The Maritime History of the Couch Family


With the second marriage of Q's grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch, to Jane Quiller, the name Couch would not only be transformed by Q's generation into Quiller-Couch, but the union also united two sea-faring families. The Quillers were locally well-known as sailors and smugglers. Their house in Polperro which became Jonathan Couch's on his marriage (Jane Quiller's male relatives having all perished at sea) reputedly had several hiding places for smuggled goods built into the structure. In his unfinished autobiography, Memories and Opinions, Q describes:

...a largish bedroom fitted with a wig-cupboard; in the floor were removable boards revealing a hole, in the past equally convenient (it was rumoured) for a fugitive from the press-gang or for storing a few kegs of smuggled brandy (Quiller-Couch, 1944).

The Couch side of the family, however, also included many sailors and those involved in ship-building. Several Couches, as notorious as the smuggling and privateering Quillers, appear in historical records. In 1330, Stephen le Coche of St Malo, master of La Seinte Jame, together with Peter le Congre, master of La Jonette, was the subject of an embittered complaint by William Arnaldi of Bayonne to Edward III that his ship La Sainteberthelmeu was attacked and robbed by le Coche and le Congre. The King demanded that the Bishop of St Malo investigate the matter. In 1732, Hugh Couch, master of the Prideaux, was imprisoned in Dover Castle, accused of piracy of Spanish goods having been apprehended by customs officers at Poole. There was also the unfortunate Thomas Couch, accused of neglect of duty – leaving a candle burning and causing HMS Royal Sovereign to be burnt at her moorings – who was sentenced by Royal Navy Court Martial to 31 lashes, forfeit of all pay and life imprisonment, on 5 February 1696.

The Admiralty and Navy Board records from the 17th to 19th centuries are full of people with the surname Couch, and Masters and Mates Certificates were granted from the 1850s onwards to various Couches from Cornwall, some of whom were no doubt connected to the Couches of Talland. This study, however, is concerned with known connections of the Quiller-Couch family.

The descendants of Philip Couch

In the 18th century Samuel Couch and his wife Joan Libby, Q's great-great-great- grandparents, had three sons who moved to Plymouth: Joseph and Richard went to Stoke Damerel, the ancient manor and ecclesiastical parish within which Plymouth Dock, later known as Devonport, was situated;  Philip became a wealthy customs officer living at East Stonehouse, which at that time was a small town with pretensions to gentility, popular with naval officers and their families during the later 18th century. At the time of his death Philip was living at Emma Place which, with Durnford Street, was one of the best addresses in the town, consisting of large family houses. His will -proved on 28 January 1792 at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury- shows that he owned considerable property and investments, including the Excise Officers Watch House and adjoining cellars.

He had ten children: five sons and five daughters, some  of which had links to the sea. Grace Rogers was married to a naval lieutenant.

William married Honoria Bryant and became a shipwright and ship-builder with the East India Company. He died in Calcutta in 1787.  His son, Lt. Richard Couch RN (1779-1806) fought at the Battle of San Domingo in the Caribbean on HMS Superb, a 74-gun third-rate Achille class ship. (This was part of the squadron commanded by Sir John Duckworth, whose victory in February 1806 enabled him to escape court martial for leaving Cadiz blockade without permission to pursue a squadron of the French fleet.) A squadron of French ships had been sent to disrupt British trade activity in the Atlantic but, during the battle on 6th February, all five French ships of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Corentin-Urban Leissègues were captured or destroyed, with no loss of British ships. It is presumed that Richard Couch was with the ship, commanded by Captain Richard Keats from 1801, when it sailed for Cadiz in June of that year, but Couch died shortly after the Battle of San Domingo.

Rollings, the youngest son, was apprenticed aged ten in June 1774 to Thomas Wells, shipwright at Plymouth who had himself been apprenticed to Master Shipwright Israel Pownoll, who was in charge of all construction work and workmen at the Plymouth dockyard from 1762-1775. Navy Board records for 7 October 1770 include a recommendation by the Plymouth Officers that Thomas Wells was considered as qualified to act as quarterman of the shipwrights in the absence of one Thomas White. Rollings appears in the Admiralty Service Records (Commission and Warrant Book) in 1781 as a carpenter.

James, born c.1743, was apprenticed in 1759 to shipwright Daniel Little of Maker (Cornwall) and married Little's daughter Thomasina in 1772. James was ship's carpenter on board HMS Adamant under Captain David Knox. The Adamant was a 50-gun, fourth-rate Portland class ship of the line. It sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1789, as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes, commander of the North American station established at Halifax. The location had been chosen for its well-protected deep-water harbour as a base for the Royal Navy to patrol the North American coast and West indies, protecting British interests. A careening yard had been established since 1757 for the repair of naval vessels. James died at the naval hospital in Halifax in 1791 and is buried in the cemetery there.

James  and Thomasine had two sons, Daniel Little Couch and James Couch, both of whom became captains in the Royal Navy. 

Captain James Couch RN

According to biographies written by John Marshall (1831) and William O'Byrne (1849) James Couch's naval career started aged seven when he was made captain's servant on the Adamant in April 1789 on the voyage to Nova Scotia with his father. Winfield explains:

Until 1794, a Captain was allowed four servants for every 100 men aboard his ship, so this could be as many as eight servants for the Captain of a sixth rate, while the Captain of a first rate might have 32 servants. Lieutenants, Masters, Surgeons and Pursers were allowed one servant each, while Carpenters, Boatswain and Gunners got two. Lieutenants in command of vessels were allowed two servants, while "Masters and Commanders" had three (their base pay was the same as a Lieutenant, regardless of the vessel's rating). In 1794, the Admiralty, in order to gain some control over the entry of "young gentlemen" as future officers, abolished the position of Captain's servant, creating that of 1st Class Volunteer, with its own pay and emoluments. In lieu of the pay of the servants which they had been receiving, Captains were given an increase in pay to offset the loss (Winfield, 2005).

Another interesting fact of naval life at the time was the post of 'widow's man or men' who, according to Winfield, were:

...imaginary (theoretical) seaman/seamen, carried on the books of each commissioned ship at Able Seaman's rate of pay and provisions to enable the Paymaster-General of the Navy to meet widows' pensions (Winfield, 2005).

James remained with the Adamant until June 1792 – from January of that year until June under Captain Charles Hope – when the ship was paid off before being re-fitted at Plymouth.

According to his naval biography, from January 1794 until September 1797 James served on the Dictator, a 64-gun third-rate ship of the line of the Inflexible class, and then the Atlas, a 98-gun second-rate Duke class under Captains Edmund Dod and Squire. The Atlas was started at Chatham Dockyard by Israel Pownoll (who had been in charge of Plymouth Dockyard when James's uncle Rollings was first apprenticed) from 1777, when it was commissioned, but it was finished in April 1779 by Nicholas Philips. It was then recommissioned in March 1795 under Captain Dod and then Captain Matthew Squire, for Channel service.

James then served under Captain Hon. Robert Stopford aboard the Phaeton, a 38-gun fifth-rate Minerva-class ship, for two years. In 1795 the Phaeton under Captain Stopford had escorted Princess Caroline of Brunswick to England for her marriage to the Prince Regent. During James's service the Phaeton succeeded in capturing several enemy vessels, including L'Indien, Le Découverte, Le Hasard, L'Aventure, La Légère, Le Mercure, La Flore, Le Lévrier and L'Hirondelle, and recaptured several British vessels including the Adamant on which he had begun his career.

