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Polperro Family History

The QUILLER family of Polperro

The author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch is probably Polperro's most famous son, overshadowing even his distinguished grandfather, naturalist and physician Dr Jonathan Couch married into an even more remarkable Polperro family, the Quillers, when he married his second wife Jane in 1815. Jane was one of twin daughters born in 1791 to Richard and Mary Quiller.

The Quillers had acquired a reputation at the turn of the 18th century as fearless seafarers whose buccaneering exploits from Polperro had few equals. Richard was the elder of three sons among ten children born to John Quiller whose Huguenot ancestors arrived as refugees from France. Richard and his brothers William and John grew up to become part of the formidable Quiller family business that prospered during the Napoleonic wars on the proceeds of privateering cruises against French vessels and the contraband trade with Guernsey.

John Quiller senior (1741-1804) sought the assistance of Zephaniah Job, known as the 'Smugglers' Banker'. From his cottage overlooking the harbour in Polperro, Job managed the affairs of almost all who were engaged in the smuggling trade, keeping their accounts, collecting the money and paying the suppliers of the goods.

John Quiller's capture of several valuable prize vessels in 1782 and his lucrative smuggling activities in later years brought great wealth to both men. But the sea took its toll of the Quiller family: John, father of the three brothers, was killed at sea and all three of his sons were eventually lost in ships.

William Quiller's Smuggling Jug
William Quiller's Smuggling Jug

Jonathan Couch's son, Thomas Quiller Couch, wrote in an introduction to his father's 'History of Polperro' that the Quillers were 'especially a seafaring race' who suffered accordingly. He tells the story of the key that hung on a beam at the home of the Quillers in Polperro, put there by Richard Quiller 'with strong injunctions that no one should take it off until his return (which never happened); and there, I believe, it still hangs.' Richard was lost at sea in 1796, leaving Zephaniah Job with the task of settling his complex privateering and smuggling affairs.

Richard Quiller's widow, Mary, who he had married in 1784, was the sister of an infamous Polperro character called Roger Toms who was to become the most hated man in the community for informing on a fellow smuggler following the murder of a Customs Officer in 1798. As a result of Toms' evidence, Thomas Potter was tried at the Old Bailey for the crime and executed. The incident, involving a Polperro vessel called the Lottery, was to prove a turning point in the campaign by the authorities to put an end to smuggling in the area.

Further details of the Quiller family of Polperro can be obtained from Jeremy Rowett Johns:

E-mail: jeremy.johns@polperro.org

Further information on the family would also be welcomed.

Jeremy Rowett Johns, Polperro Heritage Museum © 2000

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