The Philosophical Context of 'I Saw Three Ships': a study


The collection of short stories I Saw Three Ships looks back on a swiftly disappearing world and one which a war 22 years hence would consign to oblivion. The work is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction, drawing richly from family and oral histories. At the centre of the work is the belief that for all the theories and dogmas of philosophy, science and pseudoscience, what we know comes to us from direct experience, and however chaotic experience seems to be and however difficult to interpret, behind it lies not chaos but harmony and a providential order.

This study is an exploration of some of the many influences that contributed to the philosophical context for Q's writings.

Q’s writings have attracted little or no critical attention and are now generally disregarded. What we know of Q comes to a remarkable extent, ignoring brief references elsewhere, from the writings of F. Brittain and A.L. Rowse. Both appear to have known Q only in the last two decades of his life, and Brittain only from the times Q spent lecturing at Cambridge. By this time Q had ceased to be a creative writer and was disengaging from active politics. Brittain was a colleague from Jesus College, Cambridge, producing a biography in 1947, three years after Q’s death. There are also frequent references to Q in his autobiography It's a Don’s Life (1972). Brittain’s biography of 1947 centres on Q’s life at Oxford, London and Cambridge.

The Perspective of A.L. Rowse

Rowse published his biography in 1988 as a tribute to a ‘mentor and friend’ (dedication), having secured access to Q’s correspondence. He ignored the family tradition in science with one brief mention of Jonathan’s ichthyology. Richard is totally ignored. Rowse also refers to Q in his autobiographical writings: A Cornishman at Oxford (12 index references), A Cornishman Abroad (four) and A Man of the Thirties (six). He appears to have read Q’s fictional writings but not the lectures, some of which give a profound insight into what Q actually believed. The reason for this requires investigation.

In his biography of A.L. Rowse, Richard Ollard states that Rowse never lost his early fascination with the writings of Karl Marx (1999, p. 91), seeing ‘historical materialism’ as the key to understanding changing patterns of human behaviour (ibid., p. 48). The dust cover of the autobiography, A Man of the Thirties (1979), states that Rowse was intellectually a Marxist, although a candidate of the Labour Party for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency on October 1931 and November 1935. Both the biography and the autobiography (p. 204) suggest a cooling of relations between Q and Rowse in the 1930s; possibly as a consequence of the historian’s political activities, Q being a Liberal. Rowse sets out his philosophical beliefs in two books: On History of 1927, which Q might have read, and The Use of History of 1946, two years after Q’s death. It is reasonable to assume that underpinning Rowse’s biography of Q are the philosophical beliefs outlined in the two works, especially if Ollard is correct about a continuing fascination with Marx.

In Chapter 3 of On History, Rowse argues that the scientific revolution, which took place in England, led to the triumph of ‘induction’ and empirical testing (1927, p. 43). In the nineteenth century, thanks to the works of Karl Marx (ibid., p. 46), science centred itself on society, where interpretations based on a foundation of ‘materialism and naturalism’ enabled patterns of human behaviour to be understood through economics (ibid., pp. 46-7). Marx had relied heavily on Hegel, but Rowse followed Engels in replacing Hegel with Darwin (ibid., p. 48). He envisaged ‘social revolution’ (ibid., p. 50) through the ‘determinant influence’ of economic necessity. As Darwin understood ‘origin of species’ through environmental ‘influence exerted’ on ‘chance variations’ (ibid., p. 53), so Marx saw invention as the driving force for a change in society. ‘Historical materialism’, therefore enables the contemporary historian to see ‘economic determinism as central to man’s evolutionary struggle for existence (ibid., p. 60). These views are further developed in The Use of History.

Rowse wrote much of The Use of History in 1944, with Winston Churchill as the wartime prime minister and Q in the last year of his life. The preface is dated to September 29, 1945. The date of publication of May 1946 was shortly after Clement Attlee had begun his peacetime Labour administration, with the Liberal Party to which Q had belonged facing virtual extinction, and state socialism as the creed of the moment. Rowse could look forward with renewed intellectual confidence.

Rowse’s Marxist grounding led him to see history as a ‘social science’ where ‘generalisations’ possess a ‘statistical character’ (1946, p.17). It also has a certain predictive power, with the futility of appeasement in the 1930s used as an illustration of the danger of power being in the hands of politicians devoid of historical knowledge (ibid., p. 11). He contrasts politicians with an historical sense, such as Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, against those without, namely Baldwin, Chamberlain and Bonar Law (ibid., p. 28), usually referred to by fellow socialists as ‘the guilty men’. Rowse then denigrates historians who were ‘disillusioned Liberals’ and others who could not finally jettison belief in a ‘providential ordering’ of the universe. (It is curious to discover that one of these was Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial and General Staff, see War Diaries, 1939-1945, of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, ed. Danchev & Todman, p. 689, May 8, 1945)

In Chapter 5, Rowse argues that the nineteenth century saw a profound change in human thought from the idea of a static to an evolving universe (1946, p. 114). Evolutionary thought in science and changes in historical method resulting from Marxist materialism developed in parallel (ibid., p. 18). Rowse appears to equate the terms ‘historicism’, ‘historical relativism’ and the ‘science of history’ as synonymous throughout the chapter (ibid., pp. 132, 140 and 144). Using induction as the method it is possible to formulate laws from specific observations as society evolves (ibid., p. 119). By combining the ideas of Marx, Engels and Darwin the development of society, and its extension into the future, can be understood and even predicted, thanks to rationalism and materialism (ibid., p. 126), because ‘economic necessity’ is the controlling factor (ibid., p. 132). Social relations change as modes of production develop (ibid., p. 121). Knowledge has to be constructed from specific observations to general principles (induction), not from an over-arching idea down to particulars (ibid., p. 135). Ideas about God, religion and the transcendent have become redundant and need to be abandoned (ibid., pp. 115, 150 and 155). Rowse dismissed the intellectual interwar basis of the Liberal Party as similarly redundant (ibid., p. 153).

No one would have been better qualified than Q to respond to the ideas of Rowse, had he lived long enough to read both works.

At the very time Rowse was writing On History and The Use of History his historicist views were coming under increasing challenge from another source, the Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994). Rowse and Popper had come under the influence of Marxism as teenagers, but Popper had become increasingly disillusioned, as Unended Quest. An Intellectual Autobiography explains, because he discovered that in practice ‘socialism’ was incompatible with ‘individual liberty’ (Popper, 1976, p. 36). At the time Popper was observing the deleterious influence of ‘scientific socialism’, with its ‘knowledge of the laws of historical development’, and was reacting against ‘uncritically accepted dogma’ (ibid., pp.  33-4), Rowse was standing as a left-wing Labour candidate for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency – October 1931 and November 1935 – against M. Petherick, one of Q’s Conservative friends (Rowse, 1979, p. 7). In The Use of History (1946) and A Man of the Thirties (1979), Rowse claimed Liberalism to be defunct. In a ‘Marxist’ critique he claimed that ‘the social and class foundation for the Liberal Party had collapsed’, rendering it a ‘corpse encumbering the political scene’ (1979, p. 204). Rowse never reconciled himself to Q’s refusal of political support during his two campaigns (ibid., p. 204).

