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Robert Stephen Hawker

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Robert Stephen Hawker 1864

Robert Stephen Hawker (1864)

Robert Stephen Hawker (3 December 1803 – 15 August 1875), often known as Stephen Hawker, was an Anglican clergyman, poet, antiquarian of Cornwall, and reputed eccentric. He is best known as the writer of The Song of the Western Men, that includes the chorus line, And shall Trelawny die? There's 20,000 Cornish men shall know the reason why, which he published anonymously in 1825. His name became known after Charles Dickens acknowledged his authorship of "The Song of the Western Men" in the serial magazine Household Words.


Hawker was born in the vicarage of Charles Church, Plymouth, on 3 December 1803, the eldest of ten children and the grandson of Robert Hawker, vicar of Charles Church: his father was Jacob Stephen Hawker but he was brought up by his grandfather.[1] By the age of ten he was already reading and writing poetry. He was educated at Liskeard Grammar School and Cheltenham Grammar School. As an undergraduate, aged 19, he was married to his godmother, Charlotte I'ans, aged 41. The couple spent their honeymoon at Tintagel in 1823, a place that kindled Hawker's life-long fascination with Arthurian legend and inspired him to write The Quest of the Sangraal. This marriage, along with a legacy, helped to finance his studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. He graduated in 1827 and won the 1827 Newdigate Prize for poetry.

He took Anglican orders in 1831, becoming curate at North Tamerton and then vicar of the church at Morwenstow, where he remained throughout his life. When Hawker arrived at Morwenstow there had not been a vicar in residence for over a century. 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."

His first wife, Charlotte, died in 1863 and the following year, aged 60, Hawker married Pauline Kuczynski, aged 20. The couple had three daughters. Hawker died in August 1875, having converted to the Roman Catholic Church on his deathbed. He was buried in Plymouth's Ford Park Cemetery. His funeral was noteworthy because the mourners wore purple instead of the traditional black.


Hawker was regarded as a deeply compassionate person giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish. Prior to this, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors were often either buried on the beach where they were found or left to the sea. At the entrance to Morwenstow churchyard stands the figurehead of the ship 'The Caledonia' which foundered in September 1842. The figurehead marks the grave of nine of the ten-man crew. Hawker described the wrecking in his book Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall. Nearby stands a granite cross marked "Unknown Yet Well Known", marking the mass grave of 30 or more seafarers, including the captain of the Alonzo, also wrecked in 1842.

The Harvest Festival that we know today was introduced in the small village of Morwenstow in 1843 by Hawker. He invited his parishioners to a Harvest service. He wanted to give thanks to God for providing such plenty in a more fitting way. This service took place on the 1st of October and bread made from the first cut of corn was taken at communion.

Hawker's Hut

Hawker's Hut

"Parson Hawker", as he was known to his parishioners, was something of an eccentric, both in his clothes and his habits. He loved bright colours and it seems the only black things he wore were his socks. He built a small hut (that became known as Hawker's Hut) from driftwood on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where he spent many hours writing his poems and smoking opium. This driftwood hut is now the smallest property in the National Trust portfolio. Other eccentricities included dressing up as a mermaid and excommunicating 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 Padarn. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a huge pig as a pet.

He built himself a remarkable vicarage, with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life: Tamerton, where he had been curate; Morwenstow and Wellcombe; plus that of Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker's mother's tomb.


  • Tendrils (1821),
  • Records of the Western Shore Oxford (1832)
  • Ecclesia: A Volume of Poems Oxford (1840)
  • Reeds Shaken with the Wind (1843)
  • Echoes from Old Cornwall (1846)
  • The Quest of the Sangraal: Chant the First Exeter (1864) from an unfinished Arthurian poem
  • Footprints of Former Men in Cornwall (1870 - collection of papers)
  • Cornish Ballads & Other Poems, Introduction by C.E. Byles (1908)
  • Selected Poems: Robert Stephen Hawker. Ed. Cecil Woolf (1975)

References and bibliography

  1. "Plymouth Encyclopaedia"
  • The Vicar of Morwenstow (1876) by Sabine Baring-Gould. London: Henry S. King
  • The Poetical Works of Robert Stephen Hawker (1879); now first collected and arranged by J. G. Godwin; [includes Notice, pp. vii-xviii]. London: C. Kegan Paul
  • The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker (sometime Vicar of Morwenstow) (1906) by C. E. Byles. London: Bodley Head
  • "Passon" Hawker of Morwenstow ([1959]); H. R. Smallcombe. Plymouth: [the author]
  • Seal, Jeremy (2003). The Wreck at Sharpnose Point. New York: Picador. ISBN 0330374656. 
  • Hawker of Morwenstow (2002) by Piers Brendon, Random House ISBN 0543960234
  • The Land Near the Dark Cornish Sea (2004) by A. Hale, Journal for the Academic Study of Magic, Issue 2, Pages 206-225

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