This is a study of the life and writings of Dr Richard Quiller Couch (1816–1863), the oldest son of Dr Jonathan Couch. He was Q's uncle, but died shortly before Q was born. However, Q formed a close relationship with Richard's children in Penzance. The study is based on Richard's writings in the journals and reports of:
- Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society
- The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall
- The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, particularly 'A Statistical Investigation into the Mortality of Miners’.
- The Royal Institution of Cornwall
The study also looks at the life of Richard Quiller Couch with special emphasis on his training at Guy's Hospital in London.
Richard Quiller Couch was born in Polperro, in south-east Cornwall, on March 14, 1816, in the first year of peace following the Napoleonic War. The previous June the Battle of Waterloo had been fought, with Napoleon abdicating soon afterwards and on July 7 the allied armies occupying Paris. In November, the Second Treaty of Paris was signed. France's star was on the wane, with that of Prussia rising. The year of Jonathan Couch's death, 1870, saw the defeat of France by Prussia.
Politically, London government under Lord Liverpool saw the established politicians driving under the forces of reform which the French Revolution had encouraged. In his Cambridge lecture 'Shelley (I)', Q castigates 'Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Canning' for their reactionary Toryism. In 1816, Polperro was surrounded by 'rotten boroughs' (boroughs with very few voters that were able to elect MPs and that were usually in the control of one individual or family). Looe had four MPs, with the boroughs controlled for local landed families by Thomas Bond. (For a short biography of Bond see The Mayor of Troy (Couch, 1906).) Jonathan Couch was a personal friend of Bond but not of his politics. Richard was born into a politically radical family.
Richard was the first child of Jonathan and Jane Couch, but he had an older half-sister, Jane Rundle Couch, the offspring of Jonathan's marriage to Jane Prynn Rundle. Jane died in childbirth on October 14, 1810. Richard was born on March 12 but he was not baptised until June 12, his parents’ first wedding anniversary. The baptism took place at Lansallos church, where Jonathan Couch and Jane Quiller had been married a year earlier. The gap of three months suggests that Jonathan, a Wesleyan, had little regard for the doctrine of 'baptismal regeneration' although it had been held by the Revds John and Charles Wesley.
Richard appears to have been the last Couch to be baptised an Anglican. Jonathan had led the Polperro Wesleyans out of Anglicanism in 1814, overseeing the construction of a Wesleyan chapel. The baptismal register for Polperro Wesleyan Chapel opens on March 15, 1818, when Mary Paul of Water Gate was baptised by William Jewel. The first Couch was Jonathan on November 28, 1821, with Thomas, Q's father, following on September 28, 1826. As Thomas had been born on May 26, 1826, there was a gap of four months. (There is evidence of dual baptisms on some registers!.)
When Richard later moved to Penzance he would have encountered the Branwell family. It was Maria Branwell of Penzance who married Patrick Bronte, with the Bronte novelists as offspring. The Branwells were also Wesleyan Anglicans. At least one branch moved out of Anglicanism at the same time as Jonathan Couch. The baptismal register for the Penzance Wesleyan Circuit, commencing in 1804, gives Joseph, son of Joseph and Charlotte Branwell, being baptised on December 26, 1813, with Richard following on February 18, 1816, and Thomas Bronte on April 20, 1817.
Central to Richard's life at this time was his father's rejection of authority, religious, political and scientific. Jonathan opposed the oligarchies which ruled the political life of the area, supporting the movement of reform which led to the Reform Act of 1832. He also opposed what he saw as the clericalisation of Wesleyanism, and in 1835 helped head a movement which led to schism. Scientifically, he believed in observation and experiment, not the tenets of any scientific establishment or medical school. Richard's mother appears to have been an eminently practical woman. When confronted by a fanciful notion from a young Couch, she would respond that 'it butters no parsnips!' Her health, however, was never robust, possibly owing to the traumas of having her father, her grandfather and other near relations lost at sea. This did not lead to an austere home. They were a family steeped in wide reading and with a penchant for watercolours. Many thought Thomas, Q's father, should have become a professional watercolourist. Nor was it religiously repressive, as academic histories and Bronte scholarship would have us believe of such homes. Wesleyan followed the central tenet of the Reformation, 'Salvation by faith through grace', not salvation through moral repression.
