.'

Dr Symons attended John during the last phase of his life, claiming the patient to be of 'sound mind'. When asked by counsel whether John had been violent in his last days, with the police being called, replied: 'He had a violent temper' and had been known to say, 'You know I have boasted all my life that I am a good hater'. John also claimed to Symons that before the arrival of the Edgcumbes, his nieces had hardly 'given him a quiet moment'.

We also learn that a Mr Bettany, a bank cashier and attender of the funeral, lived with John for a time. The value of the estate was estimated at about £12,000.

Whether all John's statements can be taken at face value, it is clear that he was a man of intense feeling, considerable intelligence and capable of deep relationships. With those who could not match up, he tended to intolerance. He was highly regarded by many, disliked by some and feared, no doubt, by not a few. As a medical practitioner he was probably in a very high bracket. Visiting Dr Couch would have been a daunting experience, but you got your money’s worth!