Friday, July 04, 2008

A very eccentric priest

I recently had occasion to write a little about Robert Hawker, once the hugely eccentric local priest of Morwenstow, Cornwall. He features in a chapter of my forthcoming book. For this I drew upon a feature written by my late father for a now defunct Cornish local interest magazine and expanded it a little. I also found some new snippets in ‘The Man who ate Bluebottles and other great British eccentrics’ by Catherine Caulfield, a most enjoyable holiday read. Here’s what I (helped ably by Dad) put together:


The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker became the local vicar of Morwenstow, Cornwall, in 1834 and stayed in post for over 40 years. He was a noted folklorist and poet. He invented Harvest Festival as we know it today. And his poem The Song of the Western Men, set to a similar tune to The Grand Old Duke of York, has become the unofficial Cornish ‘national anthem’ under the shorter, snappier name of Trelawny.* Hawker wrote the poem ‘under a stag-horned oak in Sir Beville's Walk in Stowe Wood’ and sent it anonymously to a Plymouth newspaper claiming it to be an old traditional song. It subsequently attracted favourable comments from Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens who promoted it as a long-lost anthem. It was a prank that delighted the mischievous and eccentric Hawker.

Hawker loved bright colours and abhorred his black ecclesiastical garb which he claimed made him look ‘like a waiter out of place or an unemployed undertaker’. It’s said that the only black things he ever wore were his socks. He was often seen wearing a brown cassock with velvet cuffs, or a rich three-quarter length plum-coloured coat, a blue fisherman's jersey, scarlet gloves and long Wellington boots. He set a new fashion trend by wearing a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket, which he claimed was the ‘ancient habit of St Pardarn’. He is also known to have dressed up as a mermaid for fun. His wife, 22 years his senior and also his godmother, shared his love of high fashion and they would often dress in complimentary outfits. Upon her death - after 31 years of happy marriage - Hawker showed his respects by turning up to her funeral wearing a pink fez.

He was often accompanied in his meanderings by his pet, an enormous pig. He loved animals and spent many hours talking to birds. In fact, he was so well known to the local avian population that when a scarecrow was dressed in one of his old cassocks, it attracted birds from miles around. He encouraged animals to come to church as ‘they too had been on the ark’ and often brought his nine cats to services. However, he excommunicated one of them for mousing on a Sunday.

He didn’t keep a tidy church. The altar cloth was covered in dog and cat hairs and spent matches and the place always needed dusting and sweeping. But he did make some interesting modifications to the church buildings. As part of the church roof restoration in 1849, he had it re-tiled with wood rather than slate as a reminder that sinners as well as saints were welcome. He had five of the rectory chimneys rebuilt as replicas of his favourite church towers and the sixth to resemble his mother’s tomb. He removed the panels around the pulpit as he felt a congregation should be able to see the priest’s feet, but he refused to widen the narrow passage that led to the pulpit on the sensible grounds that he enjoyed laughing at larger visiting priests when they got stuck.

Despite his eccentricities, Hawker was a great humanitarian and would spend long hours on the high cliff tops watching for ships in trouble and helping those unfortunates who were washed ashore. He could be regularly seen hauling the heavy, unconscious or dead sailors up the steep cliff paths to warm beds or fresh graves. He eventually built himself a driftwood hut high up on the cliffs and spent many hours inside, smoking opium, writing his poems and keeping his eye on the sea. This hut is now the smallest property owned by the National Trust.

A lifelong Anglican (44 years spent as a priest), Hawker died in 1875 at the age of 72 but, with an eccentric flourish that befitted his reputation, he converted to Catholicism on his death bed. He left us with a wealth of stories, some wonderful poems and the annual tradition of filling up the church at Autumn with all of the obscure tinned goods we no longer want.

*Sir Jonathan Trelawny (1650–1721), a Cornishman and Bishop of Bristol, was one of seven bishops imprisoned in the Tower of London by James II in 1687 for ‘seditious libel’. The staunchly Protestant Cornish were very vocal in his defence. His name is often misspelled as Trelawney.
Photo Credits: The National Trust, MinxyPie, NizNoz and Thom Flaxman via their Picassa and Flickr albums.

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