Rev. Hawker – 15th Feb 2018

Open Monthly Meeting 15th Feb 2018.  All about a memorable Cornish clergyman

Sadly the much anticipated talk on A Healthy and Wealthy Retirement had to be cancelled due to family illness.  However we were extremely lucky that U3A member Christine Williams was able to step in with a fascinating history of the Reverend Robert Hawker of Morwenstow.

The meeting got off to a rousing start by all present singing the Cornish anthem Trelawny – which of course he wrote.

Robert Hawker was an imposing figure, very tall and with a powerful voice with which it was said he could carry on a conversation with a farmer on the opposite side of the valley. His father was a surgeon in Plymouth but took holy orders and left Robert in the care of grandparents. He was a high spirited boy, fond of practical jokes, once painting the local doctor’s horse with zebra stripes before requesting a spurious house call, and later pretending to be a mermaid and sitting on a rock in the sea, combing his (seaweed) hair!

While studying at Pembroke College Oxford for the priesthood he also wrote poetry, winning the Newdigate poetry prize in 1827.  He would sometimes visit Ebbingford Manor, in Vicarage Road Bude, to use the library there in the holidays, where he met the daughter of the household, Charlotte Wrey I’ans. They were married in 1823 when she was 41 and he only 19, but it was a real love match. When Robert was ordained the couple moved to North Tamerton, and then in 1834 to Morwenstow where he was appointed vicar and remained for the rest of his life.

He found the church in a sorry state.  There had been no vicar for a hundred years and smugglers and wreckers were numerous in the area.  Robert set about restoring the church and building a new vicarage with its individual chimneys, modelled on towers of the churches in which he had served. He also built a small hut on the cliffs out of driftwood, where he would write poetry and watch out for ships in trouble, always seeing to it that shipwrecked seamen in his parish had a Christian burial.

He was known to parishioners as Parson Hawker and was a kind and compassionate man, often distributing food to the poor, paying for church repairs and even building the bridge at Duckpool largely out of his own pocket. He was also something of a passionate opium-smoking eccentric, walking around the church to deliver his sermons, dressing always in bright colours, talking to his pet pig and on one occasion excommunicating his cat for mousing on a Sunday.

Charlotte Hawker died in 1863 and Robert became profoundly depressed for a while, producing some of his greatest work. The following year he met and married a Polish girl, Pauline Kuczynski, forty years his junior, and they had three daughters, enjoying ten happy years together.  His health was deteriorating however and he suffered a stroke in 1875.  With Parson Hawker’s mental capacity impaired, his curate took over the parish saying that Hawker was ‘broken in mind’. On his deathbed Pauline sent for a Roman Catholic priest who witnessed his conversion to Catholicism, which meant that he was buried in Plymouth Cemetery and not in the churchyard of his beloved Morwenstow.

Christine was thanked most warmly for her extremely interesting and informative talk.

There was a quarterly treat at the back of the hall in the form of the latest newsletter, packed with items of interest from the various groups of which the newest, Local History, already has over a dozen members. The All About Birds group had enjoyed a most successful visit to bird watching sites on the River Taw where, blessed with bright clear November conditions, they had spotted a wide range including plovers of all types, shanks red and green, oyster catchers, spoonbills and turnstones. Meanwhile, for those of a sometimes more indoor inclination, Creative Writing 1 are encouraging all short story writers to take part in the Daphne Du Maurier festival in Fowey. The group, led by Lucille Opie, have the details and are willing to offer guidance.

Lindsey Sandilands