If Rowse had properly investigated the family background he might have been in a better position. Q’s scientific upbringing enabled him to see through the pseudo-science of Marxism. The family’s religious beliefs inoculated him against atheism and materialism. Q’s grasp of ‘individual liberty’ had its roots a hundred years before in Jonathan Couch’s support for the Great Reform Bill of 1832. It was liberty which facilitated the expansion of scientific knowledge, enabling observation and experiment to triumph over theory and dogma. Jonathan had absorbed these ideas from his London teachers, Astley Cooper and William Knighton, both of whom had spent time in Edinburgh, where the influence of David Hume was all pervasive, especially in the medical schools.

Popper was similarly influenced by Hume. According to Anthony Kenny in A New History of Western Philosophy, it was Popper who demolished the central argument of Marx, along with ‘all forms’ of ‘historicism’ (2012, pp. 974-5). No one was better qualified than Q to assess the views emanating from Rowse, as he had been grounded in science almost from the cradle. Q, however, was grounded in a very specific understanding of science. This requires investigation as it came to inform his fictional and non-fictional writings. This investigation brings us back to the four parishes of I Saw Three Ships, to the modest family home of Jonathan Couch, formerly that of the Quillers, and to his three medically and scientifically trained sons, Richard, Thomas and John. Thomas, Q’s father, practiced in Bodmin, while Richard and later John, established themselves in Penzance, where a distinguished scientific community already existed.

Q’s Scientific Background

The Couch understanding of science and the scientific method comes to us from a number of sources:

  • the published writings of Jonathan Couch as listed in the Bibliotheca Cornubiensis of Boase and Courtney (1874 and 1882)
  • Bertha Couch’s Life of Jonathan Couch (1891)
  • the published writings of Richard Quiller Couch
  • the introductory addresses given by Richard to the Annual Meetings of the Penzance Natural History Society from 1845 to 1849
  • and conversations between Dr. Carfax and M. Ledru from Castle Dor, Q’s last and unfinished novel.

There are also occasional instances in Q’s other fictional and non-fictional writings. Richard was the most scientifically outstanding of Jonathan’s sons. The two worked together in Polperro for a number of years, making a detailed study of the geology and the flora and fauna of the four parishes from which most of the stories of I Saw Three Ships are drawn. Q possessed the art which conceals art, or in this case the art which conceals science. An initial outline of the Couch position is given below.

Richard Quiller Couch argues in his addresses that the universe is the product of design and is not a chaos, with an ‘interdependence’ between all living things resulting in ‘ecological balance’ and the ‘harmony’ of the whole. No observable line separates animal from vegetable, with each retaining its integrity and adapting or becoming extinct. Induction, called the ‘Baconian plan of induction’, (along with its problems) is discussed in the address of 1849. He concludes that the job of the scientist is to establish facts through observation and to carry out tests, as had Newton.

For Richard three criteria determine the difference between hypothesis and theory. A theory needs to be based on the concept of harmony and not chaos, it needs to accord with a succession of observations and it needs to be supported by objective tests. So, while induction provided the basis for Richard’s understanding of a theory, he did not see induction as sufficient in itself. That objective tests are not easy to devise (Einstein’s theory of 1905 was not testable until 1919) led the Couches to be sceptical about theories in general. These ideas are also found in Bertha Couch’s Life (1891, p. 133). It also appears in the conversation between Dr. Carfax and M. Ledru in Castle Dor where Carfax speaks of being the last in a line of empiricists who ‘observed facts without any theorizing’ (1961, p. 44).

Sir Humphry Davy

The position of the Couches on scientific method had some parallels with later thinkers such as Sir Karl Popper, but has more in common with Cornish scientists such as Sir Humphry Davy, LL.D., P.R.S., (1778-1829), who was born in Penzance eleven years before Jonathan Couch was born in Polperro. Sir Humphry was one of four Davy scientists emanating from Penzance and in some degree related. In Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy by his brother John Davy, M.D., F.R.S., (1790-1868), published in 1836 and possibly read by the Couches, Sir Humphry is quoted as saying that ‘chance…could never have produced regular systems’ and ‘organised systems of capable thinking’ because there is no mechanism by which matter can become conscious of itself. Therefore, ‘If chance could not have made the world’ – if law is the effect, chance cannot be the cause – there must be a ‘Supreme Being’ who ‘set it in motion’ (Davy, 1839, p. 27). An early flirtation with ‘materialism’, so John Davy explains, left him with a distaste for the idea. There is nothing in this of which Jonathan Couch would have disagreed.

Davy did not re-engage with the subject until his final year. In the first dialogue of Consolations in Travel (ibid., pp. 239-248) he argues that genius perceives truth (which ordinary mortals can only perceive materialistically) through partaking of the ‘divine mind’. In dialogue three, Davy draws a line between the revelation of ‘life’ and ‘morals’ in scripture and the ‘systems of science’ whose method of observation and testing can be traced back to Bacon (ibid., p. 297).

William Borlase

The foundations of scientific and antiquarian investigation in Penzance, as inherited by Dr. Richard Quiller Couch when he arrived in August 1845, with an emphasis on observation and measurement, were probably laid down by the Rev. Dr. William Borlase (1695-1772) LL.D., F.R.S. In 1739, he posted a consignment of minerals in the post to the poet Alexander Pope. Borlase’s wife studied seaweed. It was William’s brother, Dr. Walter Borlase (1694-1776), LL.D., magistrate and Vice-warden of the Stannaries, a Whig close to the Walpoles, who effectively excluded John Wesley from Penzance. William Borlase was a friend of the Davy family, with Humphry Davy later being apprenticed to his grandson Dr. John Borlase (1753-1813). There were three other Davy scientists: John Davy M.D., F.R.S. (1790-1868); Edmund Davy snr. F.R.S. (b.1785); and Edmund Davy jnr. (b.1826), Professor of Agriculture Science. When Richard Couch arrived at Penzance he was encountering a hundred year tradition. In Penzance that tradition looked back to Borlase and the seventeenth century, while the Couches looked back to Hume and Wesley. Richard’s forbears had been amongst Wesley’s earliest converts in Polperro and his father, Jonathan Couch, was a student of Wesley’s writings.

John Wesley

John Wesley was a child of the Enlightenment who lectured in Greek and philosophy at Oxford from 1729 to 1735. He continued to read philosophy and would have been cognisant of the writings of Locke and Hume. Jonathan Couch was steeped in the writings of John Wesley (Couch, 1891, pp. 45-6). He would have come under the influence of Hume, while in London from 1808 to 1810 training at Guy’s and St. Thomas, through his teachers, Dr. (later Sir William) Knighton and Mr. Astley Cooper, surgeon, later Sir Astley Cooper. Humean empiricism affected the thinking of John Wesley and Jonathan Couch.

Five years before Jonathan Couch’s birth and 22 years after his first recorded visit to Polperro, John Wesley published A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation, or A Compendium of Natural Philosophy (1784). In it he argued that the objects of nature are known through the ‘senses and understanding’ or empirically. Man can ‘describe’ the natural world but he cannot know the ‘cause’ of things (Preface). Wesley drew a clear line between an empirical knowledge of the natural world through reason and observation, and a knowledge of a supernatural or divine order through scripture and religious experience.

