It’s that time of year (nesting) when crows caw a dreadful din, screeching a warning of my approach from their nests in the higher reaches of the churchyard trees (why do graveyards always have crows?)
You can begin to see why life at the little Cornish village of Morwenstow might have attracted the eccentric Anglican vicar, Stephen Hawker, born in 1803, to its lonely position – which would not have been to everyone’s tastes.
A man of many talents, he is perhaps best known for writing “The Song of the Western Men” with its chorus of:
“And shall they scorn Tre, Pol and Pen
And Shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Shall know the reason
now considered to be the Cornish national anthem and known far and wide outside Cornwall. He seemingly published this anonymously but was later ‘outed’ by no less than Charles Dickens. It would have been a lonely life, for Morwenstow was merely (and still is pretty much) a collection of farms, quite widely spread, with a road which then often flooded, and may well have been treacherous in winter, so geographically isolated.
Most local lore focuses on Hawker the opium-smoking eccentric. A knowledgeable farmer, however, Stephen realized the importance of the harvest for survival. He therefore started the custom of harvest festivals in 1843 when he invited parishioners to a service of thanksgiving in the church at Morwenstow, decorating it with home-grown produce and singing hymns like: “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”. This developed into a tradition which swept through the country. As a boy, he had improved his grandfather’s hymn “Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing” and had a definite way with words, especially poetry/verse. It is said that Tennyson once reckoned Hawker was a better poet than himself.
By the age of 10, in what would now be an English teacher’s dream, Plymouth-born Hawker was reading and writing poetry. He was seemingly also something of a practical joker, running away from school many times, until he was sent to Liskeard Grammar School, where apparently he was happy, spending his holidays with his father at Stratton or with his grandfather and Aunt in Plymouth. He went off to read law when school was over but quickly changed to train for the clergy. At the age of 19, he rather unusually married a 41 year old whose income helped finance his studies. Seemingly, they were very happy together in their Christian union despite the age difference. He re-married after Charlotte’s death when he was 60, this time to a 20 year old who bore him three daughters, so age was no barrier to him when it came to wives.
Hawker was known as deeply compassionate, a trait which he perhaps inherited from his extremely religious and generous doctor father, who would typically give the blankets from his own bed to the poor, sometimes leaving his own family without any. He also became someone who paid local wreckers, men known for their own poverty and brutality, to bring in dead mariners so they could have a Christian burial. This was no mean feat as the mariners did not emerge from the sea wholesome; as they smashed against the rocks they would be carved into ‘gobbets’ of humanity, forming gruesome sights. Hawker thus allegedly had to fortify his rescuers (gathered from the parish) with strong alcohol, to perform their grisly task. Even wreckers were human, it seems! I have not quite worked out how they got the bodies up the cliffs, as the rocks around Morwenstow are treacherous.
A white replica masthead is in place at the St Morwenna and St John the Baptist churchyard representing forty such doomed sailors from the boats, Caledonia and Alonzo. A tortoise apparently survived the Caledonia wreckage, which was pushed onto rocks in a gale; sadly, most of its mariners were then killed by the mast which fell on them. Sailors would normally tend to be buried at sea or, if still alive, left on the beach, often knocked out first by wreckers taking whatever booty they could find. So, it was a dodgy area with rough seas and rocks and even rougher locals, it seems. By comparison, Stephen Hawker, was indeed a good egg, and demonstrated a compassion beyond his times.
He was also a decent poet. Check out his poem ‘The Butterfly’. Wikipedia, not a reliable source it must be said, reckons the man was unusual for a vicar, in loving bright colours, with his only black garb his socks. His mourners apparently all wore purple at his funeral in Plymouth. He was also reputedly known for talking to animals, for having a pet pig, black in colour, called Gyp, for dressing up as a mermaid to confuse the poor folk of Bude, and excommunicating his cat (one of nine) for catching mice on a Sunday. Do Anglicans ex-communicate? I don’t know. Maybe this was a sign of the religious conversion to Catholicism to come. Rather more sensibly, he built a driftwood hut on the cliffs so he could look out at the Atlantic and write poems and hymns, or as some might say, to search for shipwrecks. Rather shockingly for an Anglican vicar, he was baptised as a Roman Catholic when on his deathbed. Presumably, the leanings were always there, though some blamed his wife for getting the priest in.
This is the tale taken from Sabine Baring-Gould’s “The Vicar of Morwenstow”, 1876, which many people think was full of inaccuracies but it’s a pretty tale anyway, and especially relates to a joke he played on Bude folk:
“One absurd hoax that he played on the superstitious people of Bude must not be omitted. At full moon in the July of 1825 or 1826, he swam or rowed out to a rock at “some little distance from the shore, plaited seaweed into a wig, which he threw over his head, so that it hung in lank streamers halfway down his back, enveloped his legs in an oilskin wrap, and, otherwise naked, sat on the rock, flashing the moonbeams about from a hand-mirror, and sang and screamed till attention was arrested. Some people passing along the cliff heard and saw him, and ran into Bude, saying that a mermaid with a fish’s tail was sitting on a rock, combing her hair, and singing. A number of people ran out on the rocks and along the beach, and listened awe-struck to the singing and disconsolate wailing of the mermaid. Presently she dived off the rock, and disappeared.
Next night crowds of people assembled to look out for the mermaid; and in due time she re-appeared, and sent the moon flashing in their faces from her glass. Telescopes were brought to bear on her; but she sang on unmoved, braiding her tresses, and uttering remarkable sounds, unlike the singing of mortal throats which have been practised in do-re-mi. This went on for several nights; the crowd growing greater, people arriving from Stratton, Kilkhampton, and all the villages round, till Robert Hawker got very ho****with his nightly singing, and rather tired of sitting so long in the cold. He therefore wound up the performance one night with an unmistakable “God save the King,” then plunged into the waves, and the mermaid never again revisited the “sounding shores of Bude.”
Sadly, when I visited, the church door was locked but there is more to uncover about Stephen Hawker. Despite its bad press, you can read the Baring-Gould version of events online and there is now a StephenHawker website dedicated to this colourful, characterful man.