Project Canterbury

The Vicar of Morwenstow: A Life of Robert Stephen Hawker, M.A.

By Sabine Baring-Gould.

London: King, 1876; New York: T. Whittaker, 1876.

Chapter I. Birth of Mr. Hawker.--Dr. Hawker of Charles Church.--The Amended Hymn.--Robert S. Hawker runs away from School.--Boyish Pranks.--At Cheltenham.--Publishes his "Tendrils."--At Oxford.--Marries.--The Stowe Ghost.--Robert Hawker and Mr. Jeune at Boscastle.--The Mazed Pigs.--Nanny Heale and the Potatoes.--"Records of the Western Shore."--The Bude Mermaid.--Takes his Degree.--Comes with his Wife to Morwenstow.

ROBERT STEPHEN HAWKER was born at Stoke Damerel on Dec. 3, 1804, and was baptized there in the parish church. His father, Mr. Jacob Stephen Hawker, was at that time a medical man, practising at Plymouth. He afterwards was ordained at Altar-nun, and spent thirty years as curate and then vicar of Stratton in Cornwall, where he died in 1845. Mr. J. S. Hawker was the son of the famous Dr. Hawker, incumbent of Charles Church in Plymouth, author of "Morning and Evening Portions," a man as remarkable for his abilities as he was for his piety.

Young Robert was committed to his grandfather to be educated. The doctor, after the death of his wife, lived in Plymouth with his daughter, a widow, Mrs. Hodgson, at whose expense Robert was educated.

The profuse generosity, the deep religiousness, and the eccentricity of the doctor, had their effect on the boy, and traced in his opening mind and forming character deep lines, which were never effaced. Dr. Hawker had a heart always open to appeals of poverty, and in his kindness he believed every story of distress which was told him, and hastened to relieve it without inquiring closely whether it were true or not; nor did he stop to consider whether his own pocket could afford the generosity to which his heart prompted him. His wife, as long as she lived, found it a difficult matter to keep house. In winter, if he came across a poor family without sufficient coverings on their beds, he would run home, pull the blankets off his own bed, and run with them over his arm to the house where they were needed.

He had an immense following of pious ladies, who were sometimes troublesome to him. "I see what it is," said the doctor in one of his sermons: "you ladies think to reach heaven by hanging on to my coat-tails. I will trounce you all: I will wear a spencer."

In Charles Church the evening service always closed with the singing of the hymn, "Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing," composed by Dr. Hawker himself. His grandson did not know the authorship of the hymn: he came to the doctor one day with a paper in his hand, and said, "Grandfather, I don't altogether like that hymn, 'Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing:' I think it might be improved in metre and language, and would be better if made somewhat longer."

"Oh, indeed!" said Dr. Hawker, getting red; "and pray, Robert, what emendations commend themselves to your precocious wisdom?"

"This is my improved version," said the boy, and read as follows:--

"'Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing,
High and low, and rich and poor:
May we all, thy fear possessing,
Go in peace, and sin no more!

Lord, requite not as we merit;
Thy displeasure all must fear:
As of old, so let thy Spirit
Still the dove's resemblance bear.

May that Spirit dwell within us!
May its love our refuge be!
So shall no temptation win us
From the path that leads to thee.

So when these our lips shall wither,
So when fails each earthly tone,
May we sing once more together
Hymns of glory round thy throne!'

"Now listen to the old version, grandfather:--

"'Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing;
Fill our hearts with joy and peace;
Let us each, thy love possessing,
Triumph in redeeming grace.
Oh, refresh us,
Travelling through this wilderness!

Thanks we give, and adoration,
For the gospel's joyous sound;
May the founts of thy salvation
In our hearts and lives abound!
May thy presence
With us evermore be found!'

"This one is crude and flat; don't you think so, grandfather?"

"Crude and flat, sir! Young puppy, it is mine! I wrote that hymn."

"Oh! I beg your pardon, grandfather; I did not know that: it is a very nice hymn indeed; but--but"--and, as he went out of the door,--"mine is better."