This argument differed little from what he had written over 30 years before in A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity, which was published in 1761, but based on a letter of 1749. Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, a development of Locke, was published in 1739-40 (Russell, 1946, Chapter XVII). Wesley argued for an ‘intelligent cause’ as against ‘blind chance’ or ‘inexorable necessity’ (Wesley, 1761, p. 12). There is a ‘general providence’ (ibid., p. 13) governing the created world and a ‘particular providence’ operating on the ‘individual soul’ (ibid., p. 14). The created world of ‘material objects’ (ibid., p. 10) is experienced through the ‘gross senses’ and reflected upon by ‘reason’. Following Plato, he suggests that this knowledge is less than certain (ibid., p. 6).

Wesley saw the ‘traditional evidence’ for Christianity as open to intellectual question (ibid., p. 1), a recognition of Hume’s thinking. However, he saw faith as a power that opened the soul to the supernatural life (ibid., p. 11), so that while ‘objections’ (ibid., p. 4 and 5) could be raised against the ‘external evidence’, the ‘internal evidence’, which scripture ‘promises’ to believers, stood secure upon the rock of direct experience (ibid., p. 9). Wesley clearly rejected the notion that scripture could be used as a scientific textbook and the further notion that faith is the acceptance of propositions incapable of verification through science. This strict division appears to have been fully accepted by Jonathan Couch and later by Richard Couch. It had significant implications in the 1840s when Darwin’s ideas started to become known.

Wesley also engaged with Hume and other philosophers in his treatise Thoughts upon Necessity, written in Glasgow in 1774. Although apparently aimed at the Calvinists, it attempts to champion free will against all modes of contemporary determinism (see Outler, 1964, pp. 472-4). The Couches followed Wesley in rejecting all forms of determinism.

Scientific Tradition in Cornwall

What typified science in Cornwall, allied as it normally was to mining and metallurgy, was its emphasis on observation and testing, its concern for what worked, its disinterest in theory and its tendency to keep science and religion separate. This is clearly enunciated in a paper given by W. Bullmore to the Royal Institution of Cornwall on January 8, 1841. The paper investigated the relationship of geology to religion and warned against confusing ‘general science’ with the ‘science of religion’, with the bible needing to be understood in its historical context. Bullmore could have read Q’s printed lectures On Reading the Bible of 1918, which begins with a reference to Francis Bacon, who advocated the inductive method in science, with complete equanimity.

Interestingly, the evening meetings of 1841-2 featured W. Bullmore on November 5; Jonathan Couch on March 4; C.W. Peach, A.L.S., who investigated fossilised sediments discovered by Jonathan and Richard Couch at Polperro, on April 1; Jonathan Couch on May 6; while at the Annual Meeting of October references were made to Jonathan Couch, William Yarrell of London, with who Jonathan had stayed with in 1835, Robert Hunt, F.R.S., a mining engineer and friend of Thomas Couch, and Richard Couch. From these individuals networks of scientific study stretched out to the leading scientists of the day.

The short stories ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and ‘The Haunted Dragoon’ can be dated to about forty years before 1841, although some of the historically identified characters, such as Young Zeb Minards, would still have been alive in that year, while other stories such as ‘A Blue Pantomime’ and ‘The Disenchantment of ‘Lizabeth’’ can be dated to after.

We appear to be looking at two distinct Cornish communities, firstly of the intellectuals with their connections to a wider academic community, and secondly the simple inward-looking village and farm people. This view is unfortunate. Polperro had an export trade in fish with the Mediterranean and a contraband trade with Brittany, while many seamen spent some time in the navy. The Quillers were smugglers, privateers and traders. Jonathan Couch and probably others gave public lectures on scientific and other subjects. Science was becoming increasingly important to navigation and agriculture, while the influence of mining and metallurgy was general, even outside of the mineralized zone. Lead mines existed at Herodsfoot in the upper reaches of the West Looe River, while Looe was becoming an increasingly industrialised port, serving Herodsfoot and subsequently the Caradon mining area, firstly by canal and then by rail.

The fake discovery of ore on the lands of Farmer Tresidder in ‘I Saw Three Ships’ actually happened. The ‘hollibubber’ in Chapter VIII is a slate worker, working the sort of quarry from which Jonathan Couch and William Peach obtained useful fossils. Chapter III of ‘A Blue Pantomime takes place in a disused claypit, which would shortly have been subsumed into the Fraddam Clayworks. In ‘The Disenchantment of ‘Lizabeth’’. Jim Transom had been killed at Herodsfoot powder mill, attached to the surrounding mines.

The Secular and the Sacred

While ‘I Saw Three Ships’ presents us with a substantially secular society, the sacred is never far from the surface, symbolised by Parson Babbage, the church musicians and the Methodist ‘hollibubber’. Methodist ideas would have spread far beyond the chapels. Even the parents of Rowse had been reared in Methodism and when he ran his political campaigns of 1931 and 1935 his main support came from the chapels. Most influential amongst the working-class Methodists was Sam Jacobs, who had been one of the leaders of the clayminers’ strike of 1913, which Q backed, who had been the Sunday school teacher of Jack Clemo, and who threw his influence behind Rowse’s Labour campaign. Even isolated hamlets and farms were affected by the issues of wider society. Yet a balance was always maintained between the secular and the sacred, with even the most materialistic having a veneer of religiosity and a vein of religious feeling.

It is this balance which Rowse rejects in On History and The Use of History in favour of a purely secular and materialistic interpretation of reality. Q might have ignored Rowse’s Marxism, materialism and historicism as the misplaced radicalism of an over ardent young man. However, he must have found Rowse’s Politics and the Younger Generation of 1931 distasteful, especially in its denigration of a secondary education system in Cornwall which Q had done so much to foster and of which Rowse was a beneficiary. Q responded by refusing to back Rowse as a political candidate. It was Popper who led the assault on an historic construct based on Marx, Engels and Darwin in The Poverty of Historicism of 1944-5 and The Open Society and Its Enemies of 1945; both being written at the time Rowse was writing The Use of History. The writings of Marx and Engels he dismissed as pseudo-science. Darwin and NeoDarwinism he took more seriously although not uncritically. Q also took Darwin seriously. His grandfather had lived into the time when the Darwinian controversy was at its height.

Rowse explains that he developed his personal understanding of historicism or historical materialism by replacing Darwin for Hegel in the thought of Marx, as had Engels. He saw economic adaptation as equivalent to the adaptation of species in nature, with history conforming to the laws of the biological evolution (1927, pp. 43-53). This idea from On History is expanded in Chapter Five of The Use of History to ‘evolution by natural selection’ (1946, p. 114), an ‘adaption’ (ibid., 125) to changing modes of production in a struggle for life. Rowse claimed his view to be scientific, following the method known as ‘induction’, with the facts ‘tested empirically’ (1927, pp. 43-53), although how tested is not altogether clear. Rowse’s understanding of history, which this present writer has never recanted, must underlie his subsequent writings, including the biography of Q.

Q mentions Darwin and Darwinism in his fictional and non-fictional work. To appreciate his position it is necessary to look again at family history.

