A Visit to Robert Stephen Hawker

By Stephen Allen

In February 2008 the archivist at Pembroke College, Oxford kindly gave me access to various papers relating to RSH. Of immediate interest, I think, is the following amusing and telling account of a visit to RSH and his aging wife Charlotte by the Rev. John Mitchinson.

From an unpublished memoir by the Rev. John Mitchinson (Master of Pembroke College, Oxford 1899 to 1918)

We also visited Boscastle with its land locked little harbour, and Tintagel, where it is not easy to disentangle natural rock from Castle ruins. We had an introduction to the Rev. Stephen M. Hawker (sic), the eccentric old parson of Morwenstow, and thither one day we tramped one long summer afternoon and were most kindly received and regaled with tea by him and his wife, also his godmother,1 an even more eccentric old lady considerably older than himself, who amused us much by making bad shots, owing to her very defective sight, at the teapot with the kettle, and flooding the tray instead. She amused us too by her resolutely expressed determination never to enter a railway train and thus be indebted to a kettle for her locomotion. His parish church was small and old. The pulpit could only be entered sideways like a crab. I think he told me this was to symbolise the difficulty of entrance to the Kingdom of God. He was one of the pioneers of the daily Office and the open church, his sole congregation being his wife, who dropped in about mid service and one or more of his large cat family ,- I think there were seven ,- that strayed in and out at their sweet will.