Robert was sent to a boarding-school by his grandfather; where, I do not know, nor does it much matter, for he only staid there one night. He arrived in the evening, and was delivered over by the doctor to a very godly but close-fisted master. Robert did not approve of being sent supperless to bed, still less did he approve of the bed and bedroom in which he was placed.

Next morning the dominie was shaving at his window, when he saw his pupil, with his portmanteau on his back, striding across the lawn, with reckless indifference to the flower-beds, singing at the top of his voice, "Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing." He shouted after him from the window, but Robert was deaf. The boy flung his portmanteau over the hedge, jumped after it, and was seen no more at that school.

He was then put with the Rev. Mr. Laffer, at Liskeard. Mr. Laffer was the son of the squire at Altarnun: he afterwards became incumbent of St. Gennys. At this time he was head master of the Liskeard Grammar School. There Robert Hawker was happy. He spent his holidays either with his father at Stratton, or with his grandfather and aunt at Plymouth. At Stratton he was the torment of an old fellow who kept a shop in High Street, where he sold groceries, crockery, and drapery. One day he slipped into the house when the old man was out, and found a piece of mutton roasting before the fire. Robert took it off the crook, hung it up in the shop, and placed a bundle of dips before the fire, to roast in its place.

He would dive into the shop, catch hold of the end of thread that curled out of the tin in which the shopkeeper kept the ball of twine with which he tied up his parcels, and race with it in his hand down the street, then up a lane and down another, till he had uncoiled it all, and laced Stratton in a cobweb of twine, tripping up people as they went along the streets. The old fellow had not the wits to cut the thread, but held on like grim death to the tin, whilst the ball bounced and uncoiled within it, swearing at the plague of a boy, and wishing him "back to skule again."

"I doan't care whether I ring the bells on the king's birthday," said the parish clerk, another victim of the boy's pranks; "but if I never touch the ropes again, I'll give a peal when Robert goes to skule, and leaves Stratton folks in peace."

As may well be believed, the mischievous, highspirited boy played tricks on his brothers and sisters. The clerk was accustomed to read in church, "I am an alien unto my mother's children," pronouncing "alien" as "a lion." "Ah! "said Mrs. Hawker, "that means Robert: he is verily a lion unto his mother's children."

"I do not know how it is," said his brother one day: "when I go out with Robert nutting, he gets all the nuts; and when I go out rabbiting, he gets all the rabbits; and when we go out fishing together, he catches all the fish."

"Come with me fishing to-morrow, Claud," said Robert, "and see if you don't have luck."

Next day he surreptitiously fastened a red herring to his brother's hook; and, when it was drawn out of the water, "There!" exclaimed Robert, "you are twice as lucky as I am. My fish are all raw; and yours is ready cleaned, smoked, and salted."

The old vicarage at Stratton is now pulled down: it stood at the east end of the chancel, and the garden has been thrown into the burial-ground.

At Stratton he got one night into the stable of the surgeon, hogged the mane, and painted the coat of his horse like a zebra with white and black oil paint. Then he sent a message to the doctor, as if from a great house at a distance, requiring his immediate attendance. The doctor was obliged to saddle and gallop off the horse in the condition in which he found it, thinking that there was not time for him to stay till the coat was cleaned of paint.

His pranks at Plymouth led at last to his grandfather refusing to have him any longer in his house, Robert held the good pious ladies, who swarmed round the doctor, in aversion. It was the time of sedan-chairs; and trains of old spinsters and dowagers used to fill the street in their boxes between bearers, on the occasions of missionary teas, Dorcas meetings, and private expositions of the Word. Robert used to open the house-door, and make a sign to the bearers to stop. A row of a dozen or more sedans were thus arrested in the street. Then the boy would go to the sedans in order, open the window, and, thrusting his head in, kiss the fair but venerable occupant, and then start back in mock dismay, exclaiming, "A thousand pardons! I thought you were my mother. I am sorry. How could I have made such a mistake, you are so much older?"

Sometimes, with, the gravest face, he would tell the bearers that the lady was to be conveyed to the Dockyard, or the Arsenal, or to the Hoe; and she would find herself deposited among anchors and ropes, or cannon-balls, or on the windy height overlooking the bay, instead of at the doctor's door.