Jonathan Couch would have been informed of Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle from 1831 to 1836 through his contacts at the Linnean Society, whose ‘Transactions’ he contributed to from 1829 to 1861 (Couch, 1891, p. 43) and the British Association, whose reports he contributed to from 1841 to 1865 (ibid., p. 60). In August 1835, he was in London making arrangements for the medical training of his son at Guy’s, but spending much of his time with William Yarrell (ibid., p. 82-4), a close associate of Charles Darwin. Professor Richard Owen, a strong opponent of Darwin, who had regular spats with Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, was also a friend of Jonathan. Darwin’s ideas, however, were one of a number circulating at the time relating to creation, adaption and evolution. A remarkable insight into this controversy comes to us from the addresses given to the Annual meeting of the Penzance Natural Society by Richard Quiller Couch from 1845 to 1849.

The foundation stone of the thinking of Richard and Q was that the universe we perceive through the senses is a ‘harmony’ (Couch,1845 & 1848 in the Transactions of the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Penzance), ‘not a Chaos but a Harmony’ (Quiller-Couch, in his lectures on seventeenth century poets, 1922, p.121).  It is not the product of chance because, to use Einstein’s well-known phrase, ‘God does not play dice’. This parallels the thought of Sir Humphry Davy; with some of Richard’s audience at the society probably having known the chemist before he left Penzance. Allied to this is the belief of Richard that true science is the product of closely observed facts and the relationship between facts, the inductive method emanating from the thinking of Francis Bacon.

What Richard castigated, as had his father, were the ‘visionary philosophers’ whose ‘grand theories are based on little evidence’ (1847). He was drawing the line between scientists who observed facts and philosophers who proposed theories. In the address of 1848 he argued: ‘General laws are but the expression of repetition of a number of facts, with the order of succession and hence we see the importance of such as may occur’… however… ‘facts can be observed, laws are obscure’. In other words, we have observations and we know the order in which observations occur, but we can never be certain of the relationship of the observations, hence general laws remain speculative. This reflects what Anthony Kenny said about Hume, that in relation to general laws ‘scepticism is victorious’ (2012, pp. 614-616). It also reflects the position of Wesley.

In Bertrand Russell’s chapter on Hume in A History on Western Philosophy the position is stated more fully. Hume believed that we can observe A and B but we cannot state A causes B because the connection cannot be observed. What is called ‘causation’ is only a ‘sequence of observations’, with further prediction impossible. This Russell concluded to be an argument that was deplorable but irrefutable as it is impossible to establish general laws from any number of observations, thus making ‘induction’ invalid. For a discussion between Russell and Popper on Hume, see Unended Quest (1976, pp. 109-10).

The idea of Humean empiricism as irrelevant to a study of Q’s fiction must be dismissed. In Chapter 8 of Castle Dor, Dr. Carfax visits Mr Tregentil of Penquite who is suffering from a nervous disorder. As a form of psychosomatic therapy (Jonathan Couch was an early exponent of this), Dr. Carfax suggests to Tregentil the keeping of a ‘rook diary’, noting down his observations but quickly assumes connections and is reprimanded by Carfax, who proceeds to educate him on how to observe and how to sequence his observations.

As Andrew Lanyon explains in The Rooks of Trelawne (1976), Dr. Jonathan Couch had instructed Lewis Harding of Trelawne, son-in-law to the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney, to keep a ‘rook diary’ as a form of therapy in 1847. The ‘rook diary’ shows Harding’s increasingly scientific approach under Couch’s instruction. The diary came to light in the papers of Foy Quiller-Couch, Q’s daughter, and is now in the Courtney Library in Truro.

This suggests that Dr. Carfax is based on Dr. Couch, Mr Tregentil on Lewis Harding and Penquite on Trelawne. Carfax approves Mr Tregentil’s increasingly acute observations, but reproves him for assuming connections between observations, that one is ‘cause’ and the other ‘effect’, as it transgresses ‘strict knowledge’ (Castle Dor, Chapter VIII). Although Carfax must be based on Jonathan Couch, Q places himself in the Couch tradition when claiming that Carfax had a ‘naturalist grandfather’ who accepted ‘observed facts’ but rejected ‘theorizing’. Carfax becomes the Couch tradition from Jonathan to Q (Castle Dor, Chapter VIII). The Couch tradition divides observed fact from philosophical theorizing, a line of demarcation running through all Q’s writings. It is the line running between Q and Rowse.

Rowse’s theoretical approach to history via Karl Marx (1818-83), Friedrich Engels (1820-95) and Charles Darwin (1809-82), who were all in full flood at the time of Q’s birth in 1863, would have cut little ice with Q. Although Marx and Engels were ignored in Q’s writings, Darwin was not. Q would almost certainly have heard of Darwin and the controversies surrounding his ideas from his father, Dr. Thomas Quiller Couch. He would also have heard of Darwin and his associates from the geologist Sir William Pengelly (1812-1894) of Looe. William’s uncle, John Pengelly, might well have learned his smuggling techniques from the Quillers, just as William learned scientific method from Jonathan Couch. William later became a friend of Dr. Rolleston who married the daughter of Dr. John Davy, brother to Sir Humphry Davy, at Ambleside (Pengelly, 1897, p. 108; pp. 246-252); and of John Couch Adams (1819-92), the Cambridge astronomer from Laneast, near Launceston. Interestingly, Adams discovered the planet Neptune but not by using induction as his scientific method. In this he was a forerunner of Einstein, who formulated his theories thirteen years after Adams’ death. Laneast and Polperro lie outside of Cornwall’s mineralised zone, which produced the Davys, the Trevithicks and others, so that the Industrial Revolution cannot be used to explain their scientific bent.

In the  lecture 'The Victorian Age' (published in Studies in Literature, 1922), Q speaks of the ‘modest Darwin’, and then couples Thomas Huxley, the aggressive exponent of Darwinism, with the Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-93), who possessed the gift of being able to convey complex scientific ideas in simple, lucid English, which made him an ideal lecturer to ordinary people. A previously printed lecture, 'English Literature in our Universities (II)' (published in The Art of Writing, 1916) had already spoken of the profound effect upon the academic world of the publication, in lucid Latin, of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620 – with its advocacy of the inductive method. Bacon is mentioned thrice in Q’s inaugural lecture at Cambridge of January 29, 1913. Q argues that it was the inductive method, allied to linguistic competency, which produced the revolution in thought of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

The Language of Science

Q is less than pleased with the language of science in his own day. He uses these texts to highlight a decline in the language of science. He claims that contemporary scientists were cheapening the language, creating ugliness and inaccuracy, sometimes as a cover for their incompetence. This is illustrated by reference to scientific friends who claim that what they receive is often imprecise and unintelligible (The Art of Writing, Lecture XI). Jonathan Couch had previously deplored a similar tendency of rushing to conclusions without rigorous investigation.

There are occasions in Q’s writings when he feels called upon to counter the argument of a fellow academic and invariably begins with a withering analysis of his opponent’s language, exposing weakness otherwise cloaked in clever language. A word which never appears in the writings of Jonathan Couch is ‘chance’ or a suitable alternative. In Lecture VII, Q states that ‘Chance’ is an idea invented by Aristotle to explain phenomena in nature which reason cannot account for. In relation to science, the word ‘chance’ is empty of meaning, explaining nothing.