He passed his lieutenant's examination in November 1799 and was then serving aboard the Atalante under Captain Anselm Griffiths. That year, the Atalante (a French brig captured by the Phoebe in January 1797 off the Scilly Isles and commissioned in 1798) under Griffiths, took the Boadicea, Le Milan a 14-gun privateer-cutter, and then Le Succès, a six-gun privateer. After this, James served aboard the Niger under Cmdr James Hillyar who took over the command in April 1800. James  naval biography states 'He was confirmed as lieutenant in the Woolwich store-ship under Captain Campbell on 6 September 1800'. According to Winfield, the Woolwich was formerly the mercantile Marianne, a six-gun tender purchased in 1788 and first commissioned in 1793 for impressment service. Several ships used for troops and transports were also used for the movement of stores and munitions.

In 1801 James was involved in the Egyptian campaign in which the British and the Ottomans combined to defeat Napoleon's attempt to gain ascendancy in the Middle East. The Royal Navy dominated the Mediterranean after the Battle of the Nile (Aboukir Bay) and the siege of Malta, and Egypt was finally returned to the Ottomans by the Treaty of Paris on 25 June 1802. According to his biographers, James was presented with the Turkish Gold Medal. Until the Peace of Amiens, he was next employed in the Tigre (a 74-gun French prize, captured off the Île Groix by Lord Bridport in June 1795) under Captain Sir William Sidney Smith. Dr Jonathan Couch in his Private Memoir wrote that he saw Captain James Couch 'at my father's house' and that 'he was then just returned from Eygpt' (Wheeler, 1983).

As First Lieutenant aboard HMS Conqueror, under the command of Captain Israel Pellew – brother of Sir Edward, later Admiral Lord Exmouth – James fought at Trafalgar as part of Nelson's own division. The Conqueror, a 74-gun, third-rate ship of the line, was third in the order of battle.

In 1807 he joined the President, a French prize taken in September 1806 by Canopus and Dispatch in the Atlantic. She was commissioned in December 1807 under Captain Adam Mackenzie and sailed for South America. She was in the temporary command of Captain Charles Schomberg, in 1809, off Brazil. In 1810, James was appointed to the Bellerophon, the flagship in the North Sea of Rear-Admiral John Ferrier in 1812. The Bellerophon was a 74-gun third-rate Edgar class ship launched in 1786 and familiarly known as the 'Billy Ruffian'. In 1815, after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon boarded the Bellerophon to surrender to the British. In 1810 the ship was under the command of Captain Lucius Hardyman (August 1810- June 1811).

In April 1811, James was appointed First Lieutenant of the Acasta under Captain Alexander R. Kerr. The Acasta, a 40-gun fifth-rate frigate launched in 1797, had been involved in the Battle of San Domingo in 1806, in which his first cousin Lieutenant Richard Couch had fought aboard the Superb. O'Byrne writes:

While on the Acasta he contributed to the capture on the Home and American stations of a large number of the enemy's armed and other vessels – assisted in driving a squadron under Commodore Decatur into New London – and evinced much bravery in command of the boats on various occasions of hazard, particularly at the capture 25 December 1812 of the Herald letters-of-marque, of 10 guns, on which occasion he received a severe contusion on the leg from the bursting of a gun (O'Byrne, 1849).

On 10 June 1814 James was posted to the Chesapeake, a 38-gun three-masted heavy frigate which had been captured from the Americans in 1813 by HMS Shannon off Cape Anne (Boston Bay). During this service he visited the Cape of Good Hope. The ship was commissioned in 1813 under Cmdr Alexander Gordon (Captain from 10.2.1814) and was later under the command of Captain George Burdett and arrived back in Plymouth 9 October 1814 to repair defects.

He was then posted briefly to the Berwick, a 74-gun third-rate Armada class, which was laid up in July 1816 at Plymouth before joining HMS Impregnable under Captain James Nash on 10 October 1816; Nash had commanded the Berwick which became the flagship of Sir John T. Duckworth, moored at the entrance to the Hamoaze. It is presumed that James missed the siege of Algiers, in which the Impregnable took part under the command of Admiral David Milne, as second in the order of battle led by Admiral Lord Exmouth, on the 27 August 1816. The Impregnable had been launched in 1810 and was a 98-gun, second-rate three-decker ship of the line, built as a near copy of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, and flagship of Admiral the Duke of Clarence (William IV). The Impregnable was re-classed as a 106-gun first-rate ship in February 1817 and, in September 1817, was under the command of Captain Pownall Pellew. James Couch was 'advanced to the rank of commander' on 7 September 1817.

On 2 July 1821, James was appointed to the command of HMS Perseus, a receiving ship for volunteers stationed at the Tower of London. The Perseus, a 22-gun frigate of the Laurel class designed by John Henshaw, had been launched in 1812 and hulked as a receiving ship in 1816. James remained as commander until 10 January 1831. William O'Byrne writes that as regulating Captain at the Port of London he 'raised and forwarded to their posts no fewer than 13,000 men' (O'Byrne, 1849). He was senior Captain until 1824 when he was appointed post-Captain, and 'bears the character of a very scientific and ingenious officer'.

In 1817, James had married Mary Smith Monico in a ceremony at Stoke Damerel, conducted by the chaplain of the Impregnable. After he was appointed to the Perseus he moved with his family to Camberwell in London, returning to Stoke Damerel in 1831 when his command of the Perseus ended. The family then lived at Somerset Place, Stoke Damerel where, on 17 March 1832, his eldest son James Monico Couch, died aged thirteen, after 'a severe illness' (Royal Devonport Chronicle and Plymouth Telegraph).

The London Evening Standard obituary on 11 January 1850 mentions his invention of patent safety channels. These were designed to keep the rigging at a proper distance from the ship but correspondence of the Admiralty (Navy Board out letters) indicates that he may have found it difficult to get his ideas accepted by those in authority. A letter of 15 May 1830, listed in the National Archives under the correspondence of John Wilson Croker (first Secretary to the Admiralty, 1809-1830) refers to 'Captain James Couch of the Perseus [who] recommended an improvement of the channels of HM Ships. Similar proposals have been made before and our letter of May 1825 set out our objections thereto'. Similarly, he found it difficult to obtain the remuneration due to him for research. Amongst the papers of the Royal Greenwich Observatory Board of Longitude Papers: Pay and Pensions, Research, miscellaneous astronomical and nautical tables, is noted an 'enquiry from Lieut. J. Couch relating to remuneration for some tables' and 'various inventions by Lieut. J. Couch'. Jonathan Couch, in his Private Memoir, describes James Couch as 'an ingenious mechanic and had a patent for a "chuck channel"' (Wheeler, 1983).

He accepted retirement in 1846 having served 34 years on full pay, and was in receipt of the Greenwich Hospital Out-Pension. James died suddenly on 9 January 1850, at the home of his friend, Captain Slaughter RN, in Buckingham Place, Stonehouse. He had walked there on a bitterly cold day to pay a morning visit but, as the Reading Mercury reported on Saturday 19 January 1850:

On taking his seat Captain Slaughter remarked "Couch this is too cold a morning for you to be out" (Captain Couch had for some time been affected with a complaint of his chest) when his countenance changed and he ceased to live.

James Couch's children: summary

  • His second son, Philip Rogers Couch, passed his Lieutenant's examination on 27 October 1843 and served as Mate in the Pacific, aboard the Sampson steam-frigate under Captain Thomas Henderson. He was promoted to lieutenant in November 1846 but died aged 27 on 10 February 1849, 'after a lingering illness' (Hampshire Telegraph), the year following the death of his mother Mary.
  • Mary Ann, widow of surgeon Richard Lennox, married William Ralph Esq., retired captain in 1858.
  • William Couch, who possibly also served in the Queen's Royal Regiment, is recorded contesting the will of his brother Edward in 1856, in the case Ommanney v Stilwell.
  • James Couch's youngest son, George, was second lieutenant in the Royal Marines, appointed in 1849. According to Rich's blog, Out of the Frozen Deep, he married, had five children and eventually emigrated to Australia.
  • Lieutenant Edward Couch sailed with Sir John Franklin's expedition to find the North-West Passage aboard HMS Erebus in 1845.