Two old ladies, spinster sisters, Robert believed were setting their caps at the doctor, then a widower. He took an inveterate dislike to them, and their insinuating, oily manner with his grandfather; and he worried them out of Plymouth.

He did it thus. One day he called on one of the leading physicians in Plymouth, and told him that Miss Hephzibah Jenkins had slipped on a piece of orange-peel, broken her leg, and needed his instant attention. He arrived out of breath with running, very red; and, it being known that the Misses Jenkins were intimate friends of Dr, Hawker, the physician went off at once to the lady, with splints and bandages.

Next day another medical man was sent to see Miss Sidonia Jenkins. Every day a fresh surgeon or physician arrived to bind up legs and arms and heads, or revive the ladies from extreme prostration, pleurisy, inflammation of the lungs, heart-complaint, &c., till every medical man in Plymouth, Stonehouse, and Devonport had been to the house of the spinsters. When they were exhausted, an undertaker was sent to measure the old ladies for their coffins; and next day a hearse drew up at their door to convey them to their graves, which had been dug according to order in the St. Andrew's churchyard.

This was more than the ladies could bear. They shut up the house, and left Plymouth. But this was also the end of Robert's stay with his grandfather. The good doctor had endured a great deal, but he would not put up with this; and Robert was sent to Stratton, to his father.

When the boy left school at Liskeard, he was articled to a lawyer, Mr. Jacobson, at Plymouth, a wealthy man in good practice, first cousin to his mother; but this sort of profession did not at all approve itself to Robert's taste, and he only remained with Mr. Jacobson a few months. Whether he then turned his thoughts towards going into holy orders, cannot be told; but he persuaded his aunt, Mrs. Hodgson, to send him to Cheltenham Grammar School.

The boy had great abilities, and a passionate love of books, but wanted application. He read a great deal, but his reading was desultory. He was, however, a good classic scholar. To mathematics he took a positive dislike, and never could master a proposition in Euclid. At Cheltenham he wrote some poems, and published them in a little book entitled "Tendrils, by Reuben." They appeared in 1821, when he was seventeen years old.

From Cheltenham, Robert S. Hawker went to Oxford, 1823, and entered at Pembroke; but his father was only a poor curate, and unable to maintain him at the university. Robert was determined to finish his course there. He could not command the, purse of his aunt Mrs. Hodgson, who was dead; and when he retired to Stratton for his long vacation in 1824, his father told him that it was impossible for him to send him back to the university.

But Robert Hawker had made up his mind that finish his career at college he would. He had recourse to the following expedient:--

There lived at Whitstone, near Holdsworthy, four Miss I'ans, daughters of Col. I'ans. They had been left with an annuity of two hundred pounds apiece, as well as lands and a handsome place. At the time when Mr. Jacob Hawker announced to his son that a return to Oxford was impossible, the four ladies were at Efford, near Budc, a farm and house leased from Sir Thomas Acland. Directly that Robert Hawker learnt his father's decision, without waiting to put on his hat, he ran from Stratton to Bude, arrived hot and blown at Efford, and proposed to Miss Charlotte I'ans to become his wife. The lady was then aged forty-one, one year older than his mother; she was his godmother, and had taught him his letters.

Miss Charlotte Fans accepted him; and they were married in November, when he was twenty. Robert S. Hawker and his wife spent their honeymoon at Morwenstow, in Combe Cottage. During that time he was visited by Sir William Call and his brother George. They dined with him, and told ghost-stories. Sir William professed his utter disbelief in spectral appearances, in spite of the most convincing, properly authenticated cases adduced by Mr. Hawker. It was late when the two gentlemen rose to leave. Their course lay down the steep hill by old Stowe. The moment that they were gone, Robert got a sheet, and an old iron spoon which he had dug up in the garden, and which bore on it the date 1702. He slipped a tinder-box and a bottle of choice brandy, which had belonged to Col. Fans, into his pocket, and ran by a short cut to a spot where the road was overshadowed by trees, at the bottom of the Stowe hill, which he knew the two young men must pass. He had time to throw the sheet over himself, strike a light, fill the great iron spoon with salt and brandy, and ignite it, before Sir William and his brother came up.

