Q's Family and Dead Man's Rock: a study

Introducing Q and his Family

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University from 1912 until 1944, is Cornwall’s most important writer. He was born in Bodmin, educated at Oxford University and lived in London and Fowey. Although he was published throughout the English-speaking world in his lifetime, he is now neglected. Yet he was offered the professorship on the basis of the quality of his fiction.

Q is presented today as an Edwardian literary gentleman, even though he comes from a scientific family. His background gave him an understanding of the value and the limitations of scientific enquiry. Q was also a political radical who wrote for liberal papers. He was an Anglican, seeing himself in terms of a Christian tradition rather than a Christian orthodoxy, as he explains in the lecture Tradition and Orthodoxy delivered in 1934. For more information about this lecture, see this study.

Intellectually, the most significant influence on Q was that of his grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch (1789 – 1870). Thanks to the investigations of Dr Simon Naylor, the scientific works of Dr Jonathan Couch of Polperro and Dr Richard Q. Couch of Penzance are attracting attention. Q’s Father, Dr Thomas Q. Couch of Bodmin, was important for forcing local authorities to recognise the connection between sanitation, refuse and disease. This connection is a central theme in Q’s novella Ia.

Jonathan appears as a character in a number of Q’s stories. The short story Dr Unonius describes Jonathan Couch in all his particulars except for his Methodism. Yet it is not until Castle Dor, Q’s last and unfinished novel, that an account of Couch philosophy appears. In Chapter VII, Dr Carfax explains to M. Ledru: ‘…we’ve been doctors these three generations…our practice mere empiricism’ yet ‘seeking for some sixth sense in nature’.

The ‘sixth sense’ was a particular faculty of the Quillers. Jonathan’s second wife, Jane Quiller, came from Polperro’s leading smuggling and privateering family. Q inherited both the Couch and the Quiller sides. Many of his tales describe local smuggling and privateering, and this is true of his first novel Dead Man’s Rock. Margery Trenoweth is very much a Quiller figure with her premonition, in Chapter II, of the foundering of the ‘Belle Fortune’ and the death of her husband Ezekiel. All of Q’s fiction needs to be interpreted on the level of the five senses and on the level of a ‘sixth sense’.

The Quiller Family 

Arthur Quiller Couch’s grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch (1789-1870), married Jane Quiller (1781-1857) at Talland parish church in 1815. Jane’s father, Richard Quiller, was already dead. Jonathan moved into the Quiller house by the bridge in Polperro, where it still stands. He lived with Jane and his mother-in-law, originally Mary Toms. The Quillers had been Polperro’s leading smuggling and privateering family. Jonathan was intrigued by the double-backed cupboards, hideaways and false beams. A description of the house and its smuggling conveniences can be found in Q’s novel Nicky-Nan Reservist (1915).

Smuggling and privateering ventures worked as share-based companies, with the ventures providing the original capital. John Quiller often worked with Zephania Job, commonly called the smugglers’ banker, and William Johns, a Methodist class leader and friend of Jonathan’s father. In the Captain Jacka short stories, William Johns appears as Captain John Tackabird, while Zephania Job appears under his own name. The Smugglers’ Banker. The story of Zephania Job of Polperro(Perrycoste, 1930) reveals the inner workings of the smuggling and privateering ventures. That Amos Trenoweth worked with Ralph Colliver, and Elihu Sanderson possibly funded the initial operations, reflected Q’s knowledge of how things were done. Such operations could be very lucrative. Johns informs us that the ‘Brilliant’ netted £8,800 for shareholders, including John Quiller who captained the vessel, when the Spanish ‘La Tortola’ was captured and auctioned. The wealth accumulated by Trenoweth and Colliver would have come mostly from ships and goods. They were rich before coming upon the ‘Great Ruby’ of Ceylon. This makes the murder of Ralph Colliver by Amos Trenoweth even more heinous. The religious melancholy experienced by Amos after his adoption of Methodism is perfectly explicable. 

Smuggling, privateering and piracy were dangerous activities. Jane’s grandfather, father and two brothers died at sea. In Dead Man’s Rock, the story of the key hung from a beam by Ezekiel Trenoweth in lieu of his return is taken directly from the Quillers and is related on page 31 of Bertha Couch’s life of her father (1891) . Richard and John Quiller, Jane’s father and uncle, were drowned aboard the ‘Three Brothers’ in 1796, two days out of Roscoff. While in Roscoff, Richard had a dream which Mrs. Magna, his landlady, interpreted as unpropitious. Against her advice he set sail. Before leaving for Roscoff he had hung the key to his quadrant from a beam in the living room with strict instructions for it to remain until his return. As he did not return, it remained hanging from the nail, an object of superstitious awe.