In Lecture XI Q speaks of an ‘ultimate cause’, equated with ‘Heaven’ or ‘Nature’; and in the lecture ‘Herbert and Vaughan’, a disquisition on the Metaphysical poets, he speaks of the universe as a ‘harmony’ not a ‘chaos', with the appearance to the senses of order. Victorian and Georgian ‘materialism’ gets short shrift in the lecture ‘Shelley III’. It is important to realise, therefore, that behind the superficial ‘chaos’ of ‘I Saw Three Ships’, with its wrecks and its materialism, and ‘A Blue Pantomime’, where the mind of Wraxall descends into ‘chaos’ as he descends into the claypit, there remains an ultimate order which will ultimately reassert itself. Yet this has to be qualified. In ‘The Haunted Dragoon’ and ‘A Blue Pantomime’ a memory of tragic events appears to remain, a continual acting out of the past, a palimpsest through which tragic individuals cry for justice or for retribution. Q may have been an empiricist but he was not a rationalist, nor were his forbears.

Q’s terms of ‘Heaven’ and ‘Nature’, an ‘ultimate cause’ and ‘harmony’ bring him close to the language of Spinoza. According to Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy, Spinoza spoke of ‘God or Nature’, where an ‘ultimate harmony’ is the product of ‘one Being’ and an ‘absolute logical necessity’ (Russell, 1946, pp. 594-603). For Spinoza ideas such as chance, conflict and chaos explained nothing and in any final analysis were devoid of meaning. It is well known that Einstein was greatly influenced by Spinoza. Significantly if nature is imbued with consciousness, it can be seen to possess memory, a possible explanation for what happens in ‘A Blue Pantomime’ and ‘The Haunted Dragoon’.

Q developed his view of harmony as not just applying to the universe, but also to society and the human soul. In the printed lecture ‘Shelley I’, he contrasts Shelley’s understanding of social justice and social harmony with the oppression instigated by the governments which ruled Britain following the Napoleonic War and which suffocated democratic expectations. In The Use of History , Rowse denigrates the political aspirations of the Romantics: ‘they were poets, they were not historians, and they were young’ (1946, pp. 23-5). Q sees the oppression as causing division and conflict in society, which in turn produces conflict-driven theories amongst the intelligentsia, as with the NeoDarwinians who interpreted the ‘Darwin hypothesis’ as ‘struggle-for-life competition’, the fundamental law of nature, making a second European war inevitable (Shelley I). Q was not questioning the observations of Charles Darwin but the conflict-driven theories, presented as facts, which derived from them. He is proposing a link between social conflict, intellectual ideas and military conflict. It is clear that Q and Rowse had little in common.

What makes Q’s observations so potent is that he was born into a scientific family; he did not come to science as a starry-eyed adolescent who thought that scientific and pseudo-scientific theories are the high road to certain knowledge. But it was not simply the immediate family. His forbears opened to him the scientific establishment. One member he would almost certainly have been introduced to at home was his father’s friend and collaborator Robert Hunt, F.R.S., Keeper of Mining Records at the Museum of Practical Geology in London, a mining engineer of distinction and folklorist. There is mention of Robert Hunt in the correspondence of the geologist Sir William Pengelly (1812-1894). A Memoir of William Pengelly, F.R.S. by Hester Pengelly (1897) includes references to Robert Hunt, Jonathan Couch, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Michael Faraday, Professor John Couch Adams of Laneast, near Launceston, and Q.

William Pengelly

William Pengelly was born at East Looe in 1812, but was reared at West Looe, a hamlet lying on the eastern border of Talland parish. A number of stories from I Saw Three Ships are, of course, based in the parish and William might well have known some of the people mentioned, such as Zeb Minards. His early education was at Mr. Rundle’s school (Pengelly, 1897, p. 2). Jonathan Couch’s first wife was a Rundle from Porthallow in Talland, the Sheba farm of ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and Elizabeth Rundle is a central character in ‘The Disenchantment of ‘Lizabeth’. At the age of 12 William went to sea with his father, Richard Pengelly, and his uncle, John Pengelly. The register of baptisms for East Looe Wesleyan chapel (which commences in 1815, presumably when the chapel was built) gives Sarah, daughter of Richard and Sarah Pengelly, of West Looe, Talland, for May 27, 1821, suggesting that William was baptised a Wesleyan, the same denomination as Jonathan Couch, although in 1812 the separation from Anglicanism had not yet happened. The baptism of Ann followed in 1823, at which time William was eleven. However, sometime after this Richard and Sarah transferred their membership to West Looe Independent Chapel because Maria was baptised there on September 24, 1826 and another infant subsequently.

While Richard and Sarah almost certainly had some religious connection to Jonathan Couch, John Pengelly was part of the smuggling community which appears in ‘The Haunted Dragoon’ and later stories by Q. During the Napoleonic period he had been, like the Quillers, a smuggler and a privateer. The secluded cove of Talland would have been one of his landing places. William Pengelly was more interested in its geology, making at various times a detailed list of ‘Ichthyolites and Geology’ from Talland eastwards to the Tamar (Pengelly, 1897, p. 42).

Hester Pengelly has little to say in her Memoir about her father’s life from his abandonment of seafaring with his father and uncle to his teaching career at Torquay in 1830. From a later remark made to Q by William Pengelly, that he learned more from Jonathan from anyone else (Quiller-Couch, 1944, p. 3), it is clear that Jonathan took William under his wing. Jonathan extended William’s talent for mathematics into the natural sciences. He also ensured a separation in William’s thinking between knowledge of the natural world through the senses and the world of the divine through scripture and religious experience. This was to have important consequences thirty years later when Darwinism convulsed British science.

Although William Pengelly left Looe in 1830, he maintained contact with Jonathan Couch. The Memoir contains a letter dated to June 15, 1868 (1892, p. 185), two years before Jonathan’s death, and the record of a visit in July 1855 where the conversation would have probably centred on ‘Cornish fossil fish’ (ibid., pp. 55-6). The work of Jonathan and Richard on ‘Polperro fossils’, whose classification was much debated, was brought to the attention of the Geological Section of the British Association at their meeting in Cork by Charles Peach, a friend of the Couches and Pengelly. Subsequently, Pengelly referred to this material and to specimens posted to him by ‘Messrs. Couch’ in an address to the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art (Couch, 1892, pp.106-7). It appears that Pengelly posted a copy of the address to Jonathan Couch, as Bertha Couch quotes directly from it. The first meeting of the Association was at Exeter in August 1862. It was not at this meeting that Pengelly referred to the Polperro material, as the address dated a visit to Polperro to ‘20th June last’, thus establishing the visit to between 1862 and 1870. Pengelly’s friendship with Jonathan Couch must have lasted for 50 years.

That William Pengelly found a mentor in Jonathan Couch is obvious, as he showed the same concern for observation and the sequencing of his observations, and drew a strict line between a knowledge of the material world through the senses and a knowledge of the spiritual through scripture and religious experience. With his move to Torquay his life’s work began. Little was known for certain in the 1840s about man’s prehistory, but much was subsequently gleaned by Pengelly from his explorations and excavations in the caves and caverns of Devon, which were found to contain considerable deposits of great antiquity. Professor Boyd-Dawkins later stated that Pengelly scientifically established the ‘existence of Palaeolithic man in the Pleistocene age’ and demonstrated the ‘vast antiquity of the human race’ (Pengelly, 1897, p. 77) in the face of ‘apathy and scepticism’ (ibid., p. 74). Of his methods T.G. Bonney writes: ‘conscientious investigation and that patience in the accumulation of facts’ (appendix).