In the dense darkness of the wood, beside the road, they suddenly saw a ghastly figure, illumined by a lambent blue flame which danced in the air before it. They stood rooted to the spot, petrified with fear. Slowly the apparition stole towards them. They were too frightened to cry out and run. Suddenly, with an unearthly howl, the spectre plunged something metallic into the breast of Sir William Call's yellow nankeen waistcoat, the livid flame fell around him in drops, and all vanished.

When he came to himself, Sir William found an iron spoon in his bosom. He and his brother, much alarmed, and not knowing what to think of what they had seen, returned to Combe. They knocked at the door. Hawker put his head with nightcap on out of the bedroom-window, and asked who were disturbing his rest. They begged to be admitted: they had something of importance to communicate. He came down stairs in a dressing-gown, and introduced them to his parlor. There the iron spoon was examined. "It is very ancient," said Sir William: "the date on it is 1702,--just the time when Stowe was pulled down."

"It smells very strong of brandy," said George Call.

Robert Hawker's twinkling eye and twitching mouth revealed the rest.

"Pon my word," said Sir William Call, "you nearly killed me; and, what is more serious, nearly made me believe in spirits."

"Ah!" added Robert dryly, "you probably would believe in them when they ran in a river of flame over your yellow nankeen waistcoat."

The marriage with Charlotte Fans took place on Nov. 6, 1824. On Hawker's return to Oxford with his wife after the Christmas vacation (and he took her there, riding behind him on a pillion), he was obliged, on account of being married, to migrate from Pembroke to Magdalen Hall. About this time he made acquaintance with Jeune and Jacobson, the former afterwards Bishop of Peterborough, the latter Bishop of Chester. Jeunc, and afterwards Jacobson, came down into Cornwall to pay him a visit in the long vacation of 1825; and Mr. Jeune acted as groomsman at the marriage of Miss Hawker to Mr. Kingdon. It was on the occasion of this visit of Mr. Jeune to Robert Hawker that they went over together to Boscastle, and there performed the prank described in "Footprints of Former Men in Cornwall." The two young men put up in the little inn of Joan Treworgy, entitled "The Ship." The inn still exists; but it is rebuilt, and has become more magnificent in its accommodation and charges.

"We proceeded to confer about beds for the night, and, not without misgivings, inquired if she could supply a couple of those indispensable places of repose. A demur ensued. All the gentry in the town, she declared, were accustomed to sleep two in a bed; and the officers that travelled the country, and stopped at her house, would mostly do the same: but, however, if we commanded two beds for only two people, two we must have; only, although they were both in the same room, we must certainly pay for two, and sixpence apiece was her regular price. We assented, and then went on to entreat that we might dine. She graciously agreed; but to all questions as to our fare her sole response was, ' Meat,--meat and taties. Some call 'em,' she added, in a scornful tone, 'purtaties; but we always says taties here.' The specific differences between beef, mutton, veal, &c., seemed to be utterly or artfully ignored; and to every frenzied inquiry her calm, inexorable reply was, 'Meat,--nice wholesome meat and taties."

"In due time we sat down in that happy ignorance as to the nature of our viands which a French cook is said to desire; and, although we both made a not unsatisfactory meal, it is a wretched truth that by no effort could we ascertain what it was that was roasted for us that day by widow Treworgy, and which we consumed. Was it a piece of Boscastle baby? as I suggested to my companion. The question caused him to rush out to inquire again; but he came back baffled, and shouting, 'Meat and taties.' There was not a vestige of bone, nor any outline that could identify the joint; and the not unsavory taste was something like tender veal. It was not till years afterwards that light was thrown on our mysterious dinner that day by a passage which I accidentally turned up in an ancient history of Cornwall. Therein I read, 'that the sillie people of Bouscastle and Boussiney do catch in the summer seas divers young soyles (seals), which, doubtful if they be fish or flesh, conynge housewives will nevertheless roast, and do make thereof savory meat.' "

Very early next morning, before any one else was awake, Hawker and Jeune left the inn, and, going to all the pigsties of the place, released their occupants. They then stole back to their beds.