According to J.R. Johns in Doctor by Nature (2010, p. 28), the Couch family moved into the Quiller house, by the bridge in Polperro, after the death of Jane's mother. The Quillers had been one of Cornwall's leading smuggling, privateering and coastal trading families before and during the Napoleonic period. Jonathan was amazed at the false beams, a wig-cupboard and a lazaret (a smugglers' hidey-hole), along with the key of a quadrant hung by Jane's father before his last journey. Q describes this in Memories and Opinions (1945, p. 4) and in a number of his stories. How Richard's youthful imagination must have been fired!
Of all Jonathan's children, Richard is the one who most took after him and of whom most was expected. He was educated at home, attended the Wesleyan chapel and collaborated with Jonathan on a number of zoological and geological projects. His aptitude for medicine was pronounced, with Guy's Hospital as the place chosen for his training. Such training was ruinously expensive, as all lectures and dissections had to be paid for in advance, and lodgings had to be procured. And Richard was the first of three to attend Guy's. Maybe some former Quiller money was put to use.
Medical Training at Guy's Hospital in London
In 1835, Richard qualified for medical training at Guy's Hospital, following in the footsteps of his father. In August of that year, Jonathan went to London to make the arrangements. Bertha Couch's Life (1891) includes a letter he wrote back from Ryder Street, St James, where William Yarrell lived. The letter reveals the distinguished people Jonathan met while there: Bransby Cooper, nephew of his former teacher Sir Astley Cooper, Dr Hodgkin, a lecturer, William Yarrell and Mr Gray, who introduced him to Mr Daw, curator of the museum. These names appear and reappear in histories of the time.
Eminent Doctors by G.T. Bettany (1885) gives us insight into Guy's Hospital at the time Richard was in training. He would have attended lectures, worked in the dissecting room and gone on ward rounds. These would all have had to be paid for. He probably also purchased lectures at other hospitals.
One of the leading physicians at Guy's was Thomas Addison. In 1824 he was appointed Assistant-Physician and in 1827 given a lectureship. Two years later, in conjunction with John Morgan, Surgeon to Guy's, he published An Essay on the Operation of Poisonous Agents on the Living Body (1829). In Q's novel Poison Island, Dr Beauregard is an expert on poisons. As Addison was still at Guy's when Thomas enrolled, there is probably a fictional link between Beauregard and Addison, although in character they were quite different. Addison was elected full Physician in 1837 and appointed Joint-Lecturer on Medicine with Dr Bright. Richard would certainly have received instruction in the lecture theatre, the dissecting room and the ward from Addison, Bright and Morgan.
According to Bettany (1885), Addison was an 'innovator' who used ‘observations’ and ‘deduction’. On occasions he addressed Guy's Physical Society, where no doubt Richard heard him. His ‘clinical teaching in the wards was especially superior. He could most vividly illustrate on the patient, and most clearly define and demonstrate his disease.’ We can well see Richard standing beside the bed with notebook in hand. As a teacher Addison was popular: ‘His interest in his class was genuine and unfeigned; he was eager to draw out the talents of his students’.
The approach to medicine taken by Addison was not greatly different from that taken by Jonathan's teachers 35 years before. ‘His strong, positive and perpetual insistence upon the term “practical” … He was always ready to discuss newly-started theories, but he never for a moment allowed them to interfere with the results of his mature experience.’As a consequence, ‘He never reasoned from a half-discovered fact …’ but would ‘tax his mind with the minutest details...until he achieved the ultimate object of an industry of search, a correlation of facts deduced from scientific observation...’. There can be little doubt that Richard was deeply influenced, in his medicine and his other scientific papers, by this approach. (Bettany, 1885, p. xi).
Addison published little in medical journals, but many papers appeared in Guy's Hospital Reports. He did address the Guy's Junior Physical Society, where Richard would have heard him. Eventually, Addison was elected to the Presidency of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society or R.M.C.S. Interestingly, he was a 'zealous Tory', in marked contrast to the political opinions of Jonathan's teachers.
Addison was only one of the distinguished doctors with whom Richard came into contact. Another was Richard Bright, who was born in the same year as Jonathan Couch, 1789. Richard Bright and Jonathan Couch did not meet. In 1808, when Jonathan was arriving at the united medical school of Guy's and St Thomas', Bright was entering Edinburgh University. In 1810, when Jonathan was leaving, Bright was journeying through Iceland studying botany and zoology. On the completion of his travels, Bright did arrive at Guy's, where he made contact with Jonathan's former tutor, (Sir) Astley Cooper. Richard Couch would have reason to make personal contact with Richard Bright.
