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BBC Fictionalises Couch Family History for Nigel Havers' Programme

12/08/2013 12:15 BST | Updated 09/10/2013 10:12 BST
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The story of an influential Cornish family was reduced to a tale of cads, illegitimacy and childhood loss in the recent BBC programme 'Who Do You Think You Are' in which celebrities trace back their family roots.

The tagline for the programme stated that Nigel Havers: "discovers a tale of illegitimacy worthy of a period drama." While it is true that Havers' great-great-grandfather David Couch, once miller in the village still known today as Couch's Mill near Lerryn, had a child with the family servant, he was a young single man at the time and the servant may well have been his girlfriend. The child was fully recognised as part of the community and household and was given the family name Couch.

This newspaper incorrectly claimed that David was "cheating on his wife" despite being unmarried at the time and the Daily Mail described the incident as "real-life scandal." David Couch got married nine years after the pregnancy to a widow, Maria, with whom he had three children before he died at the age of 48.

Havers is famous for caddish roles on TV and seemed delighted to make the link with his own great-great-grandfather at the expense of historical fact: "He just couldn't resist it," he states, "bit of a cad really, I've been playing those sort of parts for years." A 'cad' implies dishonourable behaviour from a man towards a woman but it is clear that David acted with honour according to legal convention of the time by acknowledging the child as his own and paying maintenance fees.

Havers goes on to state that it is "fantastic" that his roots were so humble, a fact again exaggerated and fictionalised by the BBC. The Couch family were incorrectly named as tenants of the Boconnoc estate, when in fact a lease, dating from November 18, 1765, signed between Thomas Pitt of Boconnoc and Jeremiah Couch, identifies them as owners of the mill.

The family were also instrumental in building and maintaining the chapel at Couch's Mill on land leased to the trustees by William Rashleigh. John Couch was listed as one of the trustees of the deed, as signed in 1826. It is highly unlikely too, that a working class family would be painted in oils and photographed by the likes of W. Shury Marshall and Jabez Hughes Ryde (photographer to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales) as the Couches were.

Tradesmen such as millers and blacksmiths would have been highly regarded at the time and the family's involvement with the church and community, as well as being substantial landowners elevates them above the 'working class' roots as suggested by Havers and the BBC. Eunice Hill, granddaughter of Jonathan's daughter Emma Jane Couch states, "It appears David Couch was a solid middle class tradesman who was influential in his community."

The more famous Couches of Polperro who include the naturalist and doctor Jonathan Couch and author and literary critic, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (known as 'Q') were regular visitors to the mill, again emphasising the elevated social status of the family.

The existing Couches and direct descendants of Havers' great-great-grandfather David's twin Jonathan were not consulted nor even mentioned in the programme which gave prominence to the Boconooc estate. The family have expressed great disappointment and surprise that they were not consulted at all in the making of the programme and representation of their own family. Jane Wilson (great-granddaughter of David's twin Jonathan Couch), who grew up in Couch's Mill, said that, "It was extraordinary that the footage was of the Boconnoc estate when the emphasis should have been on the Couch's of Couch's Mill. No-one contacted Jonathan David Couch who still farms in the village."