"We fastened the door, and listened for results. The outcries and yells were fearful. By and by human voices began to mingle with the tumult: there were shouts of inquiry and surprise, then sounds of expostulation and entreaty, and again 'a storm of hate and wrath and wakening fear.' At last the tumult reached the ears of our hostess, Joan Treworgy. We heard her puff and blow, and call for Jim. At last, after waiting a prudent time, we thought it best to call aloud for shaving-water, and to inquire with astonishment into the cause of that horrible disturbance which had roused us from our morning sleep. This brought the widow in hot haste to our door. 'Why, they do say, captain,' was her doleful response, 'that all the pegs up-town have a-rebelled, and they've a-be, and let one the wother out, and they be all a-gwain to sea, hug-a-mug, bang!'"

Some years after, when Mr. Jeune was Dean of Magdalen Hall, Mr. Hawker went up, to take his M. A. degree. The dean on that occasion was, according to custom, leading a gentleman commoner of the same college, a very corpulent man, to the vice-chancellor, to present him for his degree, with a Latin speech. Hawker was waiting his turn. The place was crowded, and the fat gentleman commoner was got with difficulty through the throng to the place. Hawker leaned towards the dean, as he was leading and endeavoring to guide this unwieldy candidate, who hung back, and got hitched in the crowd, and said in a low tone,--

"Why, your peg's surely mazed, maister."

When the crowd gave way, and the dean reached the vice-chancellor's chair, he was in spasms of uncontrollable laughter.

At Oxford Mr. Robert Hawker made acquaintance with Macbride, afterwards head of the college; and the friendship lasted through life.

In after-years, when Jeune, Jacobson, and Macbride were heads of colleges, Robert S. Hawker went up to Oxford in his cassock and gown. The cassock was then not worn, as it sometimes is now, except by heads of colleges and professors. Mr. Hawker was therefore singular in his cassock. He was outside St. Mary's one day, with Drs. Jeune, Jacobson, and Macbride, when a friend, looking at him in his gown and cassock, said, "Why, Hawker, one would think you wanted to be taken for a head."

"About the last thing I should like to be taken for, as heads go," was his ready reply, with a roguish glance at his three companions.

Mr. Hawker has related another of his mischievous tricks when an undergraduate. There was a poor old woman named Nanny Heale, who passed for a witch. Her cottage was an old decayed hut, roofed with turf. One night Robert Hawker got on the roof, and, looking down the chimney, saw her crouching over her turf fire, watching with dim eyes an iron crock, or round vessel, filled with potatoes, that were simmering in the heat. This utensil was suspended by its swing handle to an iron bar that went across the chimney. Hawker let a rope, with an iron hook at the end, slowly and noiselessly down the chimney, and, unnoted by poor Nanny's blinking sight, caught the handle of the caldron; and it, with its mealy contents, began to ascend the chimney slowly and majestically.

Nanny, thoroughly aroused by this unnatural proceeding of her old iron vessel, peered despairingly after it, and shouted at the top of her voice,--

"Massy 'pon my sinful soul! art gawn off--taties and all?"

The vessel was quietly grasped, and carried down in hot haste, and planted upright outside the cottage door. A knock, given on purpose, summoned the inmate, who hurried out, and stumbled over, as she afterwards interpreted the event, her penitent crock.

"So, then," was her joyful greeting,--"so, then! theer't come back to holt, then! Ay, 'tis a-cold out o' doors."

Good came out of evil: for her story, which she rehearsed again and again, with all the energy and persuasion of truth, reached the ears of the parochial authorities; and they, thinking that old Nanny's wits had failed her, gave an additional shilling a week to her allowance.

His vacations were spent at Whitstone, or at Ivy Cottage, near Bude. At Whitstone he built himself a bark shanty in the wood, and set up a life-sized carved wooden figure, which he had procured in Oxford, at the door, to keep it. The figure he called "Moses." It has long since disappeared, but the bark house remains.

