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.