Following William Pengelly’s death in 1894, A.R. Hunt, M.A., F.G.S., F.L.S., wrote a paper on his achievement from which Hester Pengelly quotes (1897, pp. 21-3). William Pengelly was keen to establish ‘facts’, while ‘doubting every scientific assertion based on conjecture and opinion’ and valuing ‘scepticism’. This inclined him to a belief in the ‘theory of creation by evolution’ as against a belief in the creation of plants and animals at ‘definite times’. This was at a time when ‘Darwinian theory was comparatively young’, presumably the 1840s. How he understood evolution, how much this owed to Darwin and what he thought of NeoDarwinism is little explained by Hester Pengelly. However, he did not see evolution as incompatible with revealed religion. Nor did he confuse fact and theory. The influence of Jonathan Couch is visible in everything William Pengelly did.

Unlike Jonathan and Richard Couch, who had medical practices to run, William Pengelly regularly visited London, Oxford and other centres of learning. In 1860, he attended meetings of the British Association in Oxford that are frequently referred to in the annals of history for a supposed confrontation between scientific fact and religious dogma. In February, he had donated what became known as the Pengelly Collection of Devonian Fossils to the New Museum at Oxford University. He returned in June for the meetings of the British Association, writing an account each day of the proceedings for his wife in Torquay. These letters form a unique record, although this writer has seen them nowhere quoted from, in discussions of the time.

The standard accounts can be found in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) by Francis Darwin and in Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (1900) by Leonard Huxley. Francis bases his account on an apparently undated piece by an ‘eye-witness’ and another by ‘the late John Richard Green’, along with a footnote from Macmillan’s Magazine of 1860 by a Mr. Fawcett. Leonard Huxley returns to Green’s piece before continuing with ones by Professor Farrar, A.G. Vernon-Harcourt and W.H. Freemantle, none of which are clearly dated. Darwin provides material from Dr. J. Hooker and Thomas Huxley, both of whom took part and these are ‘substantially different’ (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 496).

With Pengelly all is clear, concise and dated. In a letter of June 29, 1860, he writes to his wife of events on Thursday 28. The central event is the paper by Dr. Daubeny on the ‘Sexual Organs of Plants, with special reference to Darwin’s theory’. This resulted in a controversy between Professor Richard Owen (a friend of Jonathan Couch who believed in the continuous creation of life) and Thomas Huxley (a believer in Darwinian evolution).

A second letter of June 29, written at 11.30pm describes a vote of thanks given by William Wilberforce to a lecture on the sun as scientifically ‘unsound’.

On July 1, Pengelly details the events of the previous day, June 30, which concludes with his attendance at Section D, Zoology, where a paper on ‘Darwinism’ was being discussed in an atmosphere akin to a ‘political meeting’. The discussion took place between the Bishop of Oxford, Thomas Huxley, Dr. J. Hooker and others. Pengelly mentions no controversy between Huxley and Wilberforce, as had happened between Huxley and Owen on the 28th. The meeting is not even mentioned in the letter of the following day, which is curious if it was sensational, nor in Sir Charles Lyall’s letter to Pengelly of July 2. Pengelly gives the impression that as with political meetings, there was more heat than light.

Jonathan Couch knew a number of those at the meeting, including Thomas Huxley. Details of a controversy between Jonathan Couch and Thomas Huxley can be found in Doctor by Nature by J.R. Johns (2010, p. 74-77) and The Life of Jonathan Couch by Bertha Couch (1892, pp. 121-5). Details of the context appears in Life and Letters of T.H. Huxley by L. Huxley (1900, pp. 22-3).

Johns informs us that on arriving in Penzance to establish a medical practice in 1844, Richard Quiller Couch became aware of the destructive effects of trawl fishing on the ‘delicate ecology of the sea-bed’. He made his concerns known in the 12th Annual Report to the Cornwall Polytechnic Society of 1844. Richard’s study is introduced in the initial reports of the society where a comparison is drawn with the observations of Charles Darwin on the gigantic fucus of Terra del Fuego. There is also a reference to the work of Professor Owen. Richard’s study is found on pages 17 to 46 and is headed ‘On Metamorphosis of the Crustaceans, including the Decapods, Entomostrace and Pycnogonidae’. It is about the sea-bed, seaweed, hatching grounds and the destructive effect of irregulated trawling on these. It points out that the long-term viability of the fishing industry in inshore waters depends upon the protection of the sea-bed below and immature fish within.

National concern about the problem of habitat and fish stocks led the government in 1863 to set up a Royal Commission. Thomas Huxley was included as a member of the commission because of his reputation as an expert on the subject. Leonard Huxley informs us that his father took a ‘large share in, the preparation of a Report which remains the ablest and most exhaustive document which has ever been laid before Parliament on the subject’. Jonathan Couch’s views were made known to the committee and were brought to the attention of the House of Commons by Henry Fenwick. Bertha Couch informs us that her father deplored the destruction of the ‘nurseries’ and the fish that had yet to come to ‘maturity’.

In 1865, the commissions recommended the ‘development of sea fishing’ without and ‘restrictions on sea fishermen’. Jonathan Couch regarded the report as ecologically irresponsible and petitioned against it. 1865 also saw the publication of his History of the Fishes of the British Isles, still a standard work, which in the circumstances must have been a bitter-sweet moment. As late as 1870, the year of Jonathan’s death, Dr. Jonathan Hearder of Plymouth was corresponding with him on the degeneration of the fisheries. In 1881, Sir William Harcourt appointed Thomas Huxley as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Fisheries.

William Pengelly, as a former seaman, could not have been totally uninformed on the matter of fisheries, but seems to have taken no part in the debate. On June 19, 1880, he completed the exploration and excavation of Kent’s Cavern in Devon and in the following year attended the Jubilee Meeting of the British Association in York, where he renewed acquaintance with Hooker, Owen and Huxley. At this time, in 1879 and 1880, he was involved in giving lectures at Newton College. To his delight he discovered that one of his listeners was the grandson of Jonathan Couch. A close friendship developed with Q attending Pengelly on at least two of his ‘excursions’ (Quiller-Couch, 1944, pp. 2 and 52). A letter from Q appears in Memoirs (1897, p. 274). What a wealth of knowledge and information must have passed from Pengelly to Q.

Q was born in November 1863 and left Newton College for Clifton College in September 1880. He met Pengelly in his final year at Newton, so was 15 to 16 years of age. Pengelly’s lectures had such an effect upon Q that had he not been removed to Clifton, a career in science might have resulted.

The interest in geology which Pengelly stimulated had an unexpected consequence. In Memories and Opinions, Q describes an expedition to Bradley Woods in the hope of collecting fossilized corals. This appears to have been a favourite place of Pengelly. On August 17, 1859, Pengelly escorted Russian Princess Eugenie and Countess Tolstoi on a fossil expedition to the woods. These were part of a Russian party, including the grand-daughter of Emperor Nicholas I (Pengelly, 1897, pp. 88-9). At this time Pengelly, the Couches and William Peach were endeavouring to establish whether the fossils at Polperro were fish, corals or sponges.