In this hut he was wont to read. His meals were brought out there to him. His intervals of work were spent in composing ballads on Cornish legends, afterwards published at Oxford in his "Records of the Western Shore," 1832. They have all been reprinted in later editions of his poems. One of these, his "Song of the Western Men," was adapted to the really ancient burden:--

"And shall they scorn Tre, Pol, and Pen,
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why! "

These verses have so much of the antique flavor, that Sir Walter Scott, in one of his prefaces to a later edition of the Border Minstrelsy, refers to them as a "remarkable example of the lingering of the true ballad spirit in a remote district;" and Mr. Hawker possessed a letter from Lord Macaulay in which he admitted that, until undeceived by the writer, he had always supposed the whole song to be of the time of the Bishops' trial.

At Ivy Cottage he had formed for himself a perch on the edge of the cliff, where he could be alone with his books, his thoughts, and, as he would say with solemnity, "with God."

Perhaps few thought then how deep were the religious impressions in the joyous heart, full of exuberant spirits, of the young Oxford student. All people knew of him was, that he was remarkable for his beauty, for his brightness of manner, his overflowing merriment, and love of playing tricks. But there was a deep undercurrent of religious feeling setting steadily in one direction, which was the main governing stream of his life. Gradually this emerges into sight, and becomes recognized. Then it was known to few except his wife and her sisters.

At this period of his life, it is chiefly his many jests which have lingered on in the recollection of his friends and relations.

One absurd hoax that he played on the superstitious people of Bude must not be omitted.

At full moon in the July of 1825 or 1826, he swam or rowed out to a rock at "some little distance from the shore, plaited seaweed into a wig, which he threw over his head, so that it hung in lank streamers halfway down his back, enveloped his legs in an oilskin wrap, and, otherwise naked, sat on the rock, flashing the moonbeams about from a hand-mirror, and sang and screamed till attention was arrested. Some people passing along the cliff heard and saw him, and ran into Bude, saying that a mermaid with a fish's tail was sitting on a rock, combing her hair, and singing.

A number of people ran out on the rocks and along the beach, and listened awe-struck to the singing and disconsolate wailing of the mermaid. Presently she dived off the rock, and disappeared.

Next night crowds of people assembled to look out for the mermaid; and in due time she re-appeared, and sent the moon flashing in their faces from her glass. Telescopes were brought to bear on her; but she sang on unmoved, braiding her tresses, and uttering remarkable sounds, unlike the singing of mortal throats which have been practised in do-re-mi.

This went on for several nights; the crowd growing greater, people arriving from Stratton, Kilkhampton, and all the villages round, till Robert Hawker got very hoarse with his nightly singing, and rather tired of sitting so long in the cold. He therefore wound up the performance one night with an unmistakable "God save the King," then plunged into the waves, and the mermaid never again revisited the "sounding shores of Bude."

Miss Fanny I'ans was a late riser. Her brother-in-law, to break her of this bad habit, was wont to throw open her window early in the morning, and turn in a troop of setters, whose barking, yelping, and frantic efforts to get out of the room again, effectually banished sleep from the eyes of the fair but somewhat aged occupant.

Efford Farm had been sub-let to a farmer, who broke the lease by ploughing up and growing crops on land which it had been stipulated should be kept in grass.

Sir Thomas Acland behaved with great generosity in the matter. He might have reclaimed the farm without making compensation to the ladies; but he allowed them three hundred pounds a year as long as they lived, took the farm away, and re-leased it to a more trusty tenant.

Mr. Robert Stephen Hawker obtained the Newdegate in 1827: he took his degree of B.A. in 1828, and then came with his wife to Morwenstow, a place for which even then he had contracted a peculiar love, and there read for holy orders.

"Welcome, wild rock and lonely shore!
Where round my days dark seas shall roar,
And thy gray fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land."

[The poem, "Pompeii," has been reprinted in his Echoes of Old Cornwall, Ecclesia, &c.]

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