Morwenstow Church, Cornwall

Morwenstow Church, Cornwall

Morwenstow Church is best known for its associations with Rev R S Hawker, vicar here from 1834 till his death in 1875. It is a grade I listed building.

Morwenstow church is dedicated to St Morwenna and St John the Baptist. It was appropriated by the Bishop of Exeter to St John's Hospital at Bridgewater before 1291. In a document dated 1296, the church was referred to as an 'old and well-known structure'. Although this is a Norman church, it must have replaced an earlier Saxon structure. The chancel is separated from the nave by a richly-carved screen erected in 1575 by the Kempthorne family. It has a fine Norman doorway.

The arcades consist of seven arches, some of which are semi-circular, and others pointed. They are supported on piers and pillars, one of which bears the date 1475. The tower is of two stages and is finished with pinnacles; it had four bells.

There is an interesting, but defaced, polychrome wall-painting on the north wall of the chancel, which is thought to represent St Morwenna. It shows a gaunt female clasping to her breast, with her left hand, a scroll or volume; the right arm is raised in blessing over a kneeling monk.

R S Hawker was born in 1803, the son of a Cornish curate. The family was very hard up and Robert funded his education at Oxford by marrying a woman with a private income who was 20 years older than himself. He was ordained a priest in 1831, and was thrilled when the Bishop of Exeter offered him Morwenstow. He had been there as a child, and loved the remoteness of the place, with the sea crashing on the rocks below the church.

When Hawker arrived at Morwenstow there had not been a vicar in residence for over a century. Smugglers and wreckers were apparently numerous in the area. A contemporary report says the Morwenstow wreckers "allowed a fainting brother to perish in the sea without extending a hand of safety"

Morwenstow Church Genealogical information on Genuki

Harvest Festival - like so many English traditions, the church Harvest Festival service is a Victorian innovation. It was just about invented by Rev. Hawker. Christians had always given thanks for the harvest. But it was not until Hawker devised the Harvest Festival that it turned into the service that we know today. On September 13, 1843, he put up a notice saying that there would a special Sunday of thanksgiving, and that the old custom of making eucharistic bread from the first corn would be revived. It read: "Let us gather together in the chancel of our church, and there receive, in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls."

Shipwrecks. When awakened in the middle of the night by the news of a shipwreck, he would leap out of bed and go down to the shore to supervise the retrieval of bodies from the sea, and to their eventual burial in the churchyard. As you enter Morwenstow churchyard, there is a Lych House, and it was here that the corpses of drowned sailors were laid out. The Reverend Hawker buried over forty sailors who were drowned at sea and washed up at the bottom of Vicarage Cliff. There is a white memorial figurehead of the "Caledonia" commemorating her Captain and crew who lie buried here. The "Caledonia" was a boat of 500 tons, from Scotland, which floundered on the rocks of Higher Sharpnose in 1842. A book "Treachery at Sharpnose Point: Unraveling the Mystery of the Caledonia's Final Voyage" sets out to show that Rev Hawker was implicated in the wrecking of the ship. A Guardian article by the author of that book doubts Hawkers veracity.

Morwenstow  Vicarage, Cornwall

The "Caledonia" figurehead marks the grave of nine of the ten man crew of that vessel. Hawker described the wrecking in his book "Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall". Nearby stands a tall granite cross marked "Unknown Yet Well Known", marking the mass grave of 30 or more sailors washed up on local beaches, including the captain of "The Alonzo", also wrecked in 1842. In the 1840sships were being lost along the British coast at a rate of two a day. "From Pentire Point to Hartland Light", ran the cautionary rhyme, "a watery grave by day or night".

The Vicarage He built himself a remarkable vicarage, with chimneys modeled on the towers of the churches in his life: Tamerton, where he had been curate; Morwenstow, his other living of Wellcombe; plus that of Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker's Mother's tomb.

On his death bed Hawker converted to the Roman Catholic Church. He was very high church, and this probably was his spiritual home. Interestingly 100 years later, Michael Ramsey, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, preached at an ecumenical service in his honour. Ramsey described Hawker as "a beyond man in a beyond place", to whom all English Christians should be grateful.

Morwenstow Village information

Rev Hawker Rev Hawker

R S Hawker His biography

Cornwall Churches