The Life and Writings of Richard Quiller Couch


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. 

Biographical Details


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.

Adolescent Years

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.)'

The Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society

This is an investigation of the scientific thinking of Dr Richard Quiller Couch (1816-1863) as seen in his work for the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society from 1845. Before dismissing Penzance, in the far west of Cornwall, as a scientific backwater, it needs to be remembered that two of the most distinguished presidents of the Royal Society in London, Sir Humphry Davy and Davies Giddy (or Gilbert) MP, came from the area and maintained links with it. Previous to this Richard Trevithick had conducted experiments in high-pressure steam at a local mine. Penzance was surrounded by tin and copper mines, smelting works and stone quarries. The minerals adorning Alexander Pope's grotto had been supplied for him by the Rev W. Borlase of Penzance. It was the Borlase family who provided the scientific foundation of Davy's later work. The mines, quarries and drowned landscapes of Penwith provided Davy with phenomena of a unique kind. In Mrs Borlase, an authority on seaweed, there was the foundation for female involvement in science, whose development can be seen in some papers published by the society from Elizabeth Carne and the Misses Millett.

The society possessed members of considerable distinction. When Richard first joined the vice-president was William T. Praed (1780-1846), MP for St Ives, of Messrs Praed, bankers of London; with the president as a local JP, John Paynter (1790-1847). Paynter was succeeded by Joseph Carne (1782-1858), FRS, FGS, MRIA, whose father had been a close friend of John Wesley. Carne produced writings on geology, minerology and metallurgy. His daughter was banker, geologist and travel writer Elizabeth Carne (1817-1873). It is not unlikely that the Carnes consulted Richard for medical purposes.

Any student of the scientific writings of the Couch family needs to treat works of popular science dealing with the first half of the nineteenth century with considerable scepticism, especially the erroneous idea that, prior to Charles Darwin, everyone understood the first chapter of Genesis literally, believing the world to have been created in seven units of 24 hours. The Hebrew mind gave to the numbers three, seven, twelve and forty a special symbolic importance, with seven signifying fullness or perfection. What people did take from Genesis was the notion of linear time and the notion of creation as a harmony. Coming from an area where an oral tradition remained strong, individuals like Davy and Richard Couch were well able to appreciate the oral basis of the written text of the Bible. They also appreciated that, as the creation is a harmony, it can be investigated experimentally.

Davy, a deeply religious man, realised that the Bible opened up not closed down scientific ideas. He also saw genius as a divine gift, as Dr John Davy's Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1839) shows, a gift not to be enclosed in transient theories or conventional thinking. About the time Richard was born Humphry Davy was speculating:

'Probably there is an analogy in all existence: the divided tail of the fish is linked in a strong succession of like objects with the biped man. In the “planetary system” it is probable that man will be found connected with a higher intellectual nature and it is possible that the monad, or soul, is constantly undergoing a series of progressions.'(Davy, 1839, p. 217)

Davy was fully aware of evolutionary thinking, as were many at the time, but refused to trap it within the narrow confines of materialism. John Davy informs us that his brother abided in the realms of materialism for a very short time, seeing materialism as incapable of explaining the world within which we exist. Richard Couch was not an original thinker and lacked the genius of Davy. But he followed Davy in rejecting materialism as a basis for understanding the nature of the world. In coming to Penzance he would have come across John Davy's Life of his brother and the alternative view of evolution it presented to the ideas of Charles Darwin, coming onto the market at the time.

What Q says in his printed lectures On Some Seventeenth Century Poets (1918) is worth considering in relation to the thought of Humphry Davy and his own scientific forebears. These lectures appear to be an exploration of the ideas of Donne, Herbert and Vaughan, commonly called the Metaphysical Poets, but are in fact Q's reflections upon them.

As with Jonathan and Richard Couch, Davy drew a firm line between fact, as directly observed or established by experiment, and theory:

'Our knowledge is little indeed: and scepticism in regard to theory is what we ought most rigorously to adhere to.(Davy, 1839, p. 69)

What Davy rejected is the idea of a purely material universe overseen by chance:

'Then, if matter is naturally inanimate, motionless and disorganised, it would ever have continued so,' and 'chance would have no influence... [However,] 'If every part of matter had been naturally inclined to motion, the world would have been a universe of dancing atoms, without regularity.' (pp. 69-71).

In Einstein, written by his friend Banesh Hoffman in collaboration with Helen Dukas, Einstein's long time secretary, Hoffman says: 'In Einstein's long battle over the interpretation of quantum mechanics one theme recurred again and again: his instinctive dislike of the idea of a probabalistic universe in which the behaviour of atoms depends on chance.' Or 'God does not play dice.' (1972, p.193). 

What is being said by Davy and Einstein is what Q said in his printed lecture Herbert and Vaughan, - 'the Universe is not a Chaos but a Harmony.'; and the job of  'poetry... is to harmonise the soul of man with the immense Universe surrounding him.'  Q rejects the idea found in William Paley's A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) the argument from design, a university text in the early part of the nineteenth century. It is not that the idea of God can be inferred from the order of the Universe, but that the order of the Universe reflects a rational God and cannot be understood on the basis of chance, randomness and conflict. Certain texts ascribe the argument from design to Jonathan Couch, but this is a profound error. Jonathan Couch, a dedicated Wesleyan, followed John Wesley in believing God to be known personally through revelation to the soul and the material world to be known, although imperfectly, through the five senses and through reason. See John Wesley's A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity (1761).

Jonathan Couch was training at the combined medical school of Guy's and St Thomas' from 1808 to 1810 when Humphry Davy was delivering his celebrated public lectures at the Royal Institution. In August 1835, Jonathan returned to London to arrange for the training of Richard at Guy's Hospital. While there he met Bransby Cooper, nephew of Jonathan's former tutor, Sir Astley Cooper, and Dr Hodgkin. He also met William Yarrell, with whom he had a close scientific relationship. When Thomas Quiller Couch, Q's father, went for training at Guy's the famous zoologist entertained him at his home and took him to philosophical meetings, as Simon Naylor relates in Regionalizing Science (2010, p. 87).  Presumably, Yarrell did the same for Richard. As Jonathan was in regular contact with some of Britain's leading zoologists, including Richard Owen, Charles Peach, John Gray and Frank Buckland, it is not difficult to understand the breadth and depth of Richard's education in London. The material Charles Darwin was sending back from his trip on The Beagle, from 1831 to 1836, must have been of central interest. It is vital for any student of Q to appreciate the scientific importance of the family at this time in the history of zoology, geology and medicine.

Richard quickly established himself as the leading figure in the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, founded in 1839, giving the introductory address at its AGM on September 12, 1845. From that date a journal was published each year, with contributions from Jonathan, Richard and Thomas Couch. William Yarrell, John Ralfs, Misses Louisa and Matilda Millett and others. The journal concerned itself with the facts of observation and how these should be properly organised, not with hypothesis and theory.

Why Richard moved from Polperro to Penzance in 1844-5 is not presently known, but Dr John Rowe's Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (1993) provides some insights. In Cornwall, the 1840s were the 'hungry forties'. Rowe informs us of a ten per cent decline in the population of the fishing and farming parish of Stratton and a five per cent drop in the Meneage parishes between 1841 and 1851. In the Looe area agricultural wages declined. From 1839 farmers felt increasingly threatened by anti-corn law agitation. May of that year saw Thomas Acland speaking against the Corn Laws in Liskeard. T.J. Agar Robartes MP was also against protection. John Bright addressed another meeting at Liskeard in April 1843. (Q was to have close political relationships with the families of Acland and Robartes during the premiership of A.J. Balfour, 1903–6, when Joseph Chamberlain again promoted protection, under the flag of 'Imperial Preference' in the Conservative Party.)

The problems in agriculture included potato blight, of which Jonathan Couch made a study. In 1845 he published Observations on the Disease which has injured the Potato in the present year'  and in 1847 Further Inquiries into the Nature and Effects of the prevailing Disease in Potatoes. These studies deal with fact and observation, avoiding theory and speculation. A poor fishing and agricultural parish like Polperro was probably unable to support two doctors, persuading Richard to go west to the rising town of Penzance, especially as an extension of the London railway to Penzance was being planned (completed August 1852). See Rowe (1993, pp. 149 and 248–252).

In his writings, Richard Couch positioned himself beside his father as a believer in facts. Theoreticians he saw as 'speculative philosophers'. The position is captured by Q in the character of Dr Carfax from  Castle Dor (1961) who 'stuck to observed facts without any theorizing'. It was the position Q inherited. This emphasis on fact led Richard to believe species to be adaptable to differing conditions but essentially fixed in nature. He was unaware of any species changing over time into another, as was later propounded by Darwinists. Many who read books of popular science will see this as a dated position overturned by subsequent observations. However, the reader is invited to consult Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996, p.10) or any other book, by the distinguished Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. 

The reader is also invited to note the position of women in the local natural history society. In the report of 1852, for instance, there is a study of 'Flowers and Ferns of the Isles of Scilly' by Misses Louisa and Matilda Millett, and Richard Couch's published letter to Miss Warren appears in the Report of 1849.

Contributions to the Journal

On September 12, 1845, with John Paynter in the chair, Richard Quiller Couch rose to give his first introductory address to the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society at their AGM in the museum in Penzance. He defined natural history as a 'description of the outward forms and habits of all organized beings.' All such beings are 'regulated by the same laws' producing 'an unity of result'. Until recently Natural History had existed 'as a mass of facts without order or design, regulated by no laws but those which systematists have chosen to impose.' Aristotle, Linnaeus and Cuvier had produced only 'artificial systems'.

'The various departments of the animal-creation, however diversified, possess an intimate dependence on one another; so that the destruction of one would, in some degree, affect the well-being of the rest...Nature...provides for the harmony of the whole.'

In relation to scientific method Richard says:

'In the study of natural history, however, we cannot follow so closely, the methods of induction, experiment and mathematical reasoning, as in other departments of science.'

Looking back in part to his study of zoophytes along the shoreline from Looe to Fowey,  published in 1841 as A Natural History of Cornish Zoophytes, and Observations on the Sponges of Cornwall, published in 1842, and to an investigation of fossil material generally, Richard continued:

'It is difficult to divide animal from plant life, with sponges occupying ground between'.

There is:

'no distinction between the two kingdoms; but that one flows imperceptibly into the other.'