Lieutenant Edward Couch RN 

Edward Couch began his naval career aged 14 aboard the naval gunnery training ship HMS Excellent. Now shore-based, in the early days the Excellent was established in hulks in Portsmouth Harbour. There Edward first met James Fitzjames, under whom he was later to serve in the Franklin expedition.

After leaving the Excellent, Couch joined HMS Queen as a First Class Volunteer. The Queen was a first-rate ship of the line with a 110 guns, launched in 1839 at Portsmouth. She was originally commissioned in 1827 as the Royal Frederick, but on Victoria's accession to the throne the name was changed to HMS Queen in honour of the new sovereign. The Queen was the last battleship built as a purely sailing ship.

In 1842, Edward served aboard HMSCornwallis, the flagship of Admiral Sir William Parker, who had appointed James Fitzjames as his gunnery lieutenant. The Cornwallis fought in the First Opium War where, at the battle of Zhenjiang, Edward  was put in charge of two boats landing artillery on the beach. He and others were wounded in the attempt and forced to take cover. They were rescued but had to abandon their artillery. He was later involved in heavy fighting in the streets of Zhenjiang.

After the war, James Fitzjames received his appointment as commander of HMS Clio, which was then at Bengal. Edward joined HMS St. Vincent, a 120-gun first-rate ship of the line launched in 1815. The St. Vincent was on harbour service at Portsmouth in 1841, where she later became a training ship, and a watercolour by William Edward Atkins depicts the St. Vincent riding at anchor off Gosport.

In 1845, Edward volunteered for the expedition led by Sir John Franklin to the Arctic to find the North-West Passage. He was appointed mate under Captain James Fitzjames, second-in-command to Sir John Franklin aboard HMS Erebus. Edward passed his lieutenants examination in May 1845 but did not receive his commission until two years later, when his name reached the top of the list.

James Fitzjames, in a letter to his wife, described Edward as:

...a little black-haired smooth faced fellow; good-humoured in his own way; writes, reads, works, draws, all quietly. Is never in the way of anybody, and always ready when wanted, but I can find no remarkable point in his character, except that he is, I should think, obstinate.

A daguerreotype held by the National Maritime Museum shows a smiling, smooth-shaven, good-humoured looking young man. He seems to have inherited the Couch family's artistic ability. In a letter to his parents held in the Scott Polar Research Institute Archive at the University of Cambridge, he writes that on arrival at 'Whale Islands – close along-side of Isle Disco – Davies Strait' (the address from which his letter home of early July 1854 was written) he had been all over one of the islands that first morning taking bearings and 'making a sketch or two' and that on the voyage across he had been:

...very busy . . . making Sir John a signal book – painting in etc – a copy of one Sir E Parry used – a long job and have only just finished it – so He is pleased – as I took a great deal of pains about it and that, with a little drawing, has been my chief occupation (Rich, 2020).

Edward Couch's letter is full of enthusiasm for the adventure and optimism for the result:

They were talking in England about our being too late for the season but we are full early now even and they say it is a very comparatively warm season . . . It is not decided where we shall winter but very likely at Melville Island – It is almost an impossibility of getting thro' this season – odd as it appears nobody like the thoughts of being done out of going through one of the winters to see and pick up everything worth knowing. So about September 1846 we hope to be in Behring's Straits on our way home – which is not long to look forward to (Rich, 2020).

There was no perceived reason why the expedition should not have succeeded: Sir John Franklin was an experienced commander; the ships were especially solidly built and equipped; provisions were laid in to last several years. Rich quotes the Times 11 August 1845, which reported on the arrival back in port of the Barreto Junior which had transported supplies for the expedition to Greenland and brought back letters home:

The newspaper quoted an extract of a letter from one of the officers "not sorry to have turned our backs upon the frigid zone . . . We left our excellent and good friends of the discovery ships at Whalefish Island, Disco, on the 12th [of July 1845], all in good health and high spirits as to their future enterprise, full of hope as to their ultimate success. They are famously strong ships, well manned, and impossible to be better officered. We left them complete in full three years' provisions, stores and fuel." Edward Couch wrote of Sir John Franklin that 'he has 3 every day to dinner with him and when the weather permits the Captain and officers of "Terror". He ordered stock and wine to be laid in, enough for 4 every day and a cabin full twice a week for 3 years, so you can see what a liberal old man he is (Rich, 2020).

The last sighting of the expedition was made by a whaling ship about a fortnight after they had left Whalefish Islands,  when 'some of the officers had dinner with its captain, who reported them as being well and in good spirits'  (Rich, 2020).

It was not until 7 September 2014 that the wreck of the Erebus was finally discovered near King William Island in eastern Queen Maud Gulf, Canada and, in 2016, the Terror, the other ship of the expedition was also found. Various expeditions since the ships were lost had sought to trace what had happened and to search for possible survivors. The ships had probably become ice-bound but their superior construction, equipment and stores should have enabled them to survive a long period of extreme cold, even lasting a few years. The British Government offered substantial rewards of £20,000 for anyone 'who shall discover and effectually relieve the crews of Her Majesty's ships "Erebus" and "Terror" ' and even as much as £10,000 for intelligence.

Dr Charles Rae of the Hudson Bay Company collected information and artefacts from local Inuit but caused general horror and disgust by his report of evidence of cannibalism amongst the crew, and distress to their relatives in Britain. Lady Franklin herself and Charles Dickens, writing in Household Words, were amongst the most vociferous in condemning the rumours as impossible. Dickens in his two-part article of 2 and 9 December, 1854, quoted Dr Rae's report, based on the testimonies he had collected:

Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of the famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over for a shelter; and several lay scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the Island, one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barrelled gun lay underneath him. From the mutilated state of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence. . . None of the Esqimaux with whom I conversed had seen the "whites", nor had they ever been at the place where the bodies were found, but had their information from those who had been there, and who had seen the party when travelling.' Dr Rae also wrote that some of the corpses 'had been sadly mutilated, and had been stripped by those who had the misery to survive them and who were found wrapped in two or three suits of clothes (Dickens, 1854).

Dickens pounced on the fact that Dr. Rae had only had second-hand reports and not eye-witness statements from the Inuit and also wrote that it was likely that these reports had also been translated by an interpreter 'in all probability imperfectly acquainted with the language he translated'. Not to mention, he added, the difficulties in understanding caused by the different dialects spoken in the region, even sometimes difficult for the Inuit. As for the mutilations, Dickens preferred to lay the blame on bears, wolves or foxes or even the Inuit themselves. True to the beliefs of his time he thought of them as 'savages'. For him: is in the highest degree improbable that such men as the officers and crews of the two lost ships would or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by this horrible means (Dickens, 1854).

His articles give numerous examples but in his opinion the most compelling was Sir John Franklin's own Narrative of a Journey on the Shores of the Polar Seas in 1819-22, in which he described the hardships undergone by the expedition, some of whom perished of cold and starvation. They were forced to exist on a weed described as 'tripe de roche' and by roasting strips of their old boot leather. Sir John described himself as being 'reduced to skin and bone' by the time help was finally received. One member of a part of the expedition under Sir John Richardson, an Iroquois named Michel had, in fact, conceived the idea of cannibalism and went as far as to shoot Mr Hood dead, but once his intentions were realised, he was himself shot dead by Sir John Richardson. Several members of the expedition died but, as Dickens points out:

...the bodies of the dead lay within reach, preserved by the cold, but unmutilated . . . the sufferers had passed the bitterness of hunger and were then dying passively....the better educated the man, the better disciplined the habits, the more reflective and religious the tone of thought, the more gigantically improbable the "last resource" becomes. It was a slander on the 'flower of the trained adventurous spirit of the English Navy' to imagine otherwise and precisely because the members of the expedition were dead and unable to explain themselves it was important to 'teach no-one to shudder, without reason, at the history of their end. Therefore, confide with their own firmness, in their fortitude, their lofty sense of duty, their courage, and their religion (Dickens, 1854).