Mary Quiller, née Toms, was much given to premonitions, even to seeing visions and hearing voices, Bertha Couch relates. When Margery Trenoweth has a premonition of the death of Ezekiel and hears voices calling in the night from a wreck, Q is relating back to family history. Such phenomena occur in his last novel Castle Dor, in the first line of the first chapter. Q was a very Cornish writer.

Although the Quillers were privateers, there is no evidence of their having stepped over the fine line that divided privateering from piracy. Privateers worked officially for the government, attacking the craft of enemy nations. They had to obtain ‘Letters of Marque’ from the government, which stipulated the craft of which countries could be attacked. The Quillers worked from ‘Letters of Marque’ and auctioned their prizes in Fowey, not far from where Q lived from 1892. Nor were the Quillers involved in ‘The Lottery Incident’, the shooting of a preventive officer from the ‘Lottery’ smuggling craft. This is the basis for the incident in Dead Man’s Rock where Amos Trenoweth shoots an officer from the deck of his smuggling craft. As with the crew of the ‘Lottery’, Amos flees abroad to prevent being taken by the law.

How fine the line was between privateering and piracy can be illustrated from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870). Bottrell was a friend of the folklorist Robert Hunt who used Bottrell material in his Popular Romances of the West of England (1896). Aunt Alse was in part based on ‘Margaret D…’ of Margaret Daniels from The White Witch, or Charmers from Zennor, an extended tale found in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall. Section two of the tale includes The Sailor’s History. The sailor and his mate, ‘Billy V…’ of Sennen and John D… of Morvah can now be identified as William Vingoe of Sennen and John Daniel of Morvah. Both came from distinguished but decayed families. They hire a crew to attack a Spanish merchant fleet that had become dispersed during a storm. Although Vingoe presented himself as a privateer, he was acting as a pirate as Britain and Spain were not at war and no ‘Letter of Marque’ was obtainable. Vingoe married Margaret Daniel, sister of John Daniel, who was a witch and a strong believer in astrology. This interest she had in common with ‘Ustick of Botallack’. This is probably Stephen Ustick (1700-1746) of Botallack, who according to Charles Wesley was ‘raised up by Satan’(21.07.1746). The miner John Daniel and his wife Alice were two of the earliest converts of the Wesleys in Morvah. The society presented by Q in Dead Man’s Rock is historically realistic.


In Dead Man’s Rock there are frequent references to the (Methodist) meetinghouse with its gloom and hell-fire rhetoric. Q’s forbears were instrumental in establishing a meetinghouse in Polperro. In 1739 Richard Couch was born to Jonathan and Margaret. Jonathan Couch died in 1744, when Richard was five, and Margaret married Thomas Freethy. Margaret and Richard were ‘converted’ through the preaching of John Wesley during one of his three visits to Polperro. Richard married Philippa Minards, probably another convert, and a meetinghouse was established in the village. A description of the Polperro meetinghouse can be found in Q’s short story 'Parents and Children' from The Delectable Duchy.

Richard and Philippa had one son, Jonathan Couch, in 1789. Jonathan adopted the faith of his parents. In 1808 he entered Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospital in London for medical training. On his return he established a practice in Polperro. At the time of the 1814 religious revival, which occurred in spite of the opposition of the Anglican clergy, Jonathan led the Methodists out of Talland church. The present Methodist chapel in Polperro dates from this time. In 1835 Jonathan Couch helped lead the Cornish opposition to ‘Conference Methodism’, establishing a ‘Wesleyan Association’ chapel in Polperro. William O’Bryan (originally Briant), founder of the Bible Christians but later deposed, was the preacher who opened the chapel. Q satirises the Bible Christians in the novel Ship of Stars. Jonathan’s religion troubled Q, a confirmed Anglican.