In relation to man's place in the natural order: 'In the higher grades, the creatures differ much among themselves, but are endowed with sensations and locomotion; and thus they rise, by gradations, to the perfection of all in man.'

Richard then discusses the 'laws of MacLey': the 'circle of relationship'; the 'law of analogy'; and the 'law of development', where a creature passes through earlier forms, as with a frog from fish to reptile.

Richard concludes with the image of a cone, with nature revealing gradations, 'having, for its base, inorganic matter, and for its apex, man.' All are 'governed, not by accident, but by law.'

The notion of a universe as the product of chance, randomness and conflict is as alien to Richard Couch as it was to Humphry Davy and would be to Albert Einstein.

The journal of 1845 contained four papers by Dr Richard Q Couch:

  • 'On the Morphology of the different Organs of Zoophytes' investigates how far the theory of Professor Forbes can be supported from observation. It is clearly written by someone with surgical skills
  • 'On the Reproduction of Amputated Parts in the Lower Animals' contains the results of a series of experiments on the mode in which injured and amputated parts in the Reptilia and Crustacea are restored
  • 'Notice of the Capture of the common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) on the Cornish Coast' records the capture of a dolphin at Hayle
  • 'Remarks on a new Zoophyte belonging to the genus Crisia'

Jonathan Couch records in his Private Memoirs (R.I.C., Truro) for November 1845 that he was elected an honorary member of the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Penzance in that month. At the time he was investigating the problem of disease in potatoes which was seriously affecting the populations of Britain and Ireland. Cornwall knew the decade as the 'hungry forties'. At the time, 1841-1865, he was contributing papers to the British Association.

The Report of 1846

An Address, on the Geographical distribution of the Animal and Vegetable Kingdom, given by Dr R.Q. Couch

Richard Couch argues that natural history is an 'inductive science' showing nature to be 'governed by definite laws'...'united ' in 'an harmonious whole'. An apparent 'wild irregularity' is because 'several links in the chain had been destroyed', but the 'labours of geologists' will provide a complete picture 'demonstrative of design'. Hence, 'the great diversity of Nature' and the 'irregularity' of her 'products' from the poles to the equator has a 'diversity' which 'resolves itself into perfect order'.

Humboldt has already clearly illustrated how 'similar climes' are frequently 'clothed with the same genera' and 'the same species of plants'. 'Climate and soil' are more important than geographical location – a point explained at considerable length. There is a 'law of distribution' which is at present obscure.

As an exponent of observed fact, Richard continues: 'In opposition to the speculations of some visionary philosophers … the character of every creature is permanent … there is not a single instance in which it can be proved, that one creature ever grew into the form and character of another.' See Stephen Jay Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996): 'The positions, which are capable of proof, must be the foundations of our success.'

Geology gives evidence of climate change with some species adapting and others not. 'Geological and climate changes will account for a good deal.' Some species survive while others become extinct.

The paper reflects upon the work of Humboldt, Darwin, others not named, and Richard's own researches.

Contributions to the journal of 1846 by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch

  • 'Note on a new species of Crustacea allied to Gonoplax rhumbuicles by Jonathan Couch'
  • 'Notice of the Capture of two rare British Fishes in Mounts Bay by Richard Q. Couch'
  • 'On a new muscle discovered in the eye of Fishes' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Account of the capture, in Cornwall, of the Six-branchial or Gray Shark; but lately recognized in the British Fauna (caught Feb. 19, 1846)' by Jonathan Couch


The Report of 1847

Annual address: Observations on the Botany and Zoology of Cornwall by R.Q. Couch

'It is always much easier to dilate into vague generalities than to descend to the close investigation of particulars; hence many of our philosophers possess such expanded views of creation, and comprehensive ideas on the grand lines of Nature, that they think it beneath their station to examine the component parts of which all great masses are formed.'

'I may be asked whether all creatures, sui generis, spring from a single pair? Without a visage of any intermediate communication?...Are they products of “the historical”? Or survivors of “a previous state”? ...Mr (John) Gray (of the British Museum) observes, that the fossil shells now found in the different strata show that a different geographical distribution of these animals existed in a former state of our globe.'

While the surface of earth may change and the fauna and flora with it,

'the laws of Nature are immutable and universal, extending from the most minute to the most gigantic objects.'

Contributions to the journal by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch

  • 'On the Migration of Pilchards (Clupea pilchardus)' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'The recent capture in Cornwall of Hemiramphus europaeus' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'On the Egg-purse and Embryo of a species of Myliobatis' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'Complexity in the conditions of Animals' by Jonathan Couch

 Illustrations of  Instinct, deduced from the Habits of British Animals by Jonathan Couch was published in 1847. Thomas Quiller Couch later commented on this work:

'This book, I may venture to say, is not merely a collection of striking instances of intelligence in the actions of animals, but a philosophical attempt to connect growing complexity of organisation, from the simplest to the most elaborate structure, with a concurrent evolution of mind; in fact, to make comparative anatomy and comparative psychology illustrate each other'.(Couch, B., 1891, pp. 63-4).

Animal intelligence is now generally accepted. Couch was way in advance of his time. It is worth noting the phrase 'evolution of mind' used in 1847. The reader is invited to refer back to the quotation from Davy on the evolution of matter and mind. Davy saw these as inseparable.

The Report of 1848

Annual address: Study of Natural History by Richard Q. Couch

All creatures have 'harmony of form' and a 'harmony of habit and instinct.'

'General laws are but the expression of a repetition of a number of facts, with the order of succession... All reasonings must be on facts carefully ascertained'.

'Instances of remarkable intelligence are to be found occurring in most creatures.'

Contributions to the Journal by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch:

  • 'On a supposed unrecognized Fish of  the genus Brama' by Jonathan Couch and with illustrations by Thomas Q. Couch. There are references to 'my friend Mr Yarrell' and to his History of British Fish and to Cuvier's Animal Kingdom
  • 'On the Mackerel' by Richard Q. Couch'
  • 'On the Vitality of the Axis of Asteroid Zoophytes' by Richard Q. Couch.'


The Report for 1849

Annual Address: Remarks on the luminosity of the Sea by R.Q. Couch

(Q refers to this in his stories under the dialect word 'brimming'.)

Contributions to the journal by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch

  • 'Addition of  a new Fish to the Cornish Fauna' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'On the Physiological development of Cells among the Crustaceous Zoophytes' by Richard Q Couch
  • 'Notice of a new species of Crisidiaby Richard Q. Couch
  • Horae Zoologicae; in a letter to Miss Warren by Richard Q. Couch. (See below)
  • 'Description of Scomber punctatus, a species of Mackerel not hitherto recognised by Naturalists' by Jonathan Couch

 (Note: Miss Elizabeth A.Warren, born Truro, April 25, 1786, resided at Flushing and died at Kea May 5, 1864. An original subscriber to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1833. Published in its Reports: 'On the recent botanical discoveries in Cornwall' in 1842; 'Marine Algae found on the Falmouth shores' in 1849. Contributed to: Johnstone & Croall, Nature-printed British seaweeds, 1859-60; J. Ralfs, British desmideae.)

The Report of 1850

Address: On the causes of the great vital powers of the Hydra or Fresh-water Polypus by Richard Q. Couch

'By its (microscopic) assistance, we see that the strange powers of the Hydra reside in no superadded quality, but are the natural results of a law common to all organized structures - a law which was as perfectly developed in the older organism of our globe as at the present time.'

 Contribution by Jonathan Couch

'Remarks on a specimen of the Pike-headed Whale (Balaenoptera rostrata) taken near Polperro' (May 8,1850) by Jonathan Couch

The Report of 1851

No address.

On the council of the society in 1851 were: R. Branwell, presumably a near relation of Maria Bronte née Branwell and Elizabeth Branwell, mother and aunt of the Bronte novelists. Richard Pearce, Richard's father-in-law. R.V. Davy, presumably a relation of Sir Humphry Davy. A Humphry Davy was also associated with the society.

Contributions to the journal by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch

  • 'Notice of a Crustacean, new to Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch. (Professor T. Bell of King's College, London, assigned it the name Xantho couchii)
  • 'Notice of the capture of a Sturgeon, differing from those recognised as British' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Remarks on the discovery of a special Onchidiom [a rare sort of sea-slug] on the coast of Cornwall' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'Notice of the Capture, in Mounts Bay, of Pennant's Globe-fish (Tetrodon pennanti)'  by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Additions to the Cornish list of Zoophytes' by Richard Q. Couch


The Report of 1852

No address.

Papers by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch

  • 'Observations on the progress of Development of the Young in some species of  Crustacean Animals' by Jonathan Couch

  • 'On the Nest of the Fifteen-spined Stickleback' by Jonathan Couch.
  • 'On some of  the rarer forms of Cornish Crustacea' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Translations from Domesday' by Jonathan Couch


The Report of 1853

No address.

Papers by Jonathan, Richard and Thomas Couch, and William Yarrell

  • 'The Popular Antiquities of Polperro and its neighbourhood' by Thomas Q. Couch
  • 'Description of a specimen of a Pocket Dial used in ancient times and referred to by Shakespeare in As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'On a new species of Axius' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'Translations from Domesday' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'On the Habits and Structure of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda of Linnaeus)'  by William Yarrell
  • 'Notes on the Metamorphoses of the Common Crab (C. Pagurus)' by Richard Q. Couch


The Report of 1854

 No annual address by Richard Q. Couch.


Contributions to the journal by Jonathan, Richard and Thomas Q. Couch

  • 'Remarks on the capture of the Fox or Thresher Shark in Mounts Bay' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'The Popular Antiquities of Polperro and its neighbourhood II' by Thomas Q. Couch
  • 'On two species of Sharks, believed to have been confounded together under the name of 'Basking Shark' by Jonathan Couch.
  • 'Popular Antiquities of Polperro and its neighbourhood III'  by Thomas Q. Couch
  • 'Translations from Domesday' by Jonathan Couch


The Report of 1855

No address by Richard Q. Couch.

Contributions to the journal by Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch

  • 'Notice of a capture of a new species of Palaemon'  by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Notice of a capture in Mounts Bay of Planea' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Linnaeane' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Notice of the occurrence in Cornwall of that rare Zoophyte, Retepora reticulate' by Richard Q. Couch
  • 'Particulars of some of the Habits of the Dipper' by Jonathan Couch
  • 'Remarks on Henslow's Swimming Crab (Polybius henslowii)' by Richard Q. Couch

Subsequent Reports were either insubstantial or absent from the bound collection in the Morrab Library, Penzance.

