by Tom Bowden –
Robert Stephen Hawker was born on 3rd December 1803 in Plymouth and he was the son of a doctor. Robert then went on to Oxford University where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry.
His father could not continue to support him at university and a lady benefactor named Charlotte I’ans helped him complete his studies. Robert married Charlotte although she was twice his age (he was 20 and she was 40) and he got his degree from Oxford and the marriage was a great success.
Hawker was appointed Vicar of St Morwenna Church at Morwenstow on the north coast of Cornwall in 1834. You can find this church by driving into Cornwall on the A39 and turning off right to Morwenstow. It is approximately four miles to the church which is by the massive 400ft cliffs. The 15th century church is dedicated to St Morwenna, a Lady Saint from Wales in the fifth century, and to St John the Baptist.
The new vicar was faced with a challenging task in this remote and mostly poor parish where there was a tradition of smuggling, wrecking, and general lawlessness. Hawker shouldered his task and made a great effort to do good for his community. So Parson Hawker became the personality of the locality going about his duties.
He was a real eccentric, a natural wit, and a poet who was the author of a number of attractive pieces of verse. He wore eccentric clothes which usually included a seaman’s jersey with formal clerical rig and sea-boots, so he made some impact!
He founded the Church School, which prospered, and he wrote a hymn for it. Robert also built a new vicarage with chimneys shaped like the towers of the churches he had previously been associated with, and that building is now a private house.
Shipwrecked sailors were buried by the shore in those days, and Hawker took on the sad and sometimes gruesome task of bringing bodies to his church for burial in his churchyard. The “Caledonia” and many other ships were wrecked on the treacherous North Cornwall coast and about 40 shipwrecked mariners lie there under a granite cross and the stark, white figurehead of the Caledonia.
The 1840s were generally known as the “Hungry Forties” but in 1842 the harvest was good in the Morwenstow area, and in September 1843 Hawker called his parishioners to meet him in the church on the first Sunday in October for a service of Harvest Thanksgiving. This idea was followed by other churches and therefore Hawker has some claim to introducing the Harvest Festivals of today.
No visit to Morwenstow is complete without a visit to Hawker’s Hut on the cliffs behind the church. Here the poetic vicar sat looking at the magnificent view and writing verse. It is just a little shack made out of ships timbers with a divided door. He loved birds and animals and sitting in his hut communing with nature. On one occasion he wrote some words to a popular tune at that time which was called “Le Petit Tambour”.
This is the well-known “Song of the Western Men” or “Trelawny” the Cornish Anthem:
“AND SHALL TRELAWNY LIVE?
OR SHALL TRELAWNY DIE?
HERE’S TWENTY THOUSAND CORNISHMEN
WILL KNOW THE REASON WHY”
It is believed that this song refers to Jonathan Trelawny, born 1650, who became Bishop of Bristol during the reign of James II. The King commanded all his bishops to read the Declaration of Indulgence throughout their diocese. Trelawny and six other bishops refused and they were committed to the Tower of London on 6th June 1686.
This caused a great public outcry which culminated with the Bishops Trial in June 1688 when they were acquitted. The words of the song reflect the feeling in Cornwall during that period. Others believe that the song refers to the grandfather of Bishop Trelawny who was also imprisoned in the Tower of London during his lifetime.
Then Robert Hawker’s wife, Charlotte, died in 1863 aged 81 and she was buried in the church and her flagstone is just inscribed “CHARLOTTE”. Robert was then 60 and he then married a girl of 20 named Pauline Kuczinski who was from a Polish family. They had three children: Morwenna Pauline, Rosalind and Juliot and they were also a very happy family.
Robert Stephen Hawker continued as Vicar of St Morwenna Church, and going about his duties, until he died at Plymouth in 1875 having been received into the Roman Catholic Church in his last hours.
Today, many thousands of Cornish men and women, and their descendants, sing “Trelawny” with great pride and passion. Hawker’s words ring out throughout the land and Jonathan Trelawny will never be forgotten. So Bishop Jonathan Trelawny, a 17th Century character, is remembered partly because of Hawker’s ballad written in the mid 19th Century in a hut on the cliffs at Morwenstow in North Cornwall.
This magazine feature loaded by Admin – Cornwall 24.net e-magazine – By permission of the author Tom Bowden
15 November, 2011