For Q, the expedition to the woods resulted in a mystical experience described in Memories and Opinions (1944, pp. 52-3 and 64-5), which Rowse calls ‘pseudo-mystical’ for philosophical reasons (ibid., p. 20 and Rowse, 1979, pp. 149-150). The experience is important in that it provides insight into aspects of Q’s later writings, especially in relation to Wordsworth, who had a similar experience at Tintern Abbey – which Rowse discusses in The Use of History (pp. 23-4 and 55) and in the biography. Q experienced a beneficent presence within the natural order; as against revelation through scripture which Jonathan Couch inherited from John Wesley. What Q describes is remarkably similar to what Jack Clemo experienced at Penrose Veor Farm, situated on the border of the Goss Moor slightly to the east of the setting for ‘A Blue Pantomime’. Clemo eventually reacted against the Penrose experiences and in 1938 looked to the clay moorlands, resulting in the clayscape poems and novels of the 1940s. Q’s experiences at Bradley Woods and on the waters of Lerryn Creek remained important to him for the rest of his life, as his later lectures show.


Q’s experiences at Bradley Woods, near Newton Abbot, and at Lerryn Creek on the River Fowey, not only defined him in relation to Jonathan Couch, Jack Clemo and A.L. Rowse, it also did so in relation to T.H. Huxley. In the last years of his life Huxley began a correspondence with Lord Farrar which gives an insight into his ultimate reflections. Immediately following the Romaine lecture of May 18, 1893, which took place in the venue where the occasion described by Pengelly in 1860 happened, Huxley wrote to Farrar: ‘My lecture is really an effort to put the Christian doctrine that Satan is the Prince of this world upon a scientific foundation’ (dated June 5, 1893; Huxley, 1900, p. 359). On November 6, 1894, he expanded upon this: ‘…the Gospels and I are right about the Devil being ‘Prince’ (…not ‘king’) of the Cosmos…The a priori road to scientific, political and all other doctrines is H.R.H. Satan’s invention… the King’s road is the strait path of painful observation and experiment…’. To put this into context it is necessary to return to an essay of 1892 (ibid., pp. 303-4) where he explains that he considers doctrines such as ‘innate depravity’, ‘predestination’, the ‘primacy of Satan’, the ‘vileness of matter’ and a ‘malevolent Demiurge’, all congruent with some form of Gnosticism, even if taken metaphorically, to be superior to the doctrines of the liberals – one of whom would have been Q.

Although such a dark context is alien to Rowse, who loved nature, Huxley approximates to the historian’s position when he says of Man: ‘The laws of their nature are as invariable as the laws of gravitation’ (December 19, 1894: Huxley, 1900, p. 384). Man and nature should be studied using observation and experiment, with ‘political economy’ as a priority. Rowse states in On History (1946, p. 41): Man reaches ‘maturity (some would say in their decline) with economics’ because, as he says in The Use of History (p.121), ‘social relations’ are changed by ‘modes of production’, thus, again in On History (p. I50), ‘…this conception of history conforms to the biological view of evolution’.

Q would have agreed only with the word ‘decline’. In his published lecture ‘Shelley III’, he responds. ‘Economics’ were replacing literature in the curriculum of Workers’ Educational Association following the war, but science failed to provide the perspective given by great literature. Q was prepared to accept that money, technological invention and improved means of transportation changed the nature of society, as he explores in the lecture ‘The Commerce of Thought’, but he emphasised that materialism could never replace as a driving force an innate desire for knowledge and wisdom. Materialism is a central theme in I Saw Three Ships, with avarice as a driving force in individuals, but it is destructive more often than it is constructive, and cannot therefore contain the weight placed upon it by Huxley and Rowse.

Huxley’s letter to Professor Seth of August 31, 1894, (Huxley, 1900, p. 360) contains an unexpected claim that in his writings he was putting the philosophy of Spinoza into ‘modern language’. In A History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell informs us that Spinoza (1634-77) was a Dutch Jew who was excommunicated for believing in ‘one substance, God or Nature’ or ‘pantheism’ (Pengelly, 1897, p. 594). Orthodox Judaism (and orthodox Christianity) hold to a paradox of a divine imminence within the created order and a divine transcendence of it. Endeavours to resolve the paradox in terms of imminence produces pantheism or classical monism, and in terms of transcendence in Gnosticism or radical dualism. It is well known that Einstein, a fellow Jew, owed a debt to Spinoza. Jonathan and Richard Couch held to the traditional Christian position, although Q may have favoured a more imminentist position following from his Bradley Woods experience. Q’s father, until his later years, was a religious sceptic. Huxley’s talk of the ‘vileness of matter’ does not equate to the philosophy of Spinoza, nor that we can free ourselves from it by ‘observation and experiment’.

If God and Nature are one, as Spinoza asserted, matter must be imbued with consciousness, of which human consciousness is a development, and possess memory. This leads to a possible interpretation of ‘A Blue Pantomime’. The story is apparently about a nervous breakdown, a much more severe one than Q experienced in London, visited upon the Rev. Samuel Wraxall, inspector of schools, something Q later became. The language used to describe Wraxall’s breakdown and his floundering in a disused claypit, reflects the sort of language used by Huxley in his letter to Lord Farrar. It is also the sort of language used by Jack Clemo in his novel The Shadowed Bed (1986) to describe Hellburn Pit, the claypit fastnest of Beale and the forces of evil, symbolising a demiurge endeavouring to take over the clay country. The idea of a nervous breakdown fully explaining Wraxall’s condition is belied by a letter which concludes the story. This leaves the reader with the impression that in the story some characters are living in linear time while others are living in cyclical time. Alternatively, Wraxall’s experiences could be explained in terms of the area possessing a memory of past events, a memory which bursts onto the present with unfortunate consequences for Wraxall. This story reminds the reader that the Couches were empiricists but not rationalists and were aware of the Quiller’s sixth sense in nature. Q’s writings do not open to simplistic interpretations.

Marx, Engels and Darwin

Endeavouring to understand Q and his writings on the basis of Marx, Engels and Darwin, and on strictly rationalistic lines, presents every sort of difficulty. The beliefs of Rowse and Q were markedly different. Rowse deals fleetingly with the novels and never refers to the lectures. Q was too much of a Couch to see Marxism (or psychoanalysis: see I Saw Three Ships, Duchy Edition of 1928, Preface, vii & viii) as scientific. Nor was he enamoured of those who reformulated the ‘Darwinian hypothesis’ of the ‘modest Darwin’ into a dogma of ‘struggle for life competition’ (Studies in Literature, Second Series, 1934, pp. 42 and 266). As with Marxism, so with NeoDarwinism, the views of Q and Popper are not so very different.