In 1820, 15 years before the entry of Richard Couch, Dr Richard Bright was elected Assistant-Physician at Guy's Hospital and in 1822 a FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society). In 1822 he began lecturing on Botany and Materia Medica, being joined in 1824 by Dr Cholmeley and some years after by Dr Addison. Bettany informs us that Bright was not a 'theorist' but an observer and a dissector, with his records showing care and detail. In 1836, the year after Richard Couch's entry, eight papers by Bright appeared in Guy's Hospital Reports and Richard would certainly have studied them. Having been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1832, Bright was a censor in 1836 and delivered the Lumleian lectures on 'Disorders of the Brain' in 1837. He was a 'sincerely religious' man who married the third daughter of Dr Babington, snr, the close friend of Sir Humphry Davy.
A doctor who was associated with Guy's Hospital from 1823 to 1878 was Alfred Swaine Taylor. Richard, Thomas and John Couch would all have encountered him. He was an authority on geology, minerology and physiology. He studied chemistry under Allen and Aikin and won a prize at Guy's for anatomy. Guy's possessed its own chemical laboratory. He was an authority on poisoning and medical jurisprudence and in 1842 brought out Manual of Medical Jurisprudence which went through many British and American editions. He was frequently called to court as a witness in important legal cases. It is interesting that Richard Couch was also frequently called as a witness to Bodmin Assize for important and difficult legal cases. It is also interesting that Q deals with poisoning in The Haunted Dragoon, with Dr Gale providing the evidence, at the Spring Assize in Bodmin, upon which Madam Noy is convicted of poisoning her husband.
Richard Couch spent three years in London mixing with some of the most eminent physicians and scientists of his day. These provided him with more than information. They taught him a methodology, one he followed for the rest of his life. It emphasised the primacy of observed fact, dissection and experiment. It relegated theory and hypothesis to a secondary position. In other words, it drew a strict and uncrossable line between fact and theory. Fact was for the scientist and physician, theory for the philosopher. The test of fact was whether it led to positive results, whether it worked! Not whether it produced a good theory. In 1838, Richard passed his examination at the College of Surgeons on March 9 and received his diploma. On November 14 he passed his examination at the Apothecaries Hall. Richard subsequently returned to Polperro, turning his back on a career in London, as his father had done before.
The Return to Polperro from London, 1839 to 1844
Those desiring an overview of nineteenth century science in Cornwall at this time and the place in it of Richard and Jonathan Couch are directed to:
- Regionalizing Science: Placing Knowledges in Victorian England by Simon Naylor, number eleven in the Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century series, editor Bernard Lightman.
At a more biographical level:
- Doctor by Nature. Jonathan Couch: Surgeon of Polperro by Jeremy Rowett Johns.
- A Memoir of William Pengelly, edited by Hester Pengelly
What is found below complements or challenges but does not replace the above and is taken from various sources.
Also valuable is the 'Private Memoirs of Jonathan Couch', as transcribed and edited by Alwyne Wheeler from the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1983.
At the time Richard was completing his course in London, Jonathan Couch was elected a Corresponding Member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, a body of which Richard was later to be Secretary. Jonathan was proposed by its President, Davies Gilbert, a friend and relation of Thomas Bond of Looe, and the President of the Royal Society following from Sir Humphry Davy. The year after Richard's return, Jonathan attended the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, being appointed one of the local secretaries. On returning to Polperro, Richard was not consigning himself to a scientific backwater.
In conjunction with Jonathan and others, Richard commenced a detailed investigation of the zoology and geology of south-east Cornwall, publishing studies of national importance. In August 1841, Richard was awarded a Silver Medal for his Natural History of Zoophytes by the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, and in October 1843 was awarded the same for a paper on crustaceans. At the time he was working on the third part of Cornish Fauna, which was published in April 1845, with the drawings, transcribed with a steel pen to zinc plates, by Thomas Q. Couch, Q's father.
When Richard returned to Polperro around 1840, he must have expected a period of relative tranquillity back in the family home, assisting his father in the practice and continuing his zoological and geological investigations. The reality was somewhat different. There was considerable anti-Corn Law agitation which led to repeal and many tenant farmers leaving the land. Potato blight struck in 1845. In the same year Jonathan temporarily left the Wesleyan Methodist Association he had helped found, and in June 1847 came into direct conflict with the Anglican establishment over the burial of his granddaughter. As Richard appears to have joined St Mary's Anglican church on arrival in Penzance, it is significant that Jonathan wrote in his Private Memoir of June 1847: 'a church established by law, with exclusive privileges, is an established evil'. This was a minor breach between Richard and Jonathan which was later to widen.
