Robert Stephen Hawker was born on the 3rd December 1803, five months after George Borrow, who was also a descendant of Cornishmen and was to write enthusiastically of the beauteous scenery and peoples he discovered therein as did Hawker.
Hawker was born in the clergy house of Charles Church, Plymouth, the grandson of Robert Hawker who was vicar there. There were eight children born after Robert, but he was left to live with his grandfather when his own father Jacob Stephen Hawker, left to take up a new position as curate at Altarnun with the rest of the family when Robert was ten. Altarnun was the village featured in Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, where the vicar (spoiler alert) turned out to be a real wrong ‘un.
It seems that the family did not want to interrupt Robert’s education, he already reading and writing poetry. The grandfather helping his further education at Liskeard Grammar School and Cheltenham Grammar School.
He was an undergraduate of 19 when he married Charlotte Eliza L’ans aged 41, and whose money helped Hawker establish himself. George Borrow also married an older lady of money, who enabled him to do the same. Rather than ‘gold-digging’, both matches appear to have been from mutual love and respect. At any rate, Hawker could now afford to graduate from Pembroke College, Oxford. He had been an opium eater, trying to overcome anxiety and his marriage helped him to limit the amount of drugs he took.
They honeymooned at Tintagel in 1823, where they furthered Hawker’s lifelong love of the legend of Kind Arthur, of whom he wrote several times. Throughout her long life, anyone who met Charlotte considered her a wonderful woman and Hawker totally relied upon her.
In 1825 he published anonymously The Song of the Western Men, still counted today as being the unofficial anthem of the Cornish.
It was 1834 when he became vicar at Morwenstow, where they had not a vicar for over a hundred years. Here, Hawker found a godless congregation many of whom took part in smuggling and wrecking. To add to the atmosphere, it was commonly accepted that the wreckers of Morwenstow would, ‘allow a fainting brother to perish in the sea… without extending a hand of safety.’
Hawker did all he could to change the way his congregation dealt with the tragedy and misfortune of others by taking the lead. He was often the first to reach the cliffs when there was a shipwreck. He also gave all dead seamen a Christian burial, a kinder end for them, when previously the bodies would have been left in the sea or buried on the beach. The churchyard grave of five of the crew of the Caledonia, which sank in 1842, is marked by the ship’s own figurehead. A granite cross marks the graves of more than 30 drowned seaman. Most of these wrecks and rescues are described by Hawker in his book, Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall.
He built a hut overlooking the sea, still there today and protected by the National Trust. Within the hut he was said to take opium, smoke and write his poetry. He was a believer and practitioner of mysticism and had many visions. He also suffered from depression.
With all his brightness and vivacity, there was constantly ‘ cropping up,’ a sad and serious vein, which showed itself sometimes in a curious fashion. ‘ This is as life seems to you,’ he would say, as he bade his visitor look at the prospect through a pane of ruby-tinted glass, ‘all glowing and hopeful. And this is as I see it,’ he would add, turning to a pane of yellow, ‘ grey and wintry and faded. But keep your ruby days as long as you can.’
The Vicar of Morwenstow by Sabine Baring Gould
Hawker introduced the Harvest Festival and built a spectacular vicarage with chimneys copying those which had played an important part in his life.
A happily eccentric man, Hawker dressed in a claret coat, blue fisherman’s jumper, long sea boots, a pink brimless hat and a yellow poncho made from a horse blanket.
There was, we remember, a peculiar yellow vestment, in which he appeared much like a Lama of Tibet, which he wore in his house and about his parish, and which he insisted was an exact copy of a priestly robe worn by St. Pardarn and St. Teilo. We have seen him in this attire proceeding through the lanes on the back of a well-groomed mule—the only fitting beast, as he remarked, for a churchman.’
We have here one instance out of many of the manner in which the Vicar delighted to hoax visitors. The yellow vestment in question was a poncho. It came into use in the following manner: —
Mr. M, a neighbour, was in conversation one day with Mr. Hawker, when the latter complained that he could not get a greatcoat to his fancy.
‘ Why not wear a poncho? ‘ asked Mr. M.
‘ Poncho! what is that? ‘ inquired the Vicar.
‘ Nothing but a blanket with a hole in the middle.’
‘ Do you put your legs through the hole, and tie the four corners over your head? ‘
‘ No,’ answered Mr. M; ‘ I will fetch you my poncho, and you can try it on.’
The poncho was brought; it was a dark blue one, and the Vicar was delighted with it. There was no trouble in putting it on. It suited his fancy amazingly ; and next time he went to Bideford he bought a yellowish-brown blanket, and had a hole cut in the middle, through which to thrust his head.
‘I wouldn’t wear your livery, M ,’ said he, ‘nor your political colours, so I have got a yellow poncho.’
Those who knew him well can picture to themselves the sly twinkle in his eye as he informed his credulous visitor that he was invested in the habit of St. Pardarn and St. Teilo.
The Vicar of Morwenstow by Sabine Baring Gould
He would talk to the birds, have his cats inside the church and kept a pig as a pet. When one of his cats was caught killing mice, Hawker excommunicated him. He had also been known to sometimes dress as a mermaid, one hopes purely for entertainment. A good read is his autobiography written by Sabine Baring Gould called The Vicar of Morwenstow, where much of Hawker’s life is discussed in more detail than we have space for here. Hawker himself had written,
R S Hawker
‘What a life mine would be if it were all written and published in a book.’
His wife Charlotte died in 1863 aged 81, following a long illness and suffering blindness. Hawker would read to her daily and when she died, it was then he returned to opium to heal his depression. He took to eating only clotted cream and his tiredness and lack of personal care meant that he once set fire to his work and part of the vicarage, which was luckily spotted by a fellow minister, who thankfully saved the day.
But within a year Hawker had wooed and married the 20-year-old Pauline Kuczynski who produced three daughters, Morwenna Pauline, Rosalind and Juliot. Pauline was the impoverished daughter of a Polish Count, who had found it necessary to find employment as a governess to a family in Morwenstow. However successful this second marriage was, it certainly meant that he temporarily stopped taking opium. But the withdrawal meant that Hawker soon renewed his relationship with depression, constantly worrying about his young family and how they would manage following his inevitable death.
Hawker went to London for his health which worsened and improved according to his moods. The family moved back to Plymouth where they took a small house. Hawker talked much of witches, the devil and evil spirits all of whom he believed persecuted him. He eventually died on 15th August 1875 shortly after converting to Catholicism and is buried in Plymouth. The conversion was surprising and full of controversy, some intimating that advantage had been taken of Hawkers weak mental and physical state. The mourners wore purple instead of the traditional black.
He left his family little provision and they had to manage as best they could.
Hawker had also learned that he would not be allowed to be buried alongside his first wife in the church at Morwenstow. This greatly upset him, and it is said that his spirit has been seen on many occasions standing over the grave, staring mournfully at where he had not been allowed to take his final rest.