Six miles or so north of Bude, is the parish of Morwenstow, and its northern boundary at Marsland Mouth is where Cornwall meets Devon.
It consists of about half a dozen small hamlets, but it’s the location of the parish church near to the rugged North Cornish coast and its connection with the rather eccentric Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker that people mainly come here for.
R.S. Hawker was born on 3rd December 1803 at Charles Church vicarage in Plymouth, and by the age of 19 was married to Charlotte Eliza I’ans, a 41 year old woman from Cornwall.
It was his ambition to become an Anglican priest and spent 5 years studying at Pembroke College Oxford, where he also wrote several pieces of poetry including his famous adaptation of ‘Song of the Western Men’.
He was ordained in 1831 and by 1835 was vicar of Morwenstow, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Prior to Hawker’s appointment at Morwenstow, the remote parish had been left pretty much to its own devices. Vicars came and went with a great deal of regularity, and those that did stay were absent most of the time, leaving the mostly poor people to fend for themselves in the best way they could. Consequently, the rugged coastline attracted smugglers, wreckers and non-conformers, and the new ‘Parson’, as he became known, regarded his task as “the effort to do good against their will to our fellow men”.
He may not have had too many good words to say about the local population when he arrived, but he made it his mission to show them that there was a better way of doing things.
The rocks around this stretch of coastline are notorious for shipwrecks, and from his wooden hut above the cliffs he could look out for any casualties – and there were plenty. I’m not quite sure how he managed it, but he would gather up corpses of drowned sailors and lay them out in the mortuary (now a storehouse) next to the lych gate of the church.
It’s reckoned that he buried at least 40 seamen, including the captain and crew members of the ‘Caledonia’, a Scottish brig that came to grief on rocks at Higher Sharpnose Point. He also rescued the ship’s figurehead and used it as a grave marker to those he buried beneath it.
The first time I came here the figurehead was still in its original position in the churchyard, but now it’s been replaced with a replica and the authentic one transferred to a safer place inside the church.
It could be argued that his unorthodox dress sense was meant to try and fit in with his local congregation rather than the usual attire worn by the priesthood, but it sounds like he was too much of a maverick for that to be the case.
He was often seen in a blue fisherman’s jersey, sea boots, and a long purple coat. He also wore a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket, red trousers and a wide variety of hats. He loved bright colours and the only black things he wore apparently were his socks.
He obviously had his work cut out because sometimes the only person in the congregation was his wife, and he would start the service with the words “My dearly beloved Charlotte”. Mind you his ten cats helped fill the pews, even though he barred one of them for mousing on a Sunday.
He loved animals and had several unusual pets including a pig called Gyp and a stag that would sometimes pin visitors to the ground.
He must have had every intention of staying at Morwenstow because it didn’t take him long to start work on restoring the vicarage. Even this was a bit unusual. You can still see the chimneys he built; three of them represent the churches with which he had been associated in Cornwall – Stratton, Whitstone and North Tamerton; two others were based on towers in Oxford, and the kitchen chimney has the same shape and dimensions of his mother’s tomb!
His concern for the poor people of his parish was always uppermost in his mind though, and in 1843 he introduced a Harvest Festival to the church.
The 1840s were known as the hungry forties, but 1843 produced a good harvest, and the good reverend called upon his parishioners to attend church on the first Sunday in October for a service of Harvest Thanksgiving. People brought along fruit and vegetables that they’d grown and he saw to it that the food was distributed to those who needed it the most.
Other churches followed suit and the tradition of Harvest Festival continues to this day.
In February 1863 his wife Charlotte died which seemed to affect him deeply, but within a year he was married again. He was 60 by now, so it was unlikely that he would find somebody twice his age this time, instead, he opted for a 20 year old Polish girl by the name of Pauline Kuczynski.
Throughout his life he had a love of poetry and wrote much of it at his hut overlooking the rocks whilst smoking opium.
He constructed the hut from driftwood and timber retrieved from shipwrecks, some say from the Caledonia.
Visitors included Alfred Tennyson and Charles Kingsley, and today this rustic hideaway above Higher Sharpnose Point is still here and looked after by the National Trust and is the smallest property on their books. If you can find it, you won’t need to pay anything to sit inside for a while.
Of all the things that Robert Hawker will be remembered for, it has to be the ‘Song of the Western Men’, which he wrote in 1824 while studying at Oxford.
The song actually has its roots in older folk songs and he assumed that Trelawney was Sir Jonathan Trelawney, Bishop of Bristol, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James II in 1688. However, it seems that it was more likely to have been his grandfather, Sir John Trelawney, a Cornish Royalist leader who had been imprisoned by Parliament in 1628.
It’s also doubtful that the people of Cornwall actually marched to rescue Trelawney as he was acquitted at his trial and released from the Tower after just 3 weeks.
Nevertheless, it’s become the Cornish National Anthem and it would be a brave man to tell a Cornish rugby supporter on their way to Twickenham that Trelawney’s Army never did march up to London.
At the end of his life Robert Stephen Hawker had become disillusioned with the Anglican church and converted to Catholicism, literally on his deathbed.
He died on 15th August 1875, and instead of being buried in the space reserved for him at the foot of the pulpit at Morwenstow, he was buried at Ford Park Cemetery in Plymouth.
If you’re wondering whether the mourners were all dressed in black. The answer is no – purple!