Dead Man’s Rock appears to show a curious reorientation of family history. Amos Trenoweth marries Philippa Triggs (Philippa Minards) and they have one son, Ezekiel. Amos and Philippa are supporters of the meetinghouse and in 1837 Amos dies of ‘religious melancholia’. In order to escape from the religious intolerance of the meetinghouse, Ezekiel visits Polkimbra church and falls in love with Anglican Margery Freethy (Margaret Freethy). From the marriage of Ezekiel and Margery comes Jasper (Jonathan Couch), who dislikes the meetinghouse and goes to Guy’s Hospital in London for medical training. Q’s disquiet regarding Methodism appears to have emanated from his father Thomas. Jonathan Couch recorded the introduction and development of Methodism in Polperro in his History of Polperro. When Thomas Q. Couch edited it for publication in 1871 he omitted most of the Methodist material. 

Researching Q's Family

For those interested in knowing more about Q's family, we suggest you start by exploring the biographies and linked biographical studies available on this site. 

Here we list some publications and collections of resources that may enable you to take your researches even further.

Dr Jonathan Couch of Polperro

Archives of material relevant to Q's grandfather exist at:

  • American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, USA. Correspondence, essays and notes.
  • Duke University, USA. Specials Collections Department. Medical notebooks.
  • Linnean Society, London, UK. Manuscripts.
  • Morrab Library, Penzance, UK. Various.
  • McGill University, Canada. Blacker-wood and Oscar libraries. 8 Items.
  • Princeton University, USA. Kienbusch Angling Collection. 1 Item.
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, UK. Courtney library. Various and extensive.

Published material on Jonathan Couch includes the following books and papers. 

  • Life of Jonathan Couch by his daughter Bertha, published in 1891.
  • Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Naylor's article  'Writing the Region: Jonathan Couch and the Cornish Fauna', published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2005, Vol 30. No. 1
  • Tucker's A Cornish Ichthyologist in fact and fiction: Q on his grandfather Jonathan Couch (1789 – 1870) published by the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (1956): pp. 137 – 151.

Jonathan Couch appears as a character in the following stories by Q:

  • 'The Looe Die-hards' from Wandering Heath (1895). The Looe Die-hards, or the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery, 1803 – 1809, consisted of sixty-seven men, a captain and two lieutenants. Jonathan Couch served in the Die-hards as a lieutenant under Captain Thomas Bond of Looe. The second lieutenant and doctor of the short story is Jonathan Couch.
  • The Mayor Of Troy (1906). This novel also featured the Die-hards.
  • 'Doctor Unious' from Corporal Sam and Other Stories (1910). Dr Unious is Dr Jonathan Couch.
  • Nicky-Nan Reservist (1915). In this novel, Jonathan Couch is the ‘old doctor’, now deceased.
  • Castle Dor (1961) This novel was completed by Daphne du Maurier. Dr Carfax is partly based on Dr Jonathan Couch.


Dr Richard Quiller Couch of 10 Chapel Street, Penzance

Richard was the eldest son of Jonathan Couch. He was Q's uncle. 

His most important work: Report of Miners’ Association of Cornwall and Devon. On morality and miners, a statistical investigation, 1861. This helped establish the scientific link between health and locality.

On the death of Dr Richard Quiller Couch, the practice at Chapel Street was taken over by Dr John Quiller Couch, the youngest son of Jonathan Couch.

The private papers of Richard and John appear to be lost.

Information on Dr Richard Quiller Couch can be found in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Other sources

For a full list of Couch publications see:

Boase and Courtney, Bibliotheca Cornubensis, 1874 – 82, London.

A large number of studies by the Couch family can be found in the following:

  • Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Transactions.
  • Royal Cornwall Polytechnical Society Journal.
  • Royal Institute of Cornwall Journal.

 All these publications can be found in the Morrab Library, Morrab Gardens, Penzance, Cornwall, TR18 4DA.

The Quiller Family

At the time Q was writing Dead Man’s Rock, Cornish society viewed smuggling and privateering as less than respectable. Long before, local families had destroyed records of former activities. Q followed the convention of his time in remaining silent about the activities of the Quillers. Yet he covertly included much Quiller material in his works.

Thanks to the researches of F. H. Perrycoste and J. R. Johns, we now have reliable material available to us.

  • Johns, J. R.. (1994) Polperro’s Smuggling Story, PHP.
  • Johns, J. R. (1997) The Smuggler’s Banker. The story of Zephania Job of Polperro, PHP. (See Chapter 6, ‘The Tragic Quillers’ and Chapter 12, ‘The Lottery Incident’).
  • Perrycoste, F. H. (1930) Gleanings From the Records of Zephania Job of Polperro, 1930.



Bibliography: Dead Man's Rock

Q Anthology.

Brittain, F. (ed.)
Q Anthology.