The Private Memoir gives Richard as leaving Polperro on March 1, 1844. A letter home, dated March 19, outlines his hopes and plans. At the time he was working on section three of Cornish Fauna, having taken over the work from his father. Bertha Couch (1891) has him settling in Penzance in August 1845, possibly the month he established a practice at 10 Chapel Street. He lodged with Miss Swain, the post mistress. It was eight years before Richard married. On June 25, 1853, he wed Lydia Pearce, eldest daughter of Richard Pearce, merchant and later Mayor of Penzance. In September and October Jonathan visited Penzance and Penwith, staying for two weeks with Richard and Lydia in a house opposite the entrance or gate leading to the churchyard.
Lydia Pearce was a daughter of Richard Pearce, one of the most distinguished men of Penzance and at the centre of many activities. He was a manager of a local savings bank. He was also the Hanoverian and Belgian Consul, and the French, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Prussian, Spanish, Portuguese and Netherlands Vice-Consul. Furthermore, he was a Lloyds Agent and the Receiver of Wrecks. Richard Couch possibly initially came across Richard Pearce when he acted as consulting surgeon at the Public Dispensary and Richard Pearce was the dispensary's secretary.
Having his surgery at 10 Chapel Street, Richard Couch had distinguished neighbours. At number 15 stood Batten, Carne and Carne, a bank with Miss Elizabeth Carne as one of its directors. Elizabeth Carne contributed papers to the Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. Nearby lived Joseph Carne, FRS, MPIA, the society's treasurer. In 1864, the Misses Millett, who contributed studies in botany to the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, lived at number 35, although in 1856 they lived at 5 Clarence Place. An interesting name in Chapel Street in 1856 was Edmund Davy. Closely related to Sir Humphry Davy were two other scientists of distinction, Edmund Davy snr and Edmund Davy jnr. Maybe one retired back to Penzance.
Richard quickly established himself at the centre of the Royal Geological Society and the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. On May 28, 1854, Maria Jane was born, followed on March 21, 1856, by Sarah Lydia. Richard's mother died in Polperro, aged 67, in September 1857. On June 25, 1858, Richard jnr was born, an individual Q was to come to know. The first section of Richard snr's study on The Mortality of Miners was translated into French in the same year. However, in Polperro his father was courting Sarah Lander Roose, a much younger woman, in a relationship Richard strongly disapproved of. Jonathan and Sarah were married in Liskeard on October 23, 1858. Correspondence with Jonathan ceased, but was maintained with John Quiller Couch, Jonathan's youngest son, who was about to move to Penzance. On March 16, 1860, Margaret was born, but on July 5, 1862 a second son died soon after birth. Richard Pearce, Richard's father-in-law, died on August 23, 1862. In the following November Richard was elected an Alderman. He was also Staff-Surgeon to the western Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's Rifle Volunteers and surgeon to the West Cornwall Railway Company. He was frequently subpoenaed for important cases at the Cornwall Assizes in Bodmin.
By 1862 Richard was a locally, a nationally and to a lesser extent an internationally known figure. He was at the height of his powers with a string of distinguished publications behind him and a well-paid practice to support him and his growing family.
Death and Aftermath
Richard Quiller Couch died in May 1863, aged 47. Some time before he had inoculated himself with poisonous matter from an unguarded nail-spring and his health had never properly recovered. In August 1862, Richard Pearce, Richard's father-in-law died. On March 2, 1863, Thomas Quiller Couch married Mary Ford of Abbotskerswell. In the middle of April Richard took a turn for the worse and in spite of the ill-feeling occasioned by Jonathan's third marriage, Jonathan travelled from Polperro to Penzance to assist recovery. After two weeks Jonathan returned home. Then a week later on May 8, at about midnight, Richard died, leaving a widow and four children, three daughters and one son. The family had intended a private funeral but this was not possible for such a public figure. At this time John Quiller Couch, Jonathan's youngest son, was in practice in Penzance. He gave the widow some assistance, but, being an irascible man, unusual in a Couch, soon fell out with her.
The funeral took place on Friday 15, with the Rev P. Hedgeland, incumbent of St Mary's Anglican church, Penzance, taking the funeral. The Corporation and representatives from various bodies took part. He was buried in Penzance cemetery.