The report for 1862-3 mentions the death of Richard Q. Couch (1863).

The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall

The Society was founded in 1814 at what appeared to be the end of the Napoleonic War, with Napoleon safely secured on the island of Elba. Q set the novel Poison Island at this time, with POWs returning from France and Dr Beauregard visiting the deposed emperor on Elba. Two years later, Richard was to be born to Jonathan and Jane Couch in Polperro.

At the time of Richard's removal from Polperro to Penzance, in 1844-5, Sir Charles Lemon, Bart, MP, FRS, FGS, was president of the society, with Joseph Carne, FRS, MPIA, as treasurer. Contributions to the transactions of the society came locally from Charles Peach, William Pengelly and Elizabeth Carne, and from abroad from Captain G.B. Tremenheere, FGS, Bengal Engineer, and Wm Jory Henwood, CE, FRS, FGS, Chief Commissioner of the Gongo Soco and Catta Preta Gold Mines.

Few areas of the globe are of greater geological interest than Cornwall, as it contains igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks of varying ages, plus extensive coasts and drowned landscapes. The central metalliferous backbone, from Dartmoor to West Penwith, has been extensively mined, revealing material from a considerable depth, while quarries expose material from closer to the surface. Fossils occur in sedimentary areas, particularly south-east Cornwall, where Jonathan was based, and where Richard Couch and William Pengelly were able to subsequently investigate. Work done in Cornwall fed into a national and international picture.

The writings of Jonathan and Richard Couch are a snapshot of geology at a particular time and we need to capture the excitement of continuous discoveries and fascinating problems. These workers helped free geological science from the shibboleths of the eighteenth century, establishing the subject on the basis of observation and experiment. The Couches drew a strict line between fact and theory, seeing fact as the job of the scientist and theory as the job of the philosopher. They also championed clear, concise English, a concern later taken up by Q. In fact, the methodology of Jonathan and Richard had a profound influence upon Q. It is the methodology of Dr Carfax in Q's last and unfinished novel Castle Dor.

The Couches were dedicated to geological research, but they saw this as part of a wider culture including politics, religion and literature. Each had its own province and methodology, but each fed into the other. They refused to see science as doing the business, free from the grubbiness of politics, the fantasy of religion and the escapism of literature, as some proclaim today. In fact, Q probably sought a career in the arts rather than the sciences because he realised the limitations of science.

The Membership of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall in 1860

In 1860, Jonathan Couch was an Honorary Member, while Richard Quiller Couch was the secretary and curator. Richard had three years left to live and Jonathan ten. Richard's father-in-law, Richard Pearce, was on the council.

The membership of the society was drawn from throughout the British Isles and from beyond. It was connected to the Geological Society of France through M. Dufrenoy. Some of the most distinguished geologists of the age were members.

President: Augustus Smith, Proprietor of the Scilly Isles and MP for Truro. He resided at Tresco Abbey. When Q published the novel Major Vigoureux in 1907, many suspected that Sir Caesar Hutchins, Lord Proprietor of the Isles and owner of Iniscaw Priory was based on Augustus Smith. In the preface to the Duchy Edition of 1928, Q claims a similarity in one respect only.

Of the vice-presidents, two were Members of Parliament, J. St  Aubyn and R. Davy. The connection between the society and the Houses of Parliament is clear.

From the list of Honorary Members the following are of particular interest:

  • Henry S. Boase, MD, FRS, FGS, of Dundee but formerly of Penzance. The writer of: Human Nature in 1865, and A Few Words on Evolution and Creation in 1882. He was a distinguished banker and an expert on finance
  • Cordier, Member of the Institute of France, Paris
  •  John Davy, MD, FRS, etc, of Ambleside, the brother of Sir Humphry Davy. He arranged his collected works. His daughter married a Dr Babington, probably a near relation of Sir Humphry's closest friend, Dr Babington
  • Dufrenoy, Member of the Geological Society of France
  • Sir Charles Lyell, MA, FRS, LS, GS, London, a close friend of Charles Darwin
  • Richard Owen, FRS, LS, GS, Professor of Anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons. A friend and correspondent of Jonathan Couch
  • Rev A. Sedgwick, FRS, LS, GS, Professor of Geology at Cambridge
  • Rev William Whewell, DD, FRS, GS, Cambridge. Writer of the History of the Inductive Sciences in three volumes
  • Robert Hunt, FRS, Keeper of Mining Records at the Museum of Practical Geology in London. A collector of folklore who published Popular Romances of the West of England in 1865, to which Thomas Quiller Couch of Bodmin made a distinguished contribution.
  • Charles W. Peach, a friend of Jonathan Couch.
  • William Pengelly, FRS, of Torquay, but formerly of West Looe. An acolyte of Jonathan Couch. In Memories and Opinions, Q related how an elderly Pengelly befriended him, taking him from Newton Abbot College to Bradley Wood on fossil hunting expeditions. This was the one time when Q considered a career in science. The friendship continued until Pengelly's death.


Ordinary Members (selection)

The ordinary members of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall included: 

  • John St Aubyn MP, still a prominent family in West Cornwall. He was a county MP
  • Sir Thomas D. Acland, Bart, MP, FRS, of Killerton in Devon. The Aclands were and continued to be leading members of the Liberal Party and Q would have had dealings with them
  • Miss Elizabeth Carne, the daughter of Joseph Carne, smelter, banker and merchant, and granddaughter of Joseph Carne, a friend of John Wesley. The Carnes were Wesleyan Anglicans. She was a banker, a geologist, a travel writer and an amateur theologian. Living in West Cornwall she was able to develop in a way impossible in England at the time. Related to the Bronte novelists
  • Rd Davey, FGS, MP, a County Member for West Cornwall, 1857-1868, of Polsew. A mine adventurer and farmer
  • Sir Charles Lemon, Baronet, FRS, of Cardew, a Whig and a County Member, along with E.W. Pendarves, for West Cornwall from 1833 to 1853
  • Richard Pearce of Penzance, Richard Couch's father-in-law
  • Dr George Smith of Camborne, probably the writer of the History of Wesleyan Methodism, 1859-65 ( 3 Vols).
  • Sir Richard R. Vyvyan, Bart, FRS, of Trelowarren, Ultra Tory, West Cornwall County MP, and MP for Helston and Truro. An opponent of the 1832 Reform Act.

Contributions to the Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of Cornwall

 These contributions were made between 1846 and 1859 by Richard and Jonathan Couch and other relevant individuals. The contributions are numbered and, where possible, dated. Summaries, quotations and (in brackets) comments are added as appropriate.

XXIV: 'On the cause of the  red colour in the fossiliferous rocks in the neighbourhood of Looe' by Jonathan Couch

The first discovery of fossils in the Looe area was probably by 'my late friend Thomas Bond' who wrote a History of Looe. (For a short biography of Thomas Bond and his relationship with Davies Gilbert, one time President of the Royal Society, see Mayor of Troy.)

The red colour is not the result of iron in the sedimentary deposits but encrinitic fossils, probably Comatula rosacea.

'In illustration of the above remarks, which are here applied to different families of echinodermata, in explanation of these fossil appearances, it may be necessary to observe, as a fact known to zoologists, that the family of encrinites (the greater portion of  which have become extinct as living animals), comatulae, ophiurae, and starfishes, not only belong to one natural order, but that there is good proof that the comatulae and ophiurae, at least in the early stages of their existence, partake of the encrinitic form: the difference between them being only such as is seen in many others of the lower class of animals, where a section of the family in the course of development stops short, and continues to bear as a permanent form, what in some other classes or genera, is no more than one of the stages which is passed in the way to a higher degree of development.'

(The identification of the fossils in the fossiliferous rocks began a controversy referred to repeatedly in the following studies because it affected the dating of geological periods.)


1846, XXVI: 'On the Silurian remains in the strata of the south-east coast of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch.

This is the coast from the River Fowey eastwards to the River Tamar, taking in Polperro, Looe and Rame Head.

The Silurian strata is fossil bearing, with fish beds between Looe and Fowey, centred on a deposit at Polperro. Remains are most commonly found in blue slate, less commonly where the colour is claret. Bones, scales and skin or shagreen occur but much injured and dismembered. In Scilley cove drang at Polperro, the blue slate contains fish and shells.

Couch states: 'The present system of arranging the Silurian strata is contradicted by the Cornish beds'.

(The statement proved controversial.)


1846, XXXV: 'Report on the Fossil Geology of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch

Some strata from the Tamar west to Truro are fossil bearing but not all. These rocks also bear traces of copper, manganese, iron and mundic in south-east Cornwall but scarcely sufficient for mining purposes. (See I saw Three Ships, Chapter 4, by Q).

Cornwall is fossiliferous, except for the granite ranges, with many species commonly found, e.g. polypiaria, crinoidea, conchifera, crustacea and fish, but some found only in specific localities. There are 40 fossils peculiar to South Petherwin. The richest deposits date to the Silurian period.

Along the south coast are six species belonging to five genera from the Old Red Sandstone and Silurian rocks with other species unidentifiable. Mr Box has observed the remains of trees in Whitsand Bay, inferring the bay once to have been wooded. This area was once below sea level before being elevated and submerged again. Couch wonders whether this has also happened to the north coast. (Q refers to the Langona legend of a city lost to the sea off Perranporth in Chapter ten of The Ship of Stars and the drowning of Mounts Bay in the short story 'Phoebus on Halzephron'.)


1846, XLIII: 'Notes on the Fossil Corals of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch.

13 species are listed. For each species Richard gives a name, a habitat or location in Cornwall, and habitats out of Cornwall, plus a paragraph of description and analysis.


1847, 1: 'Remarks on the present state of the Geology of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch, Curator of the Society.

The Limestone and slate of south Devon extends westwards beyond Fowey. In the peninsula formed by the Looe and Fowey rivers, the rocks partake of the character of the Devonian and Silurian series. Skirting the southern boundary is a bed containing fish material, richest near Polperro, but extending as far west as Polruan, but not west of the River Fowey.

The rivers of the peninsula run in a south-easterly direction, although at Water Gate, on the West Looe River, a mile and a half to the north of the fish beds, a valley runs nearly at right angles as it rises from a blue clay bed, through dull yellow, soft and friable rock, to Pelynt. This is rich in fossil material.

The tributary stream runs from Trelawne, the seat of the Trelawny family, through Ten Acre Wood to the West Looe River. In Q's short story 'The Disenchantment of 'Lizabeth', the setting is West Looe River, with the Herodsfoot lead mines in its higher reaches and the farms of Transom and Hooper in the middle valley.

At St Veep, Ethy, West Taphouse and Bogga Mill, on the stream from Lanreath to Pont, the rocks assume a light brown and grey colour, with the fossils therein being obscure in character.

In Q's novels Troy Town and The Mayor of Troy, the eastern bank of the River Fowey, in the parish of St Veep, plays an important role, with Ethy as Pentethy. In The Silver Spur, a novel of the English Civil War, the Parliamentary forces become bogged down in the 'soft and friable' road at West Taphouse, ensuring their defeat by the Royalists at the Battle of Braddock Down. This is historical fact. In the novel Shining Ferry, the rich lands of John Rosewarne lie on the rich soil of the east bank of the River Fowey stretching north to St Veep.


1847, 2: Produce of Lead Ore and Lead in the U.K. for the years 1845-1846 from Returns made to the Mining Record Office, Museum of Practical Geology' by Robert Hunt, FRS, Keeper of Mining Records, London

Robert Hunt of Devonport was a mining engineer who in 1833-34 kept a chemist's shop in Chapel Street, Penzance, near where Richard, ten years later, was to set up a medical practice. Hunt was a folklorist who published Popular Romances of the West of England (1871) with the help of Thomas Q. Couch.


1849: 'On the Ichthyolites of East Cornwall' by William Pengelly, Associate of the Society, Torquay

'Having learned a few years since, that my friends Messrs Couch and Peach had discovered Ichthyolites in the slate rock at, or near, Polperro, I took the earliest opportunity of visiting these gentlemen.'

(Sir) William Pengelly, FRS, of Looe, was an acolyte of Jonathan Couch and late in life a friend of Q.

1850: 'On the Ichthyolites of East Cornwall' by William Pengelly, FGS.

Miners were his favourite audience, many being Methodists, because they had the knowledge to grasp what he was saying (see Memoir of  William Pengelly by H. Pengelly (1871, p. 231). He was attacked by a fundamentalist magazine which he considered theologically and scientifically uninformed. Q draws a picture of a fundamentalist in the person of Samuel Rosewarne in Shining Ferry although there is no imputation that he took the first book of Genesis literally.

A partial account of the discovery of and the controversy surrounding the fish-sponge fossil bed (the Cornish Ichthyolites' Controversy) can be found in A Memoir of William Pengelly of Looe by Hester Pengelly. In Chapter III (p. 34) there is the record of a conversation between Dr Bowerbank and Pengelly on July 13, 1850. Pengelly states:

'Mr. Peach has worked a good deal among the Cornish ichthyolites' but 'When Peach dropped the investigation at Talland sand-bay I took it up, and have continued it with success to Rame Head. This year I have been working on Looe Island, and have found good specimens; on the whole I have a capital collection of these ancient fishes.'

The correspondence between Peach and Pengelly from August 28, 1850 to May 14, 1851, is included in the text. In a letter dated January 5, 1851, Pengelly writes of his disappointment in missing an opportunity of discussing the matter with Sir Roderick Murchison. This was rectified later. Murchison, FRS, was an Honorary Member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall and a near relation of Charles Murchison mentioned in the section of Richard Couch's study of mortality in miners. It is disappointing that the correspondence between Pengelly and Jonathan Couch, which must have taken place, has been lost. However, a meeting between the two, dated to July 20, 1855, and also recorded by Bertha Couch in her Life of Jonathan Couch (1891), is recorded.

A summary of the controversy is given by Dr Henry Woodward, FRS, in the Presidential address delivered to the Geological Society of London on February 15, 1895.

 'One of Pengelly's first recorded papers was On the Ichthyolites of East Cornwall ' (1849–50). These interesting remains were first identified as FISHES by C.W. Peach in 1843; after eight years they were referred to as SPONGES, under the name of Steganodictyum Cornubicum, in 1851, by McCoy; then to the Cephalopoda by Ferd. Roemer (as Archaeoteuthis Dunensis) in 1855; and back again to Fishes as Scaphapsis Cornubicus by Huxley in 1868. Pengelly mentions in one of his papers that he had no fewer than 300 fragments of these fossil fishes from the Devonian of Cornwall and Devon in his own cabinet.'

 Talland sand-bay above is Sheba sands and Sheba Cove in stories such as I Saw Three Ships by Q.

In some of his writings, Pengelly refers to a Hannafore or Havenfore sand-cross going from Mid Main (C. men or mean; E. isolated rock) to the beach on Looe Island, indicating a walkway in the early 19th century at low tide. In the early 1960s this writer paddled across to the island during a very low spring tide but this was an exceptional occasion. Coastal erosion at Hannafore was continuous until the Hannafore estate, many of the houses being built by Charles Symons, along with a protective wall, renewed in the 1960s or 1970s was developed between the wars. In all Q's stories there is but one fleeting reference to Looe Island. However, it must have been a convenient location for contraband landed by his Quiller forebears before and during the Napoleonic War. There is a curious tradition of a tunnel running from the island to Hannafore.


1851: 'Notice of the occurrence of the Horns and Bones of several species of Deer in the Tin Works of Cornwall'  by Richard Q. Couch


1851: 'An investigation of drowned landscapes around the Cornish Coast' by Richard Q. Couch


1851: 'On the Fucoidal appearances observed in the Cornish Slate' by Richard Q. Couch


1851: 'Remarks on the Geology of the South Coast of Cornwall' by William Pengelly


Undated: 'Remarks on the Geology of the South Coast of Cornwall' by William Pengelly

The fossils discovered by Jonathan and Richard Couch et al., and which Professor McCoy identified as sponges, have been submitted to the geology section of the British Association who identified them as icthyic. This identification is 'the very link needed to complete the evidence by which the chronology of our rocks was to be established.'

Pengelly makes the observation that 'truth is preferable to even a favourite theory.'


Undated: 'Notes on the Bones found in the Alluvial Deposits of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch


1854: 'On a supposed new species of the Fossil genus Astraea, found in Cornwall' by Jonathan Couch

This study and the subsequent papers follow that of Richard Q. Couch's 'Remarks on the present state of Geology in Cornwall' of 1847, in which the Trelawny estate is mentioned. The friendship of the Trelawnys and the Couches made the land and its quarry accessible to Jonathan Couch for scientific observation. Jonathan Couch claimed the species to be new to science, naming it Astraea Trelawniensis Nobis, discovered in a field at Bluegate.


1854: 'Description of the Fossils found in a quarry near Trelawny, in the parish of Pelynt, Cornwall' by Jonathan Couch

The stone was being quarried for the building of Looe bridge. The quarry and others nearby are rich in fossils of the Encrinite family.


1854: 'On the Zoology of the Post-tertiary Deposits of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch

The drowned forests of the Cornish coast.


1855: 'Notes on the Foliation and Cleavage of the Cornish Slates' by Richard Q. Couch.


1855: 'The Silurian Fauna of Cornwall' by Richard Q. Couch

An extensive list of fossils and locations.


1858: 'Notice of a specimen of Killas and Spar broken off from the Stone's Reef, in St Ives Bay' by Richard Pearce


1859: 'On the evidence to be derived from Cliff Boulders, with regard to a former condition on the land and sea, in the Lands-end district' by Miss E. Carne


1859: 'Enquiry into the Age of that part of the District of the Maritime Alps which surrounds Mentone' by Miss E. Carne

Mentone was, and continued to be, an area of remarkable interest. Hester Pengelly includes in A Memoir of William Pengelly  extracts from Pengelly's Notes on the Mentone Cavern which he sent to Sir Charles Lyell in 1872. She includes a photograph of the 'Mentone Skeleton'. (q837, pp. 217-219).)

On the previous page is a letter of Pengelly describing his further researches of the fossil beds from the River Fowey to Rame Head. In 1872, Jonathan Couch was two years dead and Richard nine.


The Presidential Address to the Society by Augustus Smith

When Augustus Smith gave his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Royal Cornwall Geological Society in 1860, he was speaking to and would be read by an audience of independent and informed men and women, including:

  • Sir Charles Lyell, a close friend of Charles Darwin
  • Professor Richard Owen, an anatomist and palaeontologist who questioned Darwin's thesis
  • Dr John Davy, the brother of Sir Humphry Davy, PRS, whose biography of the chemist shows Humphry having gone beyond the materialistic view of evolution found in Darwin
  • Henry Boase, one of the country's leading financial experts
  • the Couches
  • Miss Elizabeth Carne, banker, geologist, travel writer and amateur theologian, who defied Darwin's belief in women being incapable of science
  • (Sir) William Pengelly, FRS, a Quaker and early supporter of evolutionary views
  • A. Sedgwick, Professor of Geology
  • A number of important politicians.

The 1860s were a time when individuals trained in science, economics, medicine, politics and theology could talk to each other on equal terms, free from the confines of over-specialisation.

Augustus Smith's address is a model of concise reasoning and lucid exposition. It provides us today with a knowledge of informed public discourse in the year following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species and fifteen years after the publication of his Voyage of the Beagle, dedicated in the second edition to Charles Lyell. (I have my grandfather's copy: H.G. Hurrell, R.N., of Antony, near Torpoint - the village upon which Q based two novels Harry Revel and Poison Island.) 1860 was also the year of the supposed confrontation of Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford, on June 31. It is frequently claimed that no contemporary account of the meeting and the weekend exists. This is incorrect. The reader is referred to A Memoir of William Pengelly by Hester Pengelly, VIII, pp 98 to 100. An investigation into Pengelly's records might reveal additional information.

Smith's address opens with a quotation from a member of the society, Sir Charles Lyell:

'a work from Mr. Charles Darwin, the result of twenty years of observation and experiment in zoology, botany and geology, will lead us to the conclusion, that these powers of nature, which give rise to races and permanent varieties in animals and plants, are the same as those which, in much longer periods, and in a still longer series of ages, give rise to difference of generic rank. We are told his investigations and reasonings will throw a flood of light on many classes of phenomena connected with the affinities, geographical distribution, and geological succession of organic beings, for which no other hypothesis has been able, or has even attempted to account.'

Richard Q. Couch was familiar with the rigour of Darwin's work, citing him and Von Humboldt in his addresses to the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. In the printed lectures The Victorian Age and Shelley, Q sees the 'modest Darwin' as one of many who spoke with an independence subsequently in decline. In lecture nine of On the Art of Reading, Q identifies Darwin's Descent of Man, along with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Newman's Apologia, as one of the great books of our literature.

No-one was more penetrating in his analysis of language than Q and an eyebrow might have been raised at Lyell's phrase, used to explain the rise of plants, animals and races, 'these powers of nature', when the system claims to be materialistic and mechanistic. Sir Humphry Davy made the point that matter is not self-organizing but inanimate. What this 'power' happens to be is left unexplained.

Q's answer to Lyell comes in Some Seventeenth Century Poets and in On the Art of Reading. At the conclusion of lecture one of the latter, Q argues: 'That all spirit is mutually attractive, as all matter is mutually attractive, is an ultimate fact beyond which we cannot go.'

In this Q is echoing the thinking of Jonathan and Richard Q. Couch.

In Lecture II, Q argues that the Universe is a harmony of 'ordered motion', which the natural sciences map and measure but cannot explain. Q continues that if the sceptic objects to the word 'law' as suggesting a law giver, he is satisfied with the acknowledgement of recurrence and predictability. By observation, therefore, we know the Universe not to be a 'Chaos'. If the Universe is a Chaos, rational knowledge is impossible, along with liberal democracy and an educational system based on experiment and observation.

Q would see Lyell's statement, based on 'these powers of nature', as only having meaning if the world is seen as constituted of matter and spirit, not matter alone. If 'powers of nature' applies to matter alone, as an inherent property, the phrase is void. If the metaphor 'blind watchmaker' is substituted, as by a contemporary classical Darwinian, the Universe becomes irrational or rational in appearance only, as with a sequence of numbers from a roulette wheel. Without defining what 'powers of nature' means, Lyell's statement becomes problematic in the extreme.

Consciously or otherwise, Q is also echoing the thinking of Sir Humphry Davy. In 1838, Dr John Davy published the Life and Writings of Sir Humphry Davy. This was nine years after Humphry's death and twenty-one before the publication of Origin of Species. At the time of Smith's address John Davy was a member of the society and living at Lesketh-how, near Ambleside, dying there on January 24, 1868. Sir Humphry Davy had not only been the most important scientist of his day, but the Royal Society's most distinguished president. Every major library in the country must have possessed John's publication. The Life shows that around the time of the close of the Napoleonic War, Humphry was reflecting on the evolution of life, but on a much broader canvas than Darwin was to do. He rejected materialism as a legitimate vehicle for evolution.

'Men who have considered nature only by what is visible, and who find in the forms and energies of matter the generation of thought, are like children, who may consider the motion and action of a steam engine as produced by solid matter; ignorant of the elements of fire and water, which are the immediate cause of its activity, or of the physical discoveries of human intelligence by which the combinations producing it were made.'

John Davy would have seen Darwinism as an inadequate explanation, however many mechanisms it enumerated. The world consists of matter and spirit as the Couches believed.

John Davy sets out Sir Humphry's thinking in volume I, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy', pp.217 to 222.

Davy refutes the narrow materialism later found in Darwin.

'Probably there is an analogy in all existence: the divided tail of the fish is linked in a long succession of like objects with the biped man. In the planetary system it is probable man will be found connected with a higher intellectual nature; and it is possible that the monad, or soul, is constantly undergoing a series of progressions.'

Davy drew a strict line, as did Q, between matter and spirit:

'What is true with respect to matter will probably with respect to spirit be absolutely false, as supposing organization only the link or substratum of thought; all analogies will fail us from gross matter applied to light.'

In a number of his stories, such as The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem and Castle Dor, Q uses different dimensions of time. Darwinism is based on a regular progression of linear time. Davy addresses this question.

'To infinite wisdom the past, present and future are alike.'

'May it not be imagined that the monads or spiritual germs which animate or create organic forms have no relation to space, and pass from systems to systems, wholly unlike matter, which is limited to its own gravitating sphere? Is not light the first envelope of the monads, and may not my earliest hypothesis be true?'

 Davy is prepared to be even more daring:

'Is there not a monad, or one perceptive atom or principle, which plays, as it were, round different arrangements in the brain, and which acts in its own little world, as the great diffusive monad does in the universe.'

Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society, did not stand at the periphery of the scientific community but at its centre, yet books on evolution ignore his thinking, pretending that the debate was between Darwin and Genesis or special creation.

The quotation from Lyell given by Smith ends with the claim that Origin of Species is an hypothesis which stands alone in its attempt to account for the 'geological succession of organic beings'. Firstly, if it is an hypothesis, a test should have been provided to demonstrate its truth value. Secondly, the claim is patently incorrect. In 1858, at the Linnaean Society in London, an organization to which Jonathan Couch belonged, the hypotheses of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were both discussed.

Following Lyell's quotation, Smith goes on to discuss the reception of Origin of Species. The subject, he states, is steeped in 'controversy and mystery', thus commanding for its author the attention of the 'whole philosophical and literary world' and was accorded 'the stamp and approval of higher scientific authority'. The work was given the respectful attention of the finest minds in relation to: 'its aim and scope, its material facts, its deductions and speculations, its reasonings and expressed conclusions, and still more its unexpressed tendencies and inevitable conclusions'.

The merits of the work were unanimously admitted, but it was deemed a failure.

'But when such are the merits of the work and talent of the author, it is more unaccountable that he should have been satisfied with a course of reasoning so much at variance with his knowledge, and be content so lightly to pass over difficulties, or adopt solutions, the weakness of which it is strange should not be palpable to one of his keen intelligence.'

We can see from this that criticism did not lie in the idea of evolution, or because anyone seriously took Genesis as a scientific theory, but because Darwin's argument was unconvincing. This is not the view we receive from books of popular science, where the reaction is presented as furious, bigoted and ignorant.

Maybe the Darwinists paid too little attention to the available criticism from intelligent people; with the inevitable result. In Unended Quest. An Intellectual Autobiography, Sir Karl Popper explains that when he came to investigate the neo-Darwinians, he saw the 'almost tautological character inherent in the Darwinian formulation', and 'that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme' which is unable to 'explain the origin of life' (1982, pp. 168-171). He then goes on to try and improve the formulation of the theory. He explains the success of Darwinism in its offer of a non-theistic explanation, but in the degree to which it claims an 'ultimate explanation' it is no better. This refutes one of the claims made by Lyell.

Just as Popper looked at the words, phrases and ideas of neo-Darwinism, so did Augustus Smith from Origin of Species. Smith identifies 'natural selection' as a 'new term', but claims that when it is defined as 'preservation of favourable variations, and the rejection of ingenious variations', 'struggle for existence', 'divergence of character', 'process of modification leading to the formation of genera' and the like, Darwin is putting 'a new dress of phrases and terms for doctrines and principles that have been advocated, discussed and discarded over and over again by more than one school of philosophy, only altered to the present state of modern science, and illustrated by his knowledge.'

In other words, Darwin has purloined the writings of others to present them as his own.

Smith's conclusion is: 'the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as he speaks of it in his introduction – is as much a mystery as ever...'. Popper agrees: 'I think it quite possible that life is so extremely improbable that nothing can “explain” why it originated.'

Smith leaves his central criticism of Origin of Species to the concluding paragraph of the review:

'...from researches made as to fossil remains embedded in the strata of former periods of the earth, all species would appear to have been equally free from all development by transmutation during their term of existence in each period of geological succession.'

In the last analysis, therefore, acceptance or rejection has to be based on observation, not on theory and dogma. The Darwinists responded to this criticism with the claim that a detailed and widespread investigation would verify their hypothesis. There can be little question that Richard Couch believed observation and experiment to be more important than theory and dogma, with Smith's analysis very much to his taste. Does this make Richard as much of a fossil as the material he studied?

In Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996, pp. 127-8) the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould says:

'Before Miles Eldredge and I proposed punctuated equilibrium in 1972, the stasis or nonchange of most fossil species during their lengthy geological life spans had been tacitly acknowledged by all paleontologists, but almost never studied … Evolution had been defined as gradual transformation in extended fossil sequences, and the overwhelming prevalence of stasis became an embarrassing feature of the fossil record...Eldredge and I proposed that stasis should be an expected and interesting norm...and that evolution should be concentrated in brief episodes of branching speciation.'

On page 150 Gould continues:

'Darwin's own preferences for gradualism were equally extreme and false...'

If 'punctuated equilibrium' replaces Smith's 'doctrine of original creations' the rest of his address stands up rather well.

On page 148 of Dinosaur in a Haystack, Stephen Jay Gould quotes from a letter from Charles Darwin to Henry Fawcett which contradicts the Couch position.

'About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.'

Dr Richard Quiller Couch would have made to this a simple reply: The dramatic advance in medical science was the result of the rejection of the theoretical approach by the revolutionary surgeon John Hunter in the latter half of the eighteenth century and its replacement with observation and experiment (see The Knife Man (2005) by Wendy Moore and the section in this study on the medical training of Jonathan Couch at the united medical schools of Guy's and St Thomas'). Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution was not based on academic theories but on observation and experiment rooted in the idea of a rational universe. Specifically in relation to geology, developments in mining, metallurgy and minerology depended on observation and experiment, not on theory and speculation. This approach verified itself in practice.

In Castle Dor, the empiricist approach is that of Dr Carfax and his medical forebears who 'stuck to observed facts without any theorizing'. This is a 'summary of what we know' (1961, p. 44). In the next chapter Dr Carfax gives a lesson in logic to Mr Tregentil which derives from David Hume but which theorisers and speculators tend to ignore. When correlating two observations, 'When you say boldly one is cause and t'other effect you go beyond your strict knowledge' (ibid, p. 54).

Augustus Smith closes his analysis of Origin of Species with the following:

'So far then as the flood of light thrown by Mr. Darwin's  investigations and reasonings can assist us, the doctrine of original creations must remain for the present in full force, til the wisdom of more enlarged experience can really give it a substantial substitute.'

Smith does not try to dogmatically close down the debate but to await developments on the basis of further information. This is an eminently sensible position to take and one Richard Couch would have agreed with. It put the onus back on fact.

The second half of the address by Smith puts the onus back on fact and away from theory and speculation by looking at geological research in the North of Scotland.

'Of the progress in geological science during the past year it is now my duty to direct attention to two or three interesting fields. First the geological structure of the North of Scotland has been carefully explored by Sir Roderick Murchison, as Director-General of the Ordnance Survey of the Kingdom, and enlarged our knowledge of those strata, forming what has been named the Silurian system, as developed in that region.'

 This work by Sir Roderick Murchison on the Silurian strata would have been of particular interest to Richard Couch from the investigation he carried out in the 1840s and which appears in papers such as:1846, XXVI: 'On the Silurian remains of the south-east coast of Cornwall' and 1846, XXXV: 'Report on the Fossil Geology of Cornwall'. These investigations related to the age of rocks and the material found in them.

Smith continues by discussing Scotland's 'crystalline stratified rocks' before deftly moving to crystalline rocks, essentially granite, in Cornwall. This would not have directly interested Richard Couch, as granite is not found in south-east Cornwall, but it would have interested Elizabeth Carne, who was probably at the meeting. Smith identifies a disagreement about whether Cornish granites are igneous (which they are), or sedimentary metamorphosed 'by subsequent chemical or physical action' (which only applies to the granite's metamorphic aureole). Smith concludes by informing the meeting of a 'large mass of coal' found near Dover and a boulder of granite found near Croydon, surmising that both had been deposited by ice. He then wonders, entering an area of study of particular interest to Elizabeth Carne, whether 'the chalk flint, and green-sand fragments scattered over the granite downs of Scilly and the Land's- end' were deposited by the same means.

Richard Q. Couch believed mankind to be existing in an eternal continuum which is rational and orderly because the product of a rational spirit. The material world, fleetingly observed by any individual person, is open to rational investigation by observation and experiment. Man is matter and spirit, relating to matter through the senses, and spirit through the soul. Matter and spirit need to be kept in balance, avoiding the extremes of materialism and gnosticism.

Richard was happy to use the R.G.S.C. as the base for his geological investigations and St Mary's Anglican church as the base for his devotions. He believed the establishment of fact as the province of the scientist, the spinning of theories as the province of the philosopher. Although Richard appears to have been more tolerant of authority than his father – he returned to the Anglicanism which Jonathan had left, and adhered to the standard method of induction or inductive inference dismissed by David Hume as unsatisfactory – he was an independent thinker whose thought processes are clearly revealed in his printed talks. He did not accept ideas simply because they were espoused by the scientific establishment or appeared attractive, but because they fitted the facts. Richard was not a genius in the mould of Humphry Davy, but like Davy he did work which benefitted working people.

Some of what later appears in Q can be found in his uncle Richard, although adapted to Q's creative vision and historical circumstances.


The Royal Polytechnic Society of Cornwall

The R.C.P.S. was founded to encourage invention and innovation in mining and manufacturing. It met at the Falmouth Classical School Room, with its annual meeting in 1835 on Tuesday, January 20. There was an annual exhibition for Arts and Industry. The earliest report available to the present writer is the 2nd Annual Report of 1834. Reports were issued most years. The Couches appear not to have played a central role in the society.

Contributions of Richard Quiller Couch to the Journal of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society

1841: ‘Zoophytes of Cornwall’

1842: ‘Observations on the Development of the Frog’

1843: ‘Metamorphosis of the Decapea Crustaceans’

Q's father, Thomas Quiller-Couch, made two scientific contributions to the Journal: Botanical Register,Polperro, 1848; and Botany of Polperro.This botanical atmosphere Q refers to in Memories and Opinions (1945, p. 15) when he describes his father having a pocket microscope to study plants and shells. The importance of this early influence must never be forgotten.

Richard Quiller-Couch's main contribution to the Journal was 'A Statistical Investigation into the Mortality of Miners'. here were four reports dealing with four different mining areas. These first came out in pamphlet form and then as contributions to the journal, beginning in 1857.

A Statistical Investigation into the Mortality of Minersby Dr Richard Q. Couch

Although Richard Quiller-Couch involved himself in zoological and geographical research, he is best remembered today, as in The Dictionary of National Biography , for his work on establishing a scientific link between health and locality, particularly in relation to the mining industry. The statistical investigation centred itself on four hard-rock mining communities: St Just in West Penwith; Lelant in West Penwith; St Ives and the agricultural population of St Buryan; and Marazion on Mounts Bay. The four investigations were conducted at the behest of the Miners' Association of Cornwall and Devon. They were published in pamphlet form and in the journal of the Royal Polytechnic Society of Cornwall between 1857 and 1860.

In the 25th Annual Report of the R.P.S.C. in 1857, Richard Couch set out his purpose and methodology:

'It is proposed in the following pages to examine, statistically, into the mortality of Cornish miners, and into the diseases by which that mortality is is well known that their occupation is proverbially unhealthy, that their labour is laborious, and that their lives are short...If, in this inquiry, it is found that any particular class of diseases predominates over every other, it will be but a fair conclusion to make that such diseases are a predisposing or an immediate cause; in such cases occupation and disease may be looked on as cause and effect...we cannot arrive at such certainty, because the nature of the evidence will not permit it...we can, in most cases, closely approximate to the truth...doubts as means for further investigation...'.

The methodology outlined by Richard – a belief in strict cause and effect, an acknowledgement of the varying factors involved, the difficulty in drawing exact conclusions, and the need for scepticism if the subject is to be further advanced – reflects that of Jonathan Couch. It does not start off with an hypothesis or a theory to be verified or falsified, let alone a search for information to verify, but with the establishment of fact, as far as facts can be ascertained, and the acceptance that absolute certainty is unattainable. It is not a methodology universally followed today. It can be traced back to his training under his father and his training at Guy's.

When dealing with living phenomena such as the human body, a purely materialistic approach, as is successful in 'chemistry', is no longer applicable because:

'...there is a 'vital power'...superior to all the laws of inorganic matter (which) controls their influences and even suspends their powers...besides, the powers of life are ever fluctuating in different persons...and...These considerations complicate all vital investigations...'.

Here the doctor, who had observed this in his professional practice, is following a line of argument developed by the revolutionary eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter, who had transformed surgery in London from theory to practice and had influenced Jonathan Couch's teachers. Hunter challenged the materialists to explain the difference between a living body and a dead one when the matter is the same. Q's Cambridge lectures from 1912 to 1944 repeatedly emphasise that matter and spirit are two aspects of an ordered universe which enables children to 'discover experimentally' without the 'imposition' of theory (Art of Reading, Lecture III).

The Statistical Investigation was sufficiently highly regarded to be translated into French. It revealed a situation not uncommon to mining communities. Amongst individuals who classified themselves as miners, full or part-time, the average life expectancy was 40 years, six months, with 8.3% dying of old age. For full-time miners starting at the age of ten, the average life expectancy was 18 years. Epidemics such as measles, scarlatina, small-pox and croup, a subject Q tackles in the novel Ia, did not vary the death rate from non-epidemic years, suggesting that the healthy tended to survive in all circumstances. However, when the study was taking place life expectancy amongst miners was falling – now recognised as the result of ever deepening mines. (This present writer's great-grandfather, Thomas Carter of Germoe, a Marazion miner, escaped from an early death by joining the police service.)

Richard's statistics are very precise and detailed. They go from 1837 to 1857.The period from 1837 to 1846 is a preparatory investigation of early statistics.

Chest affection from 1837 to 1841. the yearly average as a % of deaths by Consumption (TB) and Pneumonia.

Miners 72.17
Males non-miners   26.32
Females   29.79


In 1841, 55.55% died of Consumption and 11.11% of Pneumonia.

In 1846 the rate of mortality for thoracic diseases, for all above 5 years old:

  Consumption Pneumonia
Miners  73.68 10.52
Non-miners 6.25  6.25
Females 15.38  19.25


Females did not work underground but they did work on the surface breaking ore, sometimes in sheds, sometimes in the open. They were called bal-maidens.

There were two sorts of miner: 

  • The tributer who worked on the lode or mineralised rock and earned a percentage of the value of the ore he and his team won. Clever tributers became relatively wealthy while others starved, depending on luck and good judgement. Tributers often went from mine to mine, walking long distances for a favourable 'pitch'. The deeper mines had long ladders to negotiate. The bigger mines had 'dries' for the changing of clothes. The sole mention of a tributer in Q's novels is in The Ship of Stars.
  • The tut worker was a wage earner who did various jobs underground. His earnings tended to be lower but more assured.

There was also an underground mine captain who supervised affairs 'below grass'. Zephaniah Job of Polperro, who appears in a number of Q's novels, was originally intended for the position of mine captain at St Agnes. Sons of the age of ten sometimes went underground as part of a family team.

As with smuggling and privateering companies, such as those of the Quillers of Polperro, mines were originally financed by wealthy venturers who put up the money and then took a percentage of the profits. Venturers and mine captains were members of the Royal Cornwall Geological Society and the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society.

For the student of the life and writings of Richard Quiller Couch, his work on the Marazion District is of particular interest.

  • It is on Mounts Bay but a short distance east of Penzance.
  • It is both a mining and an agricultural district, yet not exclusively working class.
  • Much of what is true of Marazion must also be true of Penzance.
  • It provides an invaluable insight into Richard's area of medical practice.

Richard opens his report looking at climate, soil, housing and occupation. This shows his awareness of the relatedness of these issues in a way possibly unique for its time. He opens the study by acknowledging the fertility and drainage of the soil and the 'equalizing temperature' of the sea.

He then looks at housing. The houses and cottages are:

'well and substantially built. The internal accommodation, especially for sleeping room, is not so good as could be desired; yet compared with the cottages of Lelant, Ludgvan and St Just, they are very greatly in advance. There is an air of comfort, both within and without, for which we look in vain in the other districts, but even here the worst cottages are inhabited by the miners, though many miners live in the villages and have as good house accommodation as the district can supply.'

He continues:

'Thus favourably situated for health, I will now examine the state of the mortality and the diseases which produce it.'

Richard arrived in Penzance in 1844. the following account appears to be a combination of the statistical record and his personal observations. It needs to be remembered that in the Polperro area, from where he had come, the only mines occurred at Herodsfoot, many miles up the West Looe River. The account gives a picture of what he encountered in 1844 and 1845.

 In 1844:

'Whooping cough prevailed as an epidemic, and when no less than 15 children died of “debility” alone. A few cases of scarlet fever occurred, as well as measles; and as the season was a very cold and chilly one, the whooping cough affection prevailed. Towards Christmas, when the cold weather set in, many old persons, who had previously been suffering from influenza, died – no less than 11 females dying between 75 and 81 (years old) and 6 males between 70 and 81; and 18 miners died – 50.00% from consumption and 11.00 from pneumonia. The two years of greatest mortality were 1844 and 1845; but 1846, while the general mortality was at its minimum, the mortality of miners was at its maximum, and chiefly from diseases of the chest.'

'The maximum among females was in 1842, next in 1844 and 1845, when they may be said to have been equal, and its minimum in 1846, when the miners was at its height...(mainly)...chest diseases...The average of the 5 years, and in the case of miners, is very high, which considering the salubrity of the climate, is very remarkable.'

 In 1846, consumption, pneumonia and pleurisy rise again as a percentage.

From 1836 to 1856, the average for thoracic diseases was:

Miners  64.49%
Males 30.92%
Females   27.47%


Richard also discusses other diseases of miners:

'There is occasional dropsy, a connection with diseased heart and diseased liver, as well as palsy – much aggravated by the climbing the ladders and the use of the hammers and borers underground.'

(Many mines in the Marazion district still employed ladders in the shafts.)

The last full year researched by Richard is 1856. Of the miners who died in the Marazion district, most had consumption or pneumonia, with one case of hepatitis and one of disease of the bladder. The oldest miner was 75, dying of 'softening of the brain'. The youngest was 21, dying of consumption. The average life expectancy was 55 years 4 months.

Of non-mining males, over half died of consumption, debility, scarlet fever or measles before the age of five. Of those over the age of five, less than a third died of consumption or bronchitis. Of  females, under a third died below the age of five, and under a third of the over-fives died from consumption or pneumonia.

Richard noted that the incidence of death from chest affection in the mining population of the Marazion District, with the same being true of the mining districts of St Just, Lelant, and St Ives, was nearly double that of the non-mining population. St Buryan, where the population was agricultural, rarely had chest affection as a cause of death. Richard drew the conclusion that there was a correlation between occupation and health.

Interestingly, in the Marazion District for 1854, there were 5 deaths from mining accidents, with the individuals being aged 54, 35, 31, 13 & 11. Overall, death from accident tended to be concentrated in the under 25s, except for rock fall. Statistics for non-fatal mining accidents, such as loss of limb or sight, are not included, but must have been significant, some ending up in the Public Dispensary.

We can see from the investigation the maladies Richard face on a daily basis. That he was familiar with the conditions within the houses shows his practice to have cared for working people.

The Scientific Context

It would be easy to dismiss Richard Couch's study of the diseases of miners in the western parishes of Cornwall as worthy but peripheral to medical science. In fact, it plays into a bigger picture and was in its way ground-breaking. G.T. Bettany's Eminent Doctors (1885) enables us to place Richard in relation to his time. One aspect of Bettany's book is to look at doctors who explored maladies of the chest and lungs, particularly Chapter 21, ‘Williams, Stokes, and Diseases of the Chest’.

In the autumn of 1820, when Richard was four years old, Charles Williams entered Edinburgh University with an interest in chemistry and anatomy, quickly becoming 'absorbed in chemical anatomy'. Four years later he attended lectures on surgery in London before crossing to Paris and encountering Laennec and his work on auscultation. He followed this up with the publication, in 1828, of Rational Exposition of the Physical Signs of Diseases of the Chest. Returning to London he formed a friendship with Michael Faraday, Sir Humphry Davy's pupil, and became a member of the Royal Institution, where the memory of Davy's public lectures remained.

Dr Charles Williams made contact with another admirer of Laennec, Dr John Forbes, who had practised medicine in Penzance from 1817 to 1822. Williams made a number of contributions to Forbes' Cyclopaedic of Practical Medicine. At the time Richard was preparing to enter Guy's Hospital in London, Williams published The Pathology and Diagnosis of Diseases of the Chest and began lecturing at various medical schools and societies in London. Richard, Thomas and John Couch possibly heard him.

Bettany informs us that by 1839, Williams was involved in 'practical teaching' and 'experimental research', particularly relating to the 'muscular contractility of the bronchial tubes' and 'congestion, determination of blood, and inflammation'.

1843 saw Williams' Principles of Medicine, 'a work in which physiology and pathology were largely employed to form a basis for scientific medicine'. The writings of Forbes and Williams would have provided Richard with a possible basis for his work on disease in miners.

1841 had already seen Dr Charles Williams and (Sir) Philip Rose taking the first steps to establish a hospital for consumption and diseases of the chest. This eventually led to the creation of the Brompton Hospital. At the time Richard was developing his practice in Penzance, Williams was founding the Pathological Society in London: 'Its objects were the exhibition, description, and classification of morbid specimens, and the promotion of pathological research by systematic observation and experiments'. This statement of Bettany shows Richard's approach as well not just to the diseases of miners, but to zoology, geology and ichthyology. 

When involved in his practice at 10 Chapel Street Richard possibly came across, in the London Journal of  Medicine, Dr Williams' work on  'Cod-Liver Oil and Pulmonary Consumption', with 206 out of 234 recorded cases of its application resulting in 'marked improvement'. Maybe the Public Dispensary in Penzance invested in the same oil.

Another prominent physician who promoted the use of the stethoscope and who published Diseases of the Chest in 1837 was William Stokes, Regius Professor of Physic in Dublin University. In 1854, he wrote the cautionary words 'there is nothing more difficult than for a man who has been educated in a particular doctrine to free himself from it, even though he has found it to be wrong'. It is important, therefore, to 'Let us emancipate the student and give him time so that in his pupillage he shall not be a puppet in the hands of others, but rather a self-relying and reflective being. Let us ever foster the general education in preference to the special training...' (p. 191).

This is the central message of Q's The Art of Reading.

A possible weakness of Stokes was his scepticism regarding the work of Charles Murchison who in 1862 published The Continued Fevers of Great Britain, which dealt especially with typhus, typhoid and relapsing fevers. Richard would have known his near relation Sir Roderick Murchison, the geologist, who was a member of the Royal Cornwall Geological Society. Bettany says of The Continued Fevers of Great Britain: 'In this he treats exhaustively the history, geographical range, causations, symptoms, treatment, and many other questions connected with fevers, and endeavours especially to reduce his observations to a numerical expression.' Richard was doing something similar, if on a more local scale, in his study.

Murchison was convinced of 'decomposing sewage' as a source of typhoid fever, as Thomas Q. Couch did in Bodmin. This belief also underlies Q's novella Ia.

An obituary notice in the Lancet of May 3, 1879, said:

'His teaching was a reflux of his singular lucidity of thought and expression, which not only attracted the student with its distinctness and brilliancy, but furnished him with a method on which to found his own facts and observations.'

 Bettany begins his conclusion with a statement of Murchison's wider interests, showing the doctor to be no man of narrow views, locked within the confines of a specialism. 'In botany, zoology, chemistry, and geology he had a very wide knowledge, and he edited the palaeontological memoirs of his friend Hugh Falconer...'.

The Couches, as doctors, could not have been unaware of the conditions under which the majority of people lived. Thomas Quiller Couch was always fighting the local council over their indifference to the open sewers in the lower part of Bodmin and their relationship to epidemics. This social concern clearly affected their political views. It was inherited by Q who joined the radical wing of the Liberal Party, writing for its mouthpiece The Speaker. Q must have been aware of Richard's  Statistical Investigation, either from his father or from the occasions when he stayed with Richard's children in Penzance or from his Uncle John, the last of Jonathan's sons, who died in 1900.

Q opposed the Boer War, but must have recognised its importance in revealing the state of the nation's health. Sir Robert Ensor in England, 1870 to 1914 (1985, p. 513), reveals how in Manchester in 1899, only 1,200 out of 12,000 volunteers were considered fit for military service in South Africa. The B. Seebohm Rowntree report, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901) and parallel work by Charles Booth in London, exposed the real condition of Britain. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, leader of the Liberal Party, in the face of opposition within his own ranks, repeatedly drew attention to the divisions in society.

Maybe the first, and certainly the most scientific investigation of the conditions of the working class, the largest class in society, was that of Richard Quiller Couch in 1858 to 1861. Yet neither G.M. Young, the editor and part writer of Victorian England in the A History of England series, nor Asa Briggs in his introduction, appears to question why the contributors do not discuss this area of Victorian Life. There is not a single index reference to Booth, Couch or Rowntree, nor to social conditions or poverty, although there are three references to unemployment; while there are 21 references to music halls, not including those to the Empire, the Alhambra and the Palace. On June 5, 1903, the leader of the Liberal Party drew direct attention to the state of society, when in a speech at Perth he claimed 12,000,000 to be 'underfed and on the verge of starvation', a claim he repeated in the House of Commons on June 10. Campbell-Bannerman was tying his flag to the mast of the Liberal radicals, the wing of the party occupied by Lloyd George and Q.

Q develops the Couch line of argument in study two, sections four and five, of Some Seventeenth Century Poets. He draws a line between 'theory and practice' or theory and fact, claiming that we can 'apprehend' the world but not 'comprehend' it or impose upon it a 'system'. The modern notion of a 'theory of everything' Q would dismiss as a chimera. We apprehend in part because of our inherent relationship to the world, a relationship built on law, order and rationality, not on chance, randomness and conflict. This necessitates a liberal education system of questioning, exploration and trial-and-error, not on the imposition of theory and dogma by authority on passive recipients. As man is matter and spirit, spirit being Richard's 'Vital Power', a purely materialistic explanation of the world is unsatisfactory. He concludes the argument by claiming God, Man and Universe to be 'in nature One'. What Q is outlining is an argument for freedom, liberalism and rationality. Today, liberal democracy is increasingly seeing itself under threat. Unfortunately, all too many who claim to be bastions of liberal democracy hold views which are contradictory and confused, being, in fact, some of its worst enemies. 

The Royal Institution of Cornwall

The R.I.C. was founded in 1818 as The Cornwall Philosophical Institute but in 1821 changed its name to the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Reports were issued to 1863, the year of Richard Quiller Couch's death, after which the publication was called the Journal. The earliest report available to the present writer is dated to November 6, 1838, when the President was Sir Charles Lemon Bart MP, FRS, etc. The Report provides an account of the founding of the institution.

'When in February 1818, a few gentlemen desirous of encouraging a taste for Science and Literature in this town (Truro) and neighbourhood had met in the County Library, to discuss the propriety of establishing this Institution, they felt assured that there was no part of the kingdom, in which a wider field for scientific inquiries, or more interesting materials for antiquarian research, existed than in Cornwall. They believed likewise that a large number of persons were devoting their time and talents to literary and scientific pursuits.'

A Museum of Natural History was established, along with a laboratory containing the requisite apparatus and a lecture room. Specific topics of interest included chemistry, metallurgy, geology, zoology, minerology and antiquities.

The institution was to meet on the first Friday of each month for scientific discussion. Jonathan Couch attended these meetings and sometimes lectured. No doubt Richard, and later Thomas, attended these occasions.

Jonathan Couch was held in particular esteem because the annual meeting of 1838 desired 'to express the deep obligation under which the Society is to Mr. Couch' especially for 'the first part of the Fauna or Compendium of the natural history of the County, containing Vertebrate, Crustacean, and a portion of the Radiate Animals.

Contribution of Richard Q. Couch to the Reports of the Royal Institution of Cornwall

1842:   'Zoophyte of a genus new to Europe found on the south coast of Cornwall'

1843:   'Nidification of fishes'

1844:   'Specific habits of fish'

1847:   'Additions to the Cornish fauna among the crustaceans'

1850:   'Notes on the migration of the herring on the Cornish shores'

1852:   'Remarks on the anatomy of sponges'

Jonathan Couch and Thomas Q. Couch made a large number of contributions to the Journal on a range of subjects. From 1864 to 1875, Thomas Q. Couch made an annual contribution on the local fauna and flora, sectioned into months under the heading: 'Calendar of natural periodic phenomena, kept at Bodmin'. Q was reared in this atmosphere of natural history.

The Penzance Public Dispensary and Humane Society 

It is remarkable that Richard Quiller Couch produced so many zoological and geological studies when he was a busy medical practitioner in Penzance, with a growing family to provide for. In Penzance Richard probably had wealthier patients for his private practice than in Polperro, but nowhere near as many as he would have had had he remained in London. Richard, however, was a man of conscience. Not only did he carry out a study into the health of miners, he also worked free at the Public Dispensary located just below his surgery at 10 Chapel Street.

In 1809, the Penzance Public Dispensary and Humane Society was established to provide medical assistance for those unable to afford a doctor or contribute to a benefit society.

Information about the dispensary can be found in various publications, including a collection of the  Annual Reports of Penzance Public Dispensary, 1819 to 1839, A History of West Cornwall Hospital by Dr E.C. Edwards, and the pamphlet A General Dispensary Practice 150 Years Ago by John Craig. Although these fail to mention Richard personally, they give an insight into the general context.

Richard Quiller Couch was a consultant surgeon at the dispensary, with his father-in-law as the secretary. As consultant surgeon Richard operated for the benefit of the patient and to further his own medical knowledge. G.T. Bettany in Eminent Doctors (1885, p. 32) says of the surgeon Robert Liston, 'His practice became very large, and there is no doubt that he undertook an amount of work which many men would have found impossible. Yet he was noted for his consideration of the poor and necessitous.' The same might be said of Richard.

According to Edwards, the first charitable dispensary was established at Aldersgate Street, London, in 1770, with the Westminster Dispensary following in 1774. When Jonathan Couch arrived at Guy's and St Thomas' in 1808, these institutions would have been well established. By 1805 Plymouth possessed one, with Penzance following four years later. In the ten years from 1809 to 1819, 5000 cases were dealt with. The figures for the medical year, April to April, 1810 were:

Donations etc   £163.7.0 

Subscriptions etc  £213.5.0

Disbursements    £305.4.4

Balance    £71.7.8

No of Patients    676  

Cost per patient   9s 0d


The aims of the dispensary were:

  • to mitigate  the sufferings of the poor in the dispensary and in the home
  • to check the spread of disease and to promote vaccination
  • to provide food, medicine and medical equipment
  • to raise funds to finance the above

 The prime mover in the establishment of the dispensary was Dr John Bingham Borlase, for whom the young Humphry Davy worked. Other significant figures were Sir Richard Acland, from a Devon family Q would later have political dealings with, and the Branwells and Carnes, who were related to the Bronte novelists.

The dispensary was first located on the Terrace in Market Jew Street, not far from the birthplace of Humphry Davy and the residence of his favourite sister, Miss Catherine Davy. The establishment of John Bingham Borlase, where Humphry Davy trained, was across the street.

The drugs for the dispensary came by sea from Apothecaries Hall, Corbyn and Co., and J. Stallard Penoyre in London, from Townshend and Co. in Bristol, and from Cookworthy, Fox and Co. in Plymouth; with the freight being not inexpensive. Equipment, including a bellows for the resuscitation of the partly drowned, came from Jno. Corker Dennis. Presumably, Mr Rice of Looe and Mr Lawrence of Liskeard, Jonathan's original teachers, and Jonathan after returning from London in 1810, would have dealt with the same.

Edwards provides details of the staffing of the Penzance Dispensary from 1809:

1. The medical staff consisted of a physician who attended twice a week, three surgeons who attended in a monthly rotation, and an apothecary. Services were provided free at the dispensary but the physician and surgeons were paid for home visits.

2. A paid nurse for dispensary duties and home visits.

3. A paid housekeeper.

In 1813, the dispensary was relocated to Vounderveor Lane off Chapel Street, and in 1823 to 19 Chapel Street, between the Wesleyan Chapel and, from 1845, Richard's surgery. Records for each year were meticulously kept. In 1810 there were 175 surgical cases. Quite remarkably for the time when there were no antiseptics or antibiotics, only three patients died following surgery. In the medical year of 1839, there were 853 medical cases. 93 diseases are listed. Of the 245 surgical cases: Cured 134; Relieved 35; Under treatment 59; Died 2; and Vaccinated 15. The importance of factual records is emphasised by praise accorded to the Rev Thomas Pascoe of St Hilary who recorded cause of death in the burial register. When Richard came to produce A Statistical Investigation into Mortality of Miners he was developing an existing tradition.

In the history of medical science at this time, Penzance plays a not insignificant part. Firstly, Humphry Davy's work on nitrous oxide, which he demonstrated at the Royal Society in London when Jonathan Couch was at Guy's and St Thomas', made him the 'Father of Anaesthetics', as Dr Edwards claims.

Secondly, with the death of Dr Borlase in 1813, Dr Paris took over until 1817, when Dr John Forbes became the dispensary's physician, remaining until 1822. From 1828, the first of three generations of Montgomery took over the physicianship, with the third still being in place at the time Dr John Quiller Couch died in Penzance in 1900. However, Dr John Forbes, who predated Richard as secretary of the Royal Geological Society, was the most distinguished. In 1819, René Laennec published a book in Paris on the new technique of auscultation which involved a primitive stethoscope. The book was translated in Penzance by John Forbes. Ten years after leaving Penzance, Forbes took over the part-editorship of the Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine which aimed to 'unite the great body of practical men' by embodying the 'actual state of our (medical) knowledge' against the 'influence of prejudice, theory and indolence...' Forbes seems to have believed that theory creates prejudice and results in indolence. A physician who recognised the importance of Laennec and Forbes was Thomas Addison of Guy's Hospital. Addison appears to have been a teacher of Richard, Thomas and John Q. Couch. In 1845, when Richard was moving to Penzance, Addison was publishing Pathology of Phthisis – the miners' disease, rare in Polperro, common in Penzance.

When Richard first arrived at Penzance in 1844, the epidemics Q describes in the novella Ia were common. In the medical year 1840-1, there were 84 deaths from smallpox. 18 cases of typhoid and 26 of influenza (Q's son Bevil died of influenza in 1919) had to be admitted to the dispensary. In 1846-7, the number of patients admitted rose from 1335 to 1377, mostly medical and placed under the care of Dr Montgomery. One wonders in the 1840s how many had malnutrition as the underlying cause.

In 1848, the housekeeper, Miss Jane Eva, had to be removed for disorderly behaviour, being replaced for all non-medical and non-surgical duties by George and Ann Wright. The couple ably occupied the position throughout Richard's time. From 1853 Dr James Barclay Montgomery assisted his father in the Medical Department. Then in 1855, a Miss Stone bequeathed £1500, an amount doubled from private subscriptions, for the addition of an infirmary. Unfortunately, the deaths of leading movers William Carne, C.V. Le Grice and Richard Pearce delayed the addition for 20 years. The business must have been a running sore throughout Richard's time at the dispensary.

The dispensary in Penzance had up to 1856 treated 31,000 sick persons from a population of 64,208 drawn from an area stretching from Hayle to the Scilly Isles. In 1855, 260 persons from the mining population had been 'relieved', nearly 1 in 5 of 'total relief'. The Doctor and Sick Club of each mine catered only for the miner, not his family; although some miners were treated at the dispensary. The governors of the dispensary noted how the mines paid nothing and subscribed nothing to the dispensary even though from 1851 to 1855 about 1000 persons from the mining population had been 'relieved'.

The Annual Report of 1856, which advocates the infirmary, concludes:

'How many valuable lives might have been saved, how many parents might have been spared to helpless children, how many families saved from utter destitution, if some such institution as that for which we plead had been within reach of the accident that was a death-blow, merely because the sufferer was too far from help, too far from the needed medical attendance, and too poor to purchase the mere necessaries of the sick room.'

Richard Quiller Couch lived at the sharp end of science. He did his thinking not in a professorial chair or a country house, but on the way back from scenes of indescribable horror and destitution, having provided what succour he could from the inadequate means at his disposal. Yet the Couch doctors appear free from the depressions, breakdowns and nervous maladies we read of in other scientists of the time who lived lives of relative privilege. The Couches lived for the good of others, not for themselves and their reputations.

The period Richard spent at Penzance was one of dramatic change for medicine. An Act of 1848 encouraged the establishment of local Health Boards. These could tackle the causes of disease such as poor sanitation and dirty water. In 1854, the Local Board of Health connected the dispensary to the new water supply from the 'Works of the Town Council'. Then in 1859 Brunel's Saltash railway bridge was completed. From now on medical supplies could come by rail rather than by sea. The first record for the dispensary, according to Edwards, was an entry in the Minute Book of 1860. As an aside, some might wonder how Laennec's book on auscultation came so early into the possession of John Forbes. The answer is that although road transport into Cornwall was difficult during the Regency period, sea transport was easy. Cornwall was more accessible from the continent than from London. It is not unlikely that Laennec's work was brought into Penzance by a local smuggler.



Bibliography: Richard Quiller Couch

Castle Dor.

Quiller-Couch, A. and du Maurier, D.
Castle Dor.