Lady Franklin, together with other private subscribers, commissioned an expedition from Aberdeen led by Francis McClintock in the Fox, which she had bought for the purpose. They left Aberdeen on 2 July 1857 and, early in 1859, expeditions from the ship found remains and a large boat on the western shore of King William Island, which McClintock named Erebus Bay and, most importantly, two different cairns in the north and south of a bay on the island, in which were found concealed a report dated 28 May 1847 (and a copy) from the Franklin expedition written by Sir John himself, giving their position Lat: 70° 5' N; Long: 98° 23' W. He described the activities of the expedition briefly:

having wintered in 1846 – at Beechey Island in Lat 74° 43' 28" N; Long 91° 39' 15" W after having ascended Wellington channel to Lat 77° and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island....All well.

However, notes in the margin of one of the reports, dated 25 April 1848, indicate that all became rapidly far from well, as less than two weeks after writing his report, Franklin and 23 others were dead. Franklin died on 11 June 1847. The notes state that the ships had been trapped in ice for a year-and-a-half and that the surviving crew of 105 had abandoned the ships two days before and were intending to make their way south overland. It was signed by Captain and Senior Officer F.R.H. Crozier and Captain of the Erebus James Fitzjames. The report was written on an official Admiralty form which requested (in several different languages) that:

whoever finds this paper is requested to forward it to the Secretary of the Admiralty, London, with a note of the time and place at which it was found; or, if more convenient, to deliver it for that purpose to the British Consul at the nearest Port.

The 105 survivors transported equipment and supplies as far as the north-west coast of King William Island, where further bodies were later discovered.

Rowbotham's article in History Today (volume 37, 10 October 1987), 'Canned Food Sealed Icemens' Fate', examines the likelihood that some of those who died may have perished from lead poisoning or food poisoning (botulism) due to inadequate canning processes used in the preparation of the tinned stores. Whilst the crew had plenty of fuel to begin with and were able to cook the food, destroying any bacteria, once that fuel ran out consuming raw food would have killed them within 48 hours. In 1984, post-mortems were carried out by Dr Owen Beattie, a Canadian anthropologist from the University of Alberta, on the three bodies discovered at Beechey Island. The body of John Torrington, the first to die, was exhumed and found to contain lead concentrations twenty times more than normal. Tests carried out on cans of tinned food collected on Beechey Island revealed that some of the side seams were imperfectly sealed. The article mentions the documentation of the original contract at Deptford in April 1845 showing that the order for the tins was rushed 'and strengthens the view that a significant portion of the expedition's supply was contaminated'. Nine of those who died at the same time as Franklin were officers, who were likely to have consumed tinned food regularly as luxury items. Edward Couch had mentioned in his letter home the generosity of Franklin in entertaining his officers.

Anorexia, weakness and paranoia would have compounded the effects of of starvation and scurvy, leading to the final horrors of cannibalism. . . Beattie's tests on the skeletal remains found on King William Island indicated that the body had been deliberately dismembered, bone marrow removed, and what were identified as knife marks were visible on scattered bones from the arms and legs. This confirms the early tales of the Eskimo natives to the Hudson Bay search party of 1854.

DNA testing has enabled the positive identification of at least one other member of the expedition – John Gregory – and revealed the interesting information that some members of the expedition were, in fact, female. Five watches and various items of silver cutlery engraved with crests and initials were found next to the boat by the McClintock expedition and had belonged to Sir John Franklin and nine other officers, five of whom were from the Erebus, including Le Vesconte, whom Edward Couch mentioned in his letter home as accompanying him in his explorations on that first day, and Edward Couch himself, whose watch was engraved with his crest.

The fate of Edward Couch and the uncertainty over the date of his death caused a family dispute over his will which resulted in the case Ommanney v Stilwell and others. Before setting out on the expedition Edward Couch had made a will appointing Octavius Ommanney, a Naval Agent, his executor together with Mr Palin of Norfolk Street, Strand. The report of the Weekly Dispatch (London) of Sunday 4 November 1855 on the proceedings in the Rolls Court, stated that by this will, Edward Couch 'devised his pay and all his property to his father Captain James Couch'. The report went on to explain that:

In 1850 Captain Couch died, and by his will in 1848, he appointed Thomas Stilwell, John Gillian Stilwell, and his two daughters Elizabeth and Caroline Couch his executors; that will was proved in 1850, by the defendant, Thomas Stilwell, by which he became the sole legal personal representative of Captain James Couch, the father of Edward Couch, the original testator who was lost along with Sir John Franklin and his unfortunate crew in the Polar Seas. For several years after Edward Couch sailed for England, the fate of himself and his companions was uncertain, but as there was no evidence of the death of Edward Couch his pay, as mate of the Erebus, was regularly paid by the Admiralty to the plaintiff as his agent up to March 1854. In that year it was presumed that Edward Couch was lost with the unfortunate Sir John Franklin and his crew, and his pay was discontinued by the Admiralty. Under these circumstances the plaintiff proved Edward Couch's will in 1854, and upon probate being granted he became the sole legal personal representative of Edward Couch. Thomas Stilwell, one of the defendants, alleged that in consequence of the events that had happened, it must be presumed that Edward Couch died before his father Captain Couch and he, therefore, as the executor of the latter claimed to be entitled to all the personal estate of Edward Couch. The other defendant, William Couch, on the other hand, alleged that as Captain James Couch died before seven years had elapsed before Edward Couch was known to be alive it was to be presumed that he survived his father, and therefore the next-of-kin of Edward Couch, of which he was one, were entitled to his personal estate. In this state of circumstances and with these conflicting claims, the plaintiff, thinking he could not safely take upon himself the administration of the estate of Edward Couch filed a bill and presented the present petition for the direction and assistance of the court. Mr Dickenson appeared for the petitioner; and Mr Roundell Palmer for the defendants. The Master of the Rolls, thinking the court would not be justified in making any order until the fact was ascertained whether Edward Couch died before or after his father, directed an enquiry for the purpose of ascertaining that fact, the parties to proceed for the will before the Chief Clerk (Weekly Dispatch, 4/11/1855).

 Rich writes:

It is clear from the contemporary law report that the case had first been referred to one of the Chief Clerks recently introduced as part of the new Chancery procedures. The evidence which the chief clerk had to consider was an affidavit (a sworn statement) by Dr John Rae, which appears to have largely either repeated or quoted word-for-word his 1854 report to his employers the Hudson Bay Co. (Rich, 2020).

Based on his knowledge of the migratory habits of wild geese, the remains of those which the survivors had consumed having been found, Dr. Rae estimated 'that some of such white men survived until at least the latter end of the month of May, or the beginning of the month of June in the year 1850'. The judge, Sir John Romilly, gave his ruling on 7 November 1856, which Rich quotes in her blog: 

It is clear that the persons who were seen in April [1850] survived the father [James Couch]; they were about forty in number, while the original number was about 133, and no identity is proved.

In this state of things, I confess I cannot come to a satisfactory conclusion on the subject. My Chief Clerk is of the opinion that the son survived the father, and has made or was about to make a certificate accordingly. He relied on the youth and strength of the son. I cannot see that this conclusion is erroneous. I cannot but express my extreme inability to come to a satisfactory conclusion, but, relying on the chances in favour of the youth and strength of the son, I see no reason to differ from the conclusion of the Chief Clerk (Rich, 2020).

In the event, the judgement made no difference to the Couch family as by that time Elizabeth and Caroline, James Couch's unmarried daughters who were his beneficiaries, had already died, so both Edward and Elizabeth Couch's estate were divided amongst the remaining next-of-kin.