Q was not alone in being unconvinced of the scientific basis of Marxism, of induction as a sound basis for establishing general laws and of the language used by scientists when drawing conclusions from supposedly experimental data. Karl Popper was another. He concluded that the positivist method of induction failed to demarcate science from pseudoscience as no number of empirical observations can lead to a universal law (Popper, 1976, p. 53). This was Dr. Carfax’s lesson to Mr. Tregentil in Castle Dor. Echoing a phrase of Richard Couch from 1848, ‘facts can be observed, laws are obscure’. Popper echoes another phrase when he uses ‘evolutionary philosophers’ for the NeoDarwinians (1976, p. 167) as they are propounding a ‘metaphysical research programme’, but ‘not a testable scientific theory’ (ibid., p. 168). The formulation of their arguments tend to the ‘tautological’ (ibid., p.167). They ‘cannot really explain’ as their arguments fail to ‘predict’ (ibid., p. 171) and therefore cannot be tested. Furthermore, they lack a proper ‘descriptive and argumentative language’ (ibid., p.169). On page 170 Popper analyses the ‘assumptions’ and ‘conjectures’ underlying the ‘neo-Darwinians’, including ‘The Modern Synthesis’ of Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Huxley (ibid., p. 170). Darwinism is accepted as it is the best current theory (ibid., p. 172). There is little in this with which Q, one suspects, would have disagreed.

In Conjectures and Refutations. The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Popper makes a remark which the Couches, with their distrust of theory, would have agreed with: ‘There exists no law of evolution, only the historical fact that plants and animals change, or more precisely, that they have changed’ (1963, p. 350). This change William Pengelly noted in his investigation of early man and although he favoured an evolutionist approach, his writings eschew the theoretical and concentrate on facts. In 1919 Q must have regarded the Couch distrust of theory to have been verified. In 1905 Albert Einstein established theories about the universe which challenged those of Isaac Newton. Newton’s theories had passed every test for over two hundred years and were generally regarded as fact. In contradiction of Newton’s belief that light always travels in a straight line, it was discovered in 1919 that gravity bends light through the observation of red-shift during an eclipse. Furthermore, Einstein stated in 1918 that man can only ‘arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition…  The longing to behold (cosmic) harmony… and comes straight from the heart’ (Hoffman and Dukas, 1975, p. 222). Professor Banesh Hoffmann and Einstein’s long-time secretary Helen Dukas, in the biography Einstein, make the point that Einstein rejected the idea of a ‘probabilistic universe’ based on ‘chance’ because ‘God’ would not have created such a universe. ‘All science is based on faith’ and ‘is not built on cold logic’, with the ‘providential authorities’ understood in terms of ‘Spinoza’s immanent God’ (ibid., pp. 193-195). Running through the thinking of Davy, the Couches and Einstein is a belief in beauty and harmony, along with a rejection of chance, chaos, ugliness and pure materialism.

In 1905, Einstein had used deduction, as had John Couch Adams before him, rather than induction; while in the 1940s Popper was subverting the whole inductive method. Yet in 1927 Rowse was calling for ‘theories’ to be the product of ‘patient induction from innumerable phenomena, and must be tested empirically rather than in accordance with any law of inner cohesion’ (Rowse, 1927, p. 43). How empirically tested is not explained. This was still his position in 1948, when he stated that ‘historical method and scientific method are one’, with the move from ‘particular facts’ to ‘generalizations’ to ‘theories’. ‘Newton, Adams and Pasteur’ ‘observed’ and their ‘facts’ have been ‘observed by others’ (Rowse, 1946, pp. 108 and 147). Rowse believed that in replacing Hegel with Darwin, Marxism had become an ‘essentially historical doctrine’ (ibd., p.135), losing its ‘dangerous pragmatism’ (ibid., 147).

Although the Couch scientific tradition, with its sceptical attitude towards theory and dogma, its support for observation and experiment, and its belief in harmony and order over conflict and chaos, had put it in line with some distinguished thinkers, it took an unusual position in being empiricist without being rationalist. Popper makes the point that ‘disappointed Marxists’ tend to ‘react against all rationalism’ (1976, p.34), but that he preserved his belief in rationalism by proposing ‘falsifiability’, whereby the predictions generated by theories can be tested by observation (ibid., p. 42). (How such an idea can itself be falsified is not explained).

The case of the Couches could not be more different. During his long life as a doctor and a natural scientist, Jonathan Couch encountered phenomena which could not be rationally explained. Therefore, he had to reject empiricism or rationalism. An idea of the phenomena encountered is given by Bertha Couch in the Life of her father, although it must represent but a tithe of the whole. Some of what Q must have heard from his father regarding the Quillers and others from Polperro appears in I Saw Three Ships and other fictional writings. To dismiss this material as of little consequence is to fail to understand that with Q every word had consequence.

In 1897 the Irishman J.M. Synge was in Paris where he encountered W.B. Yeats and became increasingly aware of the interest in Celtic culture. Yeats informed Synge that ‘Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French Literature’ (Symons was a Cornishman who wrote The Symbolist Movement in Poetry) so ‘Go to the Aran Islands’, which Synge did. The beliefs and practices he discovered there were not incomparable with those found in Polperro earlier in the century. The idea that it is unlucky to save a drowning man is common to both areas, and acts centrally in the short story ‘I Saw Three Ships’. In Synge’s play of 1904, Riders to the Sea, a widow sees her son riding on the back of a pony when she knows he is at sea and realises that he has been drowned. Jonathan Couch knew of many such examples from Polperro. Michael is the widow’s last living son, the rest having been lost at sea, a fate similar to that of the Quillers. Exactly one hundred years before, in November 1804, the body of John Quiller, identified by clothing, as in the play, was brought back drowned to Polperro. John was Q’s great-great grandfather. Synge’s play was based on an actual incident. The intimate relationship between the living, the dead and the horse, which Synge encountered, gives possible insight into ‘The Haunted Dragoon’. William Pengelly, a seaman himself, would have been familiar with coastal lore.

That Q took such phenomena seriously is further evidenced from his lectures. In his series on the Metaphysical poets, he starts with John Donne and includes an incident related by Isack Walton in his Life of John Donne dating from 1640, nine years after Donne’s death. In 1612, John Donne was persuaded to accompany Sir Robert Drewry on an embassy to Paris in opposition to entreaties from his pregnant wife: ‘Her divining soul boded her some ill in his absence’ (JD. 18). Walton states that the child was born dead. On the day and hour of the birth Donne had a ‘dreadful vision’ of his wife passing ‘twice by me through the room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders and a dead child in her arms’ (JD. 19). John Stubbs in Donne. The Reformed Soul devotes chapter fourteen to the circumstances but David L. Edwards in John Donne. Man of Flesh and Spirit refuses to mention it (see 9, 262).

Jonathan Couch was born in 1789, the year of the commencement of the French Revolution, at a house in the Warren, adjoining that of Zebedee Minards, in Polperro and was baptised at Talland church. 1789 opened a time more prosperous for trading, smuggling and privateering families such as the Quillers of Polperro and Pengellys of Looe than for fish traders such as Richard Couch, Jonathan’s father. The year also saw the thirty-second and last visit of John Wesley to Cornwall, where he addressed vast crowds from Launceston to St. Just. In science, Newtonian physics stood supreme as an unchallengeable truth.

When Jonathan died in 1870, French armies were lying supine before the Prussians and a very different revolution was commencing in Paris. Gladstone’s Liberal Party governed Britain, the Forster Education Act encouraged universal education and Q was a seven year old school boy. The theories of Darwin were promising to do for biology what Newton had done for physics and Marx was working out the tenets of scientific socialism.




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