R S Hawker was born in 1803, the son of a Cornish curate. The family was very hard up and Robert paid for his own 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 more than happy when the Bishop of Exeter offered him the rectorship in 1834 of Morwenstow Church. He had been there as a child, and loved the remoteness of the place, with the sea crashing on the rocks below the church. He served as vicar to a the smugglers, wreckers and dissenters of the area for the next forty years.
When Hawker arrived at Morwenstow there had not been a vicar in there for over a hundred years. 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"
He built himself the remarkable Morwenstow Vicarage, with chimneys that looked like 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.
His driftwood hut, in which he sat , smoked opium and wrote poetry is now owned by the National Trust.
His poem Song of the Western Men, became Cornwall's National Anthem. In the chorus is mentioned " And Shall Trelawny Die", referring to Bishop Trelawny one of the seven bishops imprisoned by James II after Monmouth's failed rebellion.
Hawker was a legendary eccentric. He is known to have dressed up as a mermaid and excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays. He dressed in claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket, which he claimed was the ancient habit of St Pardarn. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church. He kept a huge pig as a pet.
Hawker is believed to be the person who brought back the mediaeval custom of the Harvest Festival into the church. He also ensured that sailors drowned in shipwrecks received a Christian burial.
He was concerned that the bodies of drowned men received a Christian burial, and would scramble down the cliffs, and carry back the bodies for a church grave. Until Hawker they were often buried on the beach where they were found, without Christian rites, as the belief was that it was not possible to tell if they were Christian or not.
The tradition of Harvest Festival in today's format began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service for the harvest at his Morwenstow church.On September 13, 1843, he put up a notice in the church for his new service: "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." Victorian hymns such as "We plough the fields and scatter", "Come ye thankful people, come" and "All things bright and beautiful" helped popularise his idea of harvest festival.
In 1864, the year after the death of his first wife, he married Pauline Kuczynski, the daughter of a Polish count. The marriage produced three daughters.
If you walk along the coast path from the Vicarage today, you will find one of the National Trust's smallest buildings, Hawker's Hut, a small hut he had constructed of driftwood. Hawker is said to have spent much of his time there contemplating,writing poetry, and smoking opium. There are magnificent views from the hut down the coast to Cambeak, Tintagel, and Pentire, with Lundy Island visible in the distance.
Lying paralysed in bed, Hawker sprang one last surprise on the Church of England. After years of doubts about the authenticity of Anglican orders, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church just before he died.
On his death bed Hawker converted to the Roman Catholic Church. He was very high church, and this probably really was his spiritual home. 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. Hawker is buried in Plymouth, having been taken ill on a visit there.
Biography of Rev Hawker
Books about R.S. Hawker
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