Neither ashore, nor afloat: Jonathan Couch and "A History of the Fishes of the British Islands"

This month, Assistant Archivist Christina McCulloch has been sifting through research (including our newly catalogued Domestic Archive) to look into the fantastic manuscript of Couch’s A History of the Fishes of the British Islands

Published on 5th January 2024

Born and raised in a small fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall, Jonathan Couch (1789–1870) served the people of Polperro in various capacities, including as a physician, surgeon, apothecary, village historian and Methodist preacher. However, he also harboured a deep interest and passion for natural history, so for this ‘Treasure of the Month’ I wanted to focus on Couch’s work as a naturalist and ichthyologist.

Painting of a fish from Couch's "A History of the Fishes of the British Islands"
Drawing of a ‘Wrasse L Tinca’ by Jonathan Couch (MS/407)

Within the Linnean Society’s archives is the original manuscript (MS/407) of Couch’s most significant publication,A History of the Fishes of the British Islands (1860–1865). The manuscript, entitled A Natural History of the Fishes of the United Kingdom; with a particular reference to the Fisheries (1835), includes a number of illustrations of a variety of fishes, with six beautiful water-coloured drawings of different species of wrasse. The coloured drawings are incredibly vivid and bright, capturing the true likeness of the specimens. Couch was able to achieve this by continuously spraying water onto the catch whilst he drew it, ensuring the colour never dulled or faded.

Painting of a fish from Couch's "A History of the Fishes of the British Islands"
‘Goldsinny, Labrus Cornubiensis’ by Jonathan Couch (MS/407)
Painting of a fish from Couch's "A History of the Fishes of the British Islands"
‘Labrus Julis’ by Jonathan Couch (MS/407)

Delving into its pages, it is not only the coloured illustrations which will catch your attention; the manuscript also presents you with some beautiful pen and ink drawings—a sort of ‘scintilla’ of fishing boats and apparatus — and a wonderful pencil sketch of Polperro harbour. The sketches themselves betray Couch’s love of Cornwall, particularly his home village of Polperro, where he chose to stay and become a local doctor, despite the opportunities which beckoned from London. They also demonstrate the admiration he had for the local fishermen, who collected many of the specimens which Couch analysed, drew, dissected and classified.

Ink drawking of a wooden fishing boat with sails on the water
Drawing of a ‘Fishing Boat of the East of Cornwall…’ by Jonathan Couch (MS/407)
Pencil drawing of rocks and cliffs at Polperro harbour by Jonathan Couch
Polperro harbour by Jonathan Couch (MS/407)
Pen drawings of fishing boats being rowed across the water
Fishing boats, fishermen and fishing apparatus by Jonathan Couch (MS/407)

An interesting inscription on the first page of the manuscript reads: “This volume was employed by Mr Yarrell in the Composition of his History of British Fishes: being the same that is quoted in that work, by the name of Couch’s M.S.” Prior to Couch’s publication AHistory of the Fishes…, the naturalist William Yarrell published his own A History of British Fishes in 1836, of which Couch’s manuscript was a key point of reference and which Yarrell aptly acknowledged in his work. Couch and Yarrell were dear friends, united by their shared passion for fish and birds. They corresponded regularly over an extended period, with Couch frequently sending specimens to Yarrell, including a previously unknown variety of whiting discovered by a Polperro fisherman, to which Yarrell gave the common name ‘Couch’s whiting’ (Micromesistius poutassou) and which he featured in a later edition of his A History of British Fishes… In the Society’s archives, further evidence of their friendship can be found in a copy of Bloch’s Ichthyologie ou Histoire Naturelle des Poissons, where a note from Couch is inscribed inside, reading: “I have bought this work from the Messrs Reeves and Turner, Fleet Street, but from the well known writing in pencil on the plates, I see that it belonged to the Library of my friend Mr Yarrell:- so much the more valuable to me.”

A History of the Fishes… was published in four volumes between 1860–1865 to great acclaim, not least for its array of vivid and colourful illustrations of fishes, drawn by Couch himself. Enthusiasm for the book is still seen today, as these rare original plates are often sold independently as valuable pieces of art. Couch’s work on the publication contributed significantly to his reputation as a leading ichthyologist and established his name amongst the foremost figures in the field of natural history.

Royal Mail stamp with and image of one of Couch's paintings of a fish
Stamp created by the Royal Mail for the Linnean Society bicentenary, January 1988 (DA/ENG/2/7/2/3)

One of his proudest accomplishments, however, was becoming a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London on 16 March 1824, having been nominated by surgeon George Magrath, MP William Rashleigh and High Sheriff of Cornwall, Davies Gilbert. Subsequently, Couch proudly added the letters FLS after his name. He submitted several papers to the Society over a period of 40 years, many of which were read at the Society and published, including ‘Some particulars of the natural history of fishes found in Cornwall’, which was read by our founder James Edward Smith on 19 February 1822. It is sure, then, to have pleased Couch that over a century later, in January 1988, his illustration of a shorthorn sculpin or bull-rout (Myoxocephalus scorpius) was used on one of four stamps created by Royal Mail to commemorate the Linnean Society’s bicentenary.


Couch, J. A natural History of the Fishes of the United Kingdom; with a particular reference to the Fisheries. (MS/407)

Johns, J.R. (2010) Doctor by nature: Jonathan couch, surgeon of Polperro. Clifton-upon-Teme, Worcestershire: Polperro Heritage Press. (accessed 16/11/2023)

Title taken from a list of historic Cornish phrases found in newspapers: https://djwilson22.wordpress.c... (accessed 5/1/2024)