Margaret Laird writes of a conscientious but unconventional priest in nineteenth-century Cornwall

The Christmas messages of both His Holiness Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury urged us to aim at overcoming poverty: a situation which, with determination and generosity, we could, at least in some small way, help to alleviate. Within hours, however, news headlines directed our attention to a different matter – a matter over which we have absolutely no control – the power of nature, which suddenly at the end of the year demonstrated its force in violent storms and tidal waves.

These two seemingly unrelated subjects reminded me, a Cornish woman, of a remarkable and eccentric nineteenth-century priest, Robert Stephen Hawker, who, in 1834, was appointed to the living of Morwenstow in the Truro Diocese. As a young man of thirty, with an impressive academic background, a scholarly interest in history and no mean poet, he, like the Pope and the Archbishop, showed great concern for the poor. Throughout his whole ministry he did what he could to relieve the suffering of his poverty-stricken parish on the north cliffs of Cornwall, where he frequently experienced the force of the wind and the waves and the damage they caused.


Cornwall was a wild, backward, sparsely populated county in the mid-nineteenth century, rarely visited by outsiders. The coast of this part of the peninsula was and is still pitiless and in those days few of the ships sailing close to the rugged cliffs survived, although the grey granite church tower, standing rock-like against the background of the ever restless sea, acted as a warning.

The parish was poorly endowed, the vicarage inn ruins, the church building ill cared for, and the village, which had not had a resident priest for many years, was in desperate need of pastoral care. Although the few farmers in the parish were simple, respectable people, the rest of the inhabitants, after receiving wages at

harvest time, eked out an existence in winter with smuggling or by watching for shipwrecks which supplied them with the necessities of life. They used the planks for firewood and sold the possessions of the drowned to subsidize their daily needs. The new incumbent soon discovered that the inhabitants even caused the shipwrecks to happen and did nothing to assist the drowning, obeying an old Cornish proverb: ‘Save a stranger from the sea / And he will be your enemy’. In fact, a wreck was regarded as a gift from God.

Important lesson

Parson Hawker knew that he had to stop this behaviour but he had unconventional ways of reforming his flock. Both his biographers, Piers

he instilled into his people
the importance of the
sanctity of life and they
learnt from his example

Brendon and Sabine Baring-Gould, describe how once in Morwenstow he assumed an eccentric form of dress and adapted his clothes to his surroundings. He wore a fisherman’s jersey with a red cross, a purple coat with black tails, and a pink, brimless hat, which could easily be found when blown off, ‘for,’ he said, ‘the wind rarely ceased in Morwenstow.’

Wellingtonboots replacedhis shoes so that he was always ready to rush to the beach when a wreck appeared but his purpose was different from that of his parishioners. His task was not to grab the loot but to save the lives of any survivors and to give the dead a decent burial. Thus he taught his flock that human life was sacred and more important than material things gained from the possessions of the survivors and the dead. Not for him were the debates we hear in modern society about whether people have a right in certain circumstance to choose

whether to live or die. He instilled into his people the importance of the sanctity of life and they learnt from his example.

Kindness to all

In his Oxford days, Mr Hawker had expressed his sympathy for the poor in a ballad which began: ‘The poor have hands and feet and eyes / Flesh and a feeling mind,’ but once in his parish, he realized that mere concern for the poor was not enough. There was little he could do to improve conditions generally but he was anxious to be actively involved with the plight of the poor whenever possible and his sympathy impelled him to seek them out to relieve their suffering. It is said that on cold nights, he would think of certain parishioners who had only one blanket and who had been without food.

On these occasions, he would strip his own bed and raid his larder and go forth with a servant like Good King Wenceslas, knocking on the doors of those he knew to be in need and cheering them with supplies from his own resources. ‘They are crushed down, my poor people, ground down with poverty with a wretched wage, till they are degraded in mind and body. If I eat and drink and see my poor hunger and thirst, I am not a minister of Christ,’ he exclaimed.

Although Hawker only received a modest income, he was content and carved this inscription over the vicarage porch: A‘ house, a glebe, a pound a day / A pleasant place to watch and play / Be true to Church and kind to poor / O minister, for evermore.’

Parson Hawker’s kindness extended to animals as well as humans. Apparently, he gave a home to ten cats at the Vicarage, one of whom he excommunicated because it caught a mouse on a Sunday. When a parishioner complained about a stray dog in church, the vicar replied, ‘What! Turn a dog out of the ark?’ His favourite pet was a pig which obediently accompanied him everywhere. Like St Francis, he believed that much could be learnt by humans from the animal world.

Concern for children

Instructing his parishioners in the Christian faith was another of Parson Hawker’s priorities. He taught them to recognize and firmly resist evil. He maintained that he ‘not only sensed evil but could smell it.’ No baby remained unbaptized in his parish and where he knew there was an unbaptized child, he would cry out in a loud voice, ‘I smell brimstone,’ and within hours the parents would be arranging a baptism. Unlike the suggested new version of the Church of England’s baptism service where, according to The Times, ‘the devil goes missing,’ Mr Hawker could in no way have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ baptisms in his church. The parents and godparents who brought their children to be baptized would undoubtedly have ‘repented of their

sins and rejected the devil and all his works.’

Hawker’s concern for the children of the village did not cease with baptism. He devoted much of his time to instructing them in the faith as well as teaching them to read and write. He even wrote a special hymn for them which contained a brief summary of the Christian faith: ‘Sing to the Lord the children’s hymn / His gentle love declare,’ expressed God’s overwhelming love for his children. The second verse: ‘He at his mother’s breast was fed / Though God’s own son was He,’ provides a simple explanation

of the mystery of the Incarnation. Thirdly, Hawker demonstrates his own firm belief in Guardian Angels: ‘The Angels of His presence yearn / To bless the little child.’ And lastly, he reaffirms his view on the importance of baptism through which, in the words of the Catechism, we are made, ‘inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven.’ ‘Keep us O Jesus, Lord, for Thee / That so, by Thy dear grace, / We children of the Font, may see / Our heavenly Father’s face.’

His influence

This fascinating and conscientious priest had an influence far beyond the remote parish of Morwenstow. Although his people were poor, Hawker wanted them to be aware of the fact that they had much for which to be thankful. They lived in beautiful surroundings, their harvests rarely failed and the hedgerows were full of berries which could be turned to good use. In 1843, Mr Hawker issued this notice to his people: ‘Brethren, God has been very merciful to us this year. He has filled our garners with increase and satisfied our poor with bread. Let us offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving among such as keep Holy Day. Let us gather together in the chancel of our church on the first Sunday of next month…and call to mind these words.’

So, in this remote village, the first Christian Harvest Festival was established and its influence was extended far beyond the River Tamar. To this, forty years later, yet another popular service emerged from the Diocese of Truro – that of the Nine Lessons and Carols introduced by Bishop Benson. Thus this diocese, so remote in the nineteenth century, has contributed much to modern Church life.

These two popular services were inspired by somewhat eccentric personalities, for both Parson Hawker and the Benson family were known for their eccentricities. Perhaps in the contemporary Church, we should take more account of those who think independently, or who are considered untrendy or unfashionable or, even, ‘traditionalist’, for their ideas can sometimes prove to be as influential and effective in the life of the Church as those of the more acceptable views of the majority. ND

The Bishop of Beverley at St Cyprian’s, Nottingham

The Bishop of Richborough visits the Our Lady of Grace at St Mary the Elms, Ipswich