The death of Richard was widely reported. When Bertha Couch came to write her Life of Jonathan Couch in 1891, she obtained information about Richard from an obituary report in the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Gazette. Bertha Couch was the oldest child of Jonathan's third marriage, while Richard was the oldest from Jonathan's second marriage. Richard died in 1863, Bertha in 1942. it is unlikely that she ever met any of the children from the second marriage, even though Dr John Q. Couch of Penzance, the youngest of Jonathan's sons by his second marriage, was still alive when Bertha was writing her Life. The report is sufficiently long and detailed to suggest having been written by a member of the Couch family, possibly Thomas, Q's father.
The Plymouth report is considerably longer than the one found in The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser on Friday, May 15, 1863:
'The funeral of the late Mr. Richard Q. Couch, surgeon, of Penzance, will take place on Friday morning, at eleven o'clock, on which mournful occasion there will, no doubt, be a very large attendance of the inhabitants generally, as well as many of his closest friends from a distance.'
In a different column is a report from the 1st Penzance D.C.R. Volunteers of Monday 7 pm:
'The lamented decease of the surgeon of the battalion, Mr. R. Q. Couch, was also made subject of a few kind and appropriate remarks by Captain Boase; after which the company proceeded to the prom and went through the light infantry evolutions...'
The paper also includes a report of the annual review of the Royal Cornwall Rangers Militia at Bodmin barracks. Thomas Q. Couch was surgeon to the militia. Q was born at Bodmin six months after the decease of Richard. As it says in Memories and Opinions (1945, pp.14-4), Q attended (with his father) the final reviews and rifle practice on Cardinham moors, an account of which also appears in Chapter II of the novel The Ship of Stars.
'On Tuesday last, the regiment was reviewed on Bodmin Beacon by Lieut.-Colonel Addision of the 2nd (Queens Royal) Regiment of Foot...Lieut.-Colonel Addison accompanied by Lieut.-Colonel Commandant Coryton, arrived on the ground at 11 a.m. ...On Thursday they were dismissed.'
In the 'Deaths' column appeared:
'At Chapel-Street, Penzance, on Saturday last, regretted by a wide circle of friends, and by many scientific and literary acquaintances, Richard Q. Couch, Esq., M.R.C.S., aged 46.'
This is a rare mention of Richard's literary side.
Nearby, under the heading The War in America, was reported the crossing of the Rappehannock by General Hooker as a prelude to the battle of Fredericksburg. The report appeared after the battle had actually taken place. The battle produced a famous photograph by Matthew Brady: 'Confederate dead at Marye's Height, Fredericksburg, Virginia'. The photograph was taken less than 20 minutes after the Heights had been stormed by Sedgwick's 6th Maine Infantry, on May 3, 1863 (A.J. Russell/Brady Collection). A General Couch fought on the Union side during the American Civil War, but whether related is unknown.
In 1864, Miss Pearce and Mrs Richard Quiller Couch are given as living at 22 Chapel Street. Miss Swain, post-mistress, with whom Richard lodged before his marriage, is given as living at number 50. John Quiller Couch and Mrs Henry Rickard, presumably his housekeeper, are given at 10 Chapel Street, where the surgery was.
Richard's children appeared to have shared few of their father's interests. Richard Pearce Couch became a successful businessman in Penzance. In 1897, he was offered the mayoralty but turned it down. The following year he accepted. The Cornish Telegraph for Thursday, November 17, 1898, gives an account of the mayoralty banquet, which Dr John Q. Couch attended, and at which Q was the guest speaker. Q appears to have been close to his Couch relations in Penzance. No doubt he stayed with them while researching his western stories. The novella Ia, set in Hayle and St Ives, came out in 1896, with Dr Hammer being based on Dr John Q Couch, although devoid of irascibility. Dr Hammer has to deal with diptheria and typhus. He takes the practical steps of improving hygiene and sanitation after having followed the course of disease from the sites of infection to the various parts of the town. He uses fact and observation not theory to ameliorate the situation. What is true is what works!
Q's short and amusing speech was fully reported in the Cornish Telegraph. The speech also gives a little insight into family affairs:
'Not many of them had the honour of being kinsmen of the Mayor of Penzance. There at least he could congratulate himself. The Mayor's father and his father were brothers, and also very dear friends. Sad to say, all this was very long ago;'
'The Mayor was the latest representative of a family (Pearce) which had filled the Mayoral chain with dignity for many generations. But, if he was the latest, why should he be the last. (Loud applause and laughter). He felt certain that if they could only persuade him, if only they could convince him what lustre his dignity would take were it shared by a gifted and amiable partner, his term of office, which they all hoped would be a happy and successful one, would be remembered as such, and he would then admit that this happiness had at least been redoubled. (Applause.)'