The fate of the expedition continued to intrigue people and in in the following decade an American, Captain Charles Hall, was convinced that survivors must be found and he undertook two arctic expeditions but it was not until he had visited King William Island himself in 1869 that he finally accepted that 'he had been too sanguine'. Wilkie Collins wrote a play The Frozen Deep published in 1856 in which Dickens, who was very much involved with its production and management, played the role of one of the last Arctic explorers; and Edwin Landseer exhibited Man Proposes, God Disposes, a chilling depiction of polar bears circling a shipwreck, at the Royal Academy in 1864.

The members of the expedition are commemorated by the Franklin Monument, commissioned by the British Government, which originally stood in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital but which can now be found in the ante-chapel of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

Commander Daniel Little Couch RN

Commander Daniel Little Couch, elder brother of James, like his younger sibling joined the Adamant as a young boy in February 1789 as first-class Boy. He then served aboard the Charon, a 44-gun fifth-rate ship of the Roebuck class 44 under Captain Edmund Dod, which sailed for the African coast on 23 November 1793 and then the West Indian station, before being paid off in September 1793 and refitted as a hospital ship at Woolwich. Daniel transferred with Captain Dod to the Dictator as midshipman, after which he served for three years as Master's Mate aboard the Atlas under Captain Dod then Captain Squires. James Couch had also served aboard these ships at the same time as his brother. Edmund Dod was later appointed Admiral of the White. He died on 22 December 1817 aged 81, according to his memorial tablet in Exeter Cathedral.

Daniel then joined the Melpomene, a 38-gun fifth-rate French frigate captured in 1794, under Captain Sir Charles Hamilton, and afterwards the Fisgard under Captain Thomas Byam Martin. Whilst aboard the Fisgard, Daniel  was wounded during the capture in 1798 of L'Immortalité - a 42-gun ship with 580 men aboard. During the fight, ten British and 54 of the enemy were killed, with 26 British compared to 61 French wounded. For his part in this action Daniel was awarded the Navy General Service Medal.

Having passed his lieutenant's examination in June 1797, he was promoted, whilst subsequently serving in the West Indies aboard the Volage frigate (a 22-gun sixth rate former privateer taken as a French prize by the Melampus off the Irish coast and which was thought to have been the model for Jack Aubrey's ship the Franklin in Patrick O'Brien's novel The Wine Dark Sea) under Captain Hon. Philip Wodehouse, to a lieutenancy aboard the Serpent under Captain Thomas Roberts on 9 February 1799. Captain Roberts was acting commander to July 1798 when he was made Commander. The Serpent was on the Jamaica station until 1799 and then until 1803 on the Irish station. The Serpent was a four-gun Dutch Hoy purchased in 1794.

According to the naval biographer William O'Byrne, Daniel Little Couch's 'after-appointments seem to have been, on the Home and Mediterranean stations':

  • 7 October 1800, to the Formidable (Captains Edward Thornborough and Richard Grindall);
  • 25 March 1801, the Majestic (Captain Davidge Gould);
  • 24 October 1803, the Terrible under Cmdr, later (January 1804) Captain Lord Henry Paulet.

The Formidable was a second-rate Barfleur class first commissioned in 1778. In 1779 under Thornborough's command the ship was under the flag of Rear-Admiral James Whitshed and joined Admiral Sir Charles Cotton's reinforcement in the Mediterranean. In 1800 the ship was in the Channel and the command passed to Richard Grindall. The Majestic, a 74-gun third rate ship, built at Deptford by William Barnard, had seen action on the Glorious First of June off the island of Ushant (Ouessant, Brittany) in 1794 and at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798. In 1801 she was in the Channel before sailing for the West Indies 11 February 1802 to October 1802. The Terrible, another seventy-four gun third rate, was also serving in the Channel.

On 20 November 1804 Daniel Couch was appointed to the Hero under Captain Hon. Alan Hyde Gardner. The Hero was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the modified Fame Class, commissioned in October 1803 for the Channel Fleet. O'Byrne states that:

While serving in the Hero, Lieut. Couch was present in 1805 in Sir Robert Calder's and Sir Richard Strachan's actions and witnessed the capture on 13 March 1806 of Marengo of 80 guns and 40 gun frigate Belle Poule, of the former of which ships he was made prize-master.

The actions fought by Calder and Strachan formed part of the War of the Third Coalition in which Napoleon was preparing for the invasion of Britain with a large force quartered in Boulogne. Calder was in command of the squadron blockading the ports of Rochefort and Ferrol. On 19 July 1805 he was commanded to lift his blockade and sail to Cape Finisterre to intercept the combined French and Spanish squadron under Villeneuve. The 15 British ships were outnumbered by the 20 allied French and Spanish ships in the Battle of Cape Finisterre, which was fought on 22nd July. The Hero was in the vanguard of the action in which the Malta under Edward Buller in the rear was surrounded by the Spanish but managed to capture both the San Rafael and the Firme. Both the Windsor Castle and the Malta were badly damaged in the action and this, together with his determination to protect the prizes won, led Calder to decide not to force Villeneuve to further action. This decision was much criticised at the time but hotly defended by Calder at a subsequent court martial. Daniel Couch was awarded a second Naval General Service Medal for his part in this action. Surviving men were entitled to Naval General Service Medal Clasps for actions between 1793 and 1827 (UK Naval and Award Rolls 1793-1972).

Whilst sailing off Cape Finisterre Strachan encountered, on 2 November 1805, four French ships returning from the action at Trafalgar. He captured them all at an action known as the Battle of Cape Ortegal.

Couch served aboard the Hero until 12 May 1807 when he was appointed to the Kent under Captain Thomas Rogers, a 74-gun third-rate Ajax class which from November 1805 became the flagship of Vice-Admiral Edward Thornborough, a long-serving veteran who, on the Glorious First of June (1794), had taken his frigate into battle to tow the badly damaged Bellerophon to safety. This was the first major battle in the war with Revolutionary France.

Finally, on 27 June 1809, Couch was appointed to the command of the Trusty gun-brig which he left 21 August 1810. The Trusty was a 50-gun fourth-rate ship of the Trusty class – modified from the Grampus designed by Edward Hunt. The Trusty was built by James Martin Hillhouse at Bristol and first commissioned in September 1782 under Captain James Bradby. She was the flagship of Commodore Sir John Lindsay in 1783 and saw service in the Mediterranean until 1789 when she was refitted and recommissioned as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir John Laforey, sailing for the Leeward Islands in March 1790. She sailed with the convoy to the Cape of Good Hope in June 1796; was refitted as a troopship at Woolwich and took part in the Eygptian operations. The Trusty was refitted as a prison ship at Chatham and recommissioned first under Lieutenant William Needham and then under Lieutenant Daniel Couch.

According to his biographer, Daniel became a Retired Commander on the Junior List 26 November 1830 and on the Senior 27 March 1843. This rank, as Winfield explains, strictly 'Master and Commander' did not become substantive until 1794 and all holders prior to that date technically remained Lieutenants. Daniel is listed with the rank of Lieutenant under 'Retired Commanders under His Majesty's Order in Council of 30th January 1816' in Thom's Irish Almanac and Official Directory of 1853.

Daniel married Margery (Margaret) Bate on 6 December 1809 at Bere Ferrers in Devon, where their eldest son, also Daniel Little Couch, was born in 1811. He was followed by two daughters Elizabeth Little Couch (1813-1889) and Eliza (1815-1895) both born at Stoke Damerel and Charles, born in 1816 at Saltash. Daniel Little Couch junior did not follow his father into the navy but instead developed another Couch talent and became an artist. He specialised in portraits, particularly of naval subjects, and portraits of his son Alfred Little Couch RN survive.

In 1842 Daniel Little Couch junior married Charlotte Langham of Bere Ferrers. They had several children: Daniel Little Couch (born 1849 who died in 1861), Eliza Maude (1843-56), James, Emily, Alfred Little (1851), Edward Little (1854), Charlotte Elizabeth (1856), William (1858 died aged one month), and Alice, born c.1862. The family lived at East Stonehouse. 

Of their sons, James became an exciseman. In 1871 he was living at South Banbury, Oxfordshire where, on 4 February 1871 he married Charlotte Langham from Bere Ferrers, daughter of William Langham, a farmer and most probably a first cousin on his mother's side. Their eldest son, born at Bideford in 1884, was another Daniel Little Couch. They had three daughters, Kate (1886), Dorothy (1888) and Mary (1891) and another son, John, in 1895 who died aged nine. Their two sons were educated at St Dunstan's Road School, Fulham which later, on a naval theme, became Captain Marryat's School. By the time of the 1901 census the family were living in Fulham, London where James Couch was an officer with the Inland Revenue. James Couch died in 1904 at Wandsworth.

Daniel Little Couch, great-grandson of Commander Daniel Little Couch married Edith Whitbread at All Saints, West Ham 27 June 1913. His occupation was that of Technical Chemist. The couple had one son, Denys John Whitbread Couch, born at West Ham in 1922. The family then emigrated to Rio de Janeiro but by 1935 were living at New York. Daniel Little Couch fought with the US in World War II from 1942 and died in New York 17 January 1954. His widow Edith moved to Vancouver, Canada, with her son where she died in 1962 and he died in 1985.

The other sons of Daniel Little Couch (son of Commander Daniel Couch) - Alfred Little Couch and Edward Little Couch - followed their grandfather into the Royal Navy, although by that time steam had replaced the age of sail.

Alfred Little Couch RN

Alfred Little Couch became a writer for the Royal Navy. This was a clerical grade, writers being responsible for legal, pay, welfare and career issues for the crew. His service began 1 January 1873 aboard the Ariadne and he then served aboard the Encounter, and the Royal Adelaide. By the time of the census of 1881 he was stationed in Northumberland, aboard the Castor under Commander Charles Willcox. He was married on 25 February 1883 to Mary Ann Hogan (known as Annie) who had been born at Bristol in 1865. The couple had four children between 1883 and 1895: Angela Mary Winifred, Mary Frances, Angela Charlotte Gertrude and Alfred Francis Joseph. The first two born at Tyneside and the last at Inverness, where their residence was by 1891. 

After the Castor Alfred Little Couch was appointed to the Lion and the Tamar. In 1891, when he was aged 40, his address for the census was 'moored alongside Caledonian Canal Bank'. Alfred became a Chief Writer, the highest grade for this occupation being 'Chief Petty Officer Writer.' By 1901 he had retired and become 'Pensioner Writer HM services' but the couple, who lived at Thorn Villa, Inverness, at this time still had three small children under ten. They moved to Bristol where Alfred Little Couch died of an apoplexy 28 April 1906.

In 1911 his widow Annie lived at 19 Hampton Place, Redland, Bristol, and her occupation described as a sick nurse. Also living with her were her daughters Mary Frances, aged 20, a governess, and Gertrude aged 18, together with Mary Josephine Horgan, her sister, aged 45 and Hannah Joynes aged 79.

Edward Little Couch RN

Edward Little Couch's service began on 25 November 1879 at the age of 25 aboard the Indus. By 1881 he was serving on the Achilles as an Engine Room Artificer, a skilled mechanic, an occupation dating from 1868 when ships had increasing need of personnel able to repair machinery, guns etc. He served successively aboard the Indus, Valorus, Phoenix, Bellerde, Achilles, Shannon, Rapid, Thalia, Cleopatra, Vivid II, Shafton, Penelope, Melampico, Niobe, Vivid and his last service was aboard the Colossus which ended in May 1899, when he was invalided from April to May 1899 at the Naval Hospital in Great Yarmouth where he is buried.

In October 1888 he had married Mary Maria Maud Taylor of Stoke Damerel. They had two children: Reginald Edward Couch (known as Edward) in 1893 and Archibald Little Couch in1897. After his death his widow, Maud (as she was known), went to live with her sister Alice Taylor who was then postmistress at Stoke Damerel, and became a 'draperess'. Also living with them was another sister, Amelia Edmunds, also a widow, together with Edward Little Couch's two sons. Both boys, probably through the influence of their aunt, became civil servants with the post office.

Edward (Reginald Edward) was employed at Newquay, Cornwall where he was still living at the time of the 1939 register, but later moved to St Austell where he died in June 1950. He married Irene Adele Tinney and they had two children, Kathleen Mary (1928) and another. Irene Couch died in 1973 and Kathleen in 2010. Edward Couch lived and worked at Newquay at the same time as his distant cousin, Jonathan Couch, son of Jonathan and Sarah Roose Couch of St Austell. It is extremely likely that the cousins met in the course of everyday life but whether they were aware of the family connection must remain a mystery.

Archibald Little Couch also joined the post office but in 1915 was serving as an airman in the R.A.F.. By 1939 he was living in at 2 Vista Delmar, Camborne as a civil servant with the post office. He married Evelyn Rowe of Redruth in September 1923 and they had one daughter, Margaret Ruth born in 1924. The family later moved to Bath where they were living at Ferns Cottage, Lower Swainswick. Archibald died at 12 Southstoke Road, Coome Down 15 October 1960 but was buried at Treleigh, Cornwall. His widow died in 1965 at Huddersfield.

Benjamin Couch of Plymouth

Benjamin Couch was born 29 January 1766 at Stoke Damerel. His parents were Richard Couch and Jane Deacon and his grandfather was Richard Couch (b.1715, Talland), the son of Samuel Couch and Joan Libby. Benjamin was, then, a cousin and contemporary of both Captain James Couch and Commander Daniel Couch (both of whom he lived near at 3 Summerland Place, Union Street, Plymouth) as well as Dr Jonathan Couch, Q's grandfather,  with whom he corresponded and visited at Polperro.

Jonathan, in his Private Memoir, describes Benjamin as a 'Master Mast Maker' in the dockyard and later on as a 'former superintendent of the Timber Department in the Dockyard at Devonport'. Benjamin married Lydia Allen (b. 1785) from Pembroke, whom he had met whilst working at the Pembroke Dockyard where, as he says in a letter to Jonathan, 'From 1819 to 1824 I served as an officer'. He goes on to say that he thought Miss Lydia Allen 'rather lost caste by forming an association with me'. Her first cousin was married to the late Sir James Mackintosh and another to 'the greatest philosophical historian in Europe "Sismondi"'. Another cousin married Josiah Wedgewood II and was mother of Emma Wedgwood who married Charles Darwin. Benjamin and Lydia's marriage was on 29 October 1823 at St Mary Pembroke by licence, the witnesses being William Allen and Eliza Maria Jones. Benjamin was a widower, with a son from previous marriage.

Benjamin had a great deal in common with his cousin Jonathan and Jonathan's eldest son, Dr Richard Quiller Couch of Penzance, with whom he was also probably in contact, as his correspondence with Jonathan Couch mentions his friend 'Mr Coulson of Penzance'. The Coulsons were a prominent family at Penzance at that period. Benjamin was an expert on all kinds of timber and timber infestation, which he discussed at length in his correspondence with Jonathan Couch, a well-known naturalist. One of his letters (Morrab Library Archive) refers to the enclosure of a specimen of timber with 'gribble worm attack'.

The 'gribble worm', Limnoria lignorum was first identified in 1799 by Jens Rathke, a Norwegian from Oslo (then Christiana) who later became a professor at Copenhagen University. The worm thrives in wet, cool and soft wood, in sea water, and especially in the northern and boreal hemisphere, particularly in shallow water, and wooden ships' hulls, especially at low water mark. Consequently, all kinds of pilings, piers and jetties were and are extremely vulnerable to attack, so of particular concern to Benjamin Couch who was responsible for timber. Shipworm, or Teredo, worms were another concern but favoured hardwood. Shipworms are a form of mollusc and the gribble worm a crustacean, of particular interest to both Jonathan and Richard Quiller Couch. In 1843 Richard Quiller Couch was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society for a paper on crustaceans. He was also a prominent member of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society to which Jonathan Couch was elected an honorary member in 1845. In 1846 Jonathan Couch contributed a paper Notes on a new species of Crustacea allied to Gonoplax rhumbuicles to the journal of the Penzance Natural History Society. 

Benjamin made a visit to Polperro in the late 1830s when he was in his seventies, and describes the awful journey back to Torpoint by 'van' (a kind of horse-drawn bus), with ' a fresh wind making an uninterrupted passage thro' the van' the whole way.

He died on 8 March 1740 and is buried at St Andrew with St Luke, Plymouth. His tombstone bears the inscription 'Late Timber and Stone Receiver Plymouth Yard.' Lydia Couch remarried in 1844, to James Toms, a music teacher and the couple lived at Summerland Terrace, Plymouth but when she died in December 1862, aged 84, it was in her native Pembroke.

Benjamin Franklin Couch

His son, Benjamin Franklin Couch, was presumably named for his father but his middle name is a curious coincidence, as his cousin Lieutenant Edward Couch was later to perish in the Franklin expedition. However, Benjamin Franklin was born c.1803, more than thirty years earlier. He was educated at Cambridge where he entered Corpus Christi in the Michaelmas term of 1822, migrating to Peterhouse December 6 1823. He gained his B.A. in 1826 and M.A in 1829. He was then appointed as curate at Caistor, Lincolnshire. A sale of household goods including furniture, glass and china was advertised to be held at the residence of the Rev. B.F. Couch, Vicarage House, Caistor on the 10th May 1833.

His entry in the record of alumni of Cambridge, lists the curacies he held as follows:

  • Caistor, Lincs 1833
  • St John's Hampstead, 1841 (although his father c. 1838 describes him as being curate at Gillingham, Dorset before this appointment)
  • Sunderland, 1842
  • Kirby Moorside, 1845-6
  • St Clements, Truro 1847
  • Horton and Piddington, Northants, 1851
  • Weir, 1871-3
  • Landrake with St Erney, Cornwall 1874-5
  • Glentworth, Lincs 1875-6

The record mentions that he held no curacy after 1876 and disappeared from Crockford in 1887. The census record has him at Canby, Lincs. in 1861, and St Pancras, London in 1871. He married late in life to Mary Gisborne, more than thirty years his junior and a Devon woman, at St Peter, Regent Square, London on 5 September 1874. White's History, Gazeteer and Directory of 1878, lists him at Exbourne, Devon (near Okehampton) where he was curate but by the 1881 census the couple were living at 36 St Aubyn Street, Stoke Damerel. He died at Bridgetown, Devon in 1885, aged 82, where he is buried at the cemetery of St John..

Richard Couch Hitchens

Jonathan Couch's daughter by his first marriage to Jane Prynn Rundle was Jane Rundle Couch (b.1810). She married Peter Hitchens who died in 1846 of tuberculosis and left £50 to fund his son, Richard Couch Hitchens, who was born in 1832 at Tregew, Lansallos, in whatever trade or profession he chose to follow. Richard decided on the merchant navy. Jonathan Couch in his Private Memoir, records that his grandson sailed for Valparaiso, Chile on 8 July 1848 aboard the barque Canopus, which called at Polperro. The Master was Richard Rowett, who was married to Hannah Hill Hitchens, Richard's aunt (his father's sister). Jonathan Couch's grandmother, Margaret, was also a Rowett.

Like the Quillers, the Rowetts were a notorious smuggling and privateering family who amassed a great deal of wealth from these activities in the 18th century. A later descendant of both these families, John Quiller Rowett financed both the building of the Rowett Institute in Polperro and Shackleton's last expedition to Antarctica.

An entry in the records of the quarter sessions at Lostwithiel for 1812, reads:

Richard Rowett, Master of brig "Speculation" of Looe and Benjamin Hicks of Talland, fish curer, stated on oath that on 7 May last they shipped at Liverpool 5,223 bushels 12lbs of British salt to carry to Looe, leaving Liverpool on 9 May. On voyage the vessel ran into stormy weather and took in water. Benjamin Hicks weighed salt on arrival at 5096 bushels, having lost 127 bushels 12lbs; Collector of Excise to cancel bond.

This Richard Rowett was probably the father of the Richard Rowett who was master of the Canopus. Salt was one of the most common cargoes, the main area of production for rock salt in Britain being in the Weaver Valley, Cheshire. (Towns with the suffix 'wich' were particularly associated with salt springs). As a cargo it was extremely vulnerable to loss particularly if stored in sacks, not barrels, as it dissolves when wet.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, after the adoption of the principle of free trade by Britain, and after the independence from Spain gained by the Latin American countries as a result of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, trade with Latin America increased rapidly and particularly with Argentina and Chile. Textiles were the main British export and Britain continued to hold the major proportion of world trade in textiles, in spite of growing competition from the USA, India and Japan, until the First World War.

As well as textiles, Britain exported not only manufactured goods to these countries but also labour. Bulmer-Thomas writes:

British Migrants brought with them skills and capital and this gave them an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. The small British communities generated an English-language press throughout Latin America, which was an additional way in which their influence spread to the local elite (Bulmer-Thomas, 1998).

The development of steamships made travel between Europe and Latin America much easier as the century progressed. One of Richard's sisters, Hannah (b.1839) married Joseph Clark who was in Valparaiso in 1865 (Wheeler, 1983).

Richard gained his Second Mate's Certificate from the Board of Trade on 19 June 1854 and First Mate on 11 December 1857. He settled at Port Louis in Mauritius, another area which offered opportunities to the British. During the 18th century, Mauritius, which was by then known as Île de France, was developed by the French into a thriving colony with sugar, indigo, cotton and tobacco plantations. Port Louis was a well-defended naval base and in 1787 was made a free port open to ships of all nations. During the Napoleonic Wars it was captured by the British on 3 December 1810, under Commodore Josias Rowley, with a fleet of seventy ships carrying 10,000 troops, and was established as a British colony under the Treaty of Paris in 1814. The British agreed to respect the island's laws, customs, religion, private property, and even the French language, although it was renamed Mauritius as it had been called by the Dutch.

Under the British, agriculture was modernised, the road network improved, and the duty on sugar reduced, leading to the tripling of sugar cane production between 1817 and 1827. Due to this increased sugar production the number of ships calling at the port also increased leading in turn to the construction of several ship repair facilities. The old wooden houses had already been rebuilt in stone by the French, and the streets paved, and the town had a market, theatre and hospital.(

Richard was married at Port Louis and his two children were born there. He died of yellow fever in April 1867. It is not known what became of his wife and other child but in 1881, Richard Hitchens, his son, was living in the household of his sister Rebecca Congdon, at Lansallos Street, Polperro, where her husband Richard was a blacksmith. Also in the household was his grandmother, Jane Hitchens and, nearby, the home of his great-grandfather Dr Jonathan Couch by then living with his third wife, Sarah Lander Roose.

Jonathan Couch of St Austell

Dr Jonathan Couch had three daughters from his third marriage: Bertha, Sarah and Clarinda. Sarah Roose Couch (b.1862) married Jonathan Couch of St Austell, a master mariner who was probably also a cousin, given the propensity of the Cornish to marry cousins, and possibly descended from one of the younger sons of Samuel Couch and Joan Libby. Jonathan was born in 1853 at Charlestown, the port built by and named for Charles Rashleigh. His parents were Edward Couch of St Austell and Hannah Tresise of Newlyn East whose marriage had taken place at St Dunstans, Stepney, London in 1831. Edward was the son of William Couch and Elizabeth Crabb.

Jonathan gained his 'Only Mate' certificate of competence, which was issued at Plymouth, on 31 August 1877 but which was limited to 'fore and aft rigged vessels only'; and his Master Mariner's certificate on 11 December 1880. He was sailing between Europe and Russia and, in the 1881 census, when he was 27 years old, master of the Fortunate with four crew, then at Devonport. There were two ships named Fortunate, one built at Southampton, a sailing ship of 110 tons and the other a schooner of 109 tons built at Fowey. It was probably the smaller, locally built schooner.

Very little is known of Jonathan's maritime career but he played an important part in the First World War when he was in his sixties, in the maintenance of supplies. Merchant shipping played a vital part during the war years, as Britain and her allies were heavily reliant on foreign imports. Britain imported 100% of its sugar, cocoa and chocolate; 79% of grain; 64.5% of butter; and 40% of meat; and also such raw materials as cotton, wool, oil, rubber, ore and metals (Miller, 2012).

In 1914/15 Jonathan was master of the Little Secret (number 85829) with four crew:

  • F. Grikis, Boatswain, 30, born Russia, naturalized British;
  • W. Reardon, 48, Cook and Seaman, born Bude, previous ship Ocean Swell of Fowey;
  • John Reid, Able Seaman, 28, born Carrickfergus, Ireland, previous ship Spin-away of Fowey;
  • V. Jensen, Seaman, 20, born Denmark, previous ship Helena Anna of Fowey.

 His next crew on the Little Secret included the same boatswain but three different crew members:

  • William H Cook, Cook and Able Seaman, 40, born Ipswich previously of the Bidsie and Bell;
  • T. Browne, Able Seaman, 39, born St Austell, previously of the Seaforth;
  • R. Hayle, Seaman, 37, born Plymouth, previously Bidsie and Bell.

After 1917, increased submarine activity made merchant shipping an increasingly dangerous occupation and resulted in large losses of merchant ships. This led to the introduction of convoys, an extremely successful tactic used which had been used for hundreds of years in the past (Miller, 2012).

Jonathan and Sarah's first child, Winifred Kate, was born at Stoke Damerel in 1885 but baptised at St Austell where the family lived, and where their two sons, Leonard and Jonathan, were born.  Leonard became a schoolmaster who was appointed headmaster of Leyton County High School for Boys. He married Gwendolin Carveth whose mother was a sub-postmistress at St Austell. Jonathan junior became a solicitor at St Austell but later moved to Newquay,

Like Q's father, Dr Thomas Quiller Couch, Jonathan Couch was a freemason, initiated at Austell Lodge, Lodge of Peace and Harmony on 12 February 1895. The family lived at Polcou, Mount Charles, St Austell, where he died 26 September 1924.


Q's wife Louisa Hicks' father was a captain in the merchant navy who died when she was about six years old. His widow lived at Fowey, where Q and Louisa established their home at The Haven, overlooking the harbour and the open sea. The house itself, as Q's biographer F. Brittain describes, had previously belonged to a naval lieutenant who had adorned every room's door with the name of some ship on which he had served and under the name a watercolour painting of the vessel, which he had executed himself. The St Vincent (on which Lieutenant Edward Couch had served) was Q's library and study; the Royal Oak the drawing-room; the Victoria the dining room; and the bedrooms the Martin, Iron Duke, Britannia, Arethusa, Thalia, Kestrel and the Dwarf. One of the ships on which Edward Little Couch, a distant cousin of Q had served was the Thalia. Brittain writes that 'Q, with his inherited love of all things nautical, naturally allowed the names and the watercolours to stay where they were' (Brittain, 1947).

Q was apparently the inspiration for Ratty – in his friend Kenneth Graham's tale The Wind in the Willows, written at Fowey – who liked nothing so much as 'messing about in boats'. This inherited love of all things nautical was something which Q passed to his children, Bevil and Foy, both of whom he taught to handle boats from an early age and both of whom were competent sailors; Bevil Quiller-Couch also rowed at Winchester and for Trinity College, Oxford.

Both Bevil and Foy were involved in dramatic sea rescues.

In 1914, Bevil went out for a moonlight sail with Edward Atkinson, Commodore of Fowey Yacht Club who owned several boats and was an extremely experienced sailor. They were caught in a storm and had to abandon their plans and ride out the night in the shelter of a headland. Returning to harbour early in the morning, they were caught by a sudden squall and Atkinson's boat which was supposed to be unsinkable, sank. Bevil managed to get the elderly Edward Atkinson onto an air cushion and towed him, swimming to shore in a rough sea, but was unable to get him up the steep rocks and was forced to leave him, while Bevil himself climbed up the cliff to raise the alarm. Edward Atkinson perished, his body was later recovered and an inquest held at which Bevil Quiller-Couch was commended by the coroner and jury for his efforts.

After Bevil's tragic death from Spanish flu in 1919, having come through the First World War with a distinguished record, he was remembered fondly by locals as a little boy in his red beret, sculling about the harbour.

Foy regularly competed in local regattas in her boats the Jigsaw and the Emerald. In 1926, she was also involved in a happier sea rescue attempt when she saved three sailors who had got into difficulties outside the harbour entrance in a high sea. Foy took a motor boat out and managed to pass them a rope, towing them into harbour to applause from watching crowds. A.L Rowse, who knew her well, even read about it in the foreign press when in Paris, under the headline 'Trois marins sauvés par femme . . . fille d'auteur célèbre'. He wrote 'she too had gone out in bad weather to bring them in, and made nothing of it when I told her of the headline. She took that sort of thing in her stride, and from girlhood had sailed with Bevil, to whom she was devoted' rowse, 1988).

After Atkinson's death, Q became Commodore of Fowey Yacht Club. His own sailing boat was named the True Tilda, after his story of two children making their way down the Warwickshire Avon. Boats and sea voyages were a feature of many of his stories which, along with a love of things nautical, demonstrate the love of adventure which his distant cousin Lieutenant Edward Couch also had, and which inspired him to undertake the perilous voyage to find the North-West Passage from which he never returned. In Q, this sense of adventure was sated by his sailing activities and his own fertile imagination. The strong practical streak and organizational ability which made the Couches good artisans and naval officers, was especially evident in Q's children (during the First World War Bevil was known for his ingenuity and ability to 'get things done'), whose heritage included not only that of maritime Quillers, Rowetts and Couches, but also that of the Hicks on their mother's side.


Brittain, F. (1947). Arthur Quiller-Couch: A biographical study of Q. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press

British Newspaper Archives

Bulmer-Thomas, V. (1998). British Trade with Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: University of London Institute of Latin American Studies.

Couch, B. (undated). Letters. Penzance: Morrab Library Archive

Dickens, C.(2 & 9 Dec, 1854). 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers'.Household Words.

Marshall, J.(1831). Royal Naval Biography: Or, Memoirs of the Services of All Flag-Officers, Superannuated Rear-Admirals, Retired-Captains, Post-Captains, and Commanders. Vol. 3. Part I. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green.

Miller, M.S. (2012). 'Sea Transport and Supply'. Europe and the Maritime World; A Twentieth Century History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

National Archives

O'Byrne, W.R. (1849). A Naval Biographical Dictionary, London: J. Murray. 

Quiller-Couch, Arthur T. (1944) Memories and Opinion by Q, an unfinished autobiography, edited with an introduction by S.C. Roberts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Polar Record, Vol 54, Issue 3, May 2018. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wheeler, A. (ed). (1983). The Private Memoirs of Jonathan Couch. Cornwall: Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, vol. IX, pt. 2.

Rich, B. (2020). Out of the Frozen Deep. Blog:

Rowbotham, S. (1987). 'Canned Food Sealed Icemen's Fate'. History Today, Vol. 37.

Rowse, A.L. (1988) Quiller-Couch: A Portrait of 'Q'. London: Methuen.

Symons, Andrew C. (2019). 'The Life and Writings of Richard Quiller Couch'.

Winfield, R.( 2005) British Warships of the Age of Sail 1793-1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates . Newbury: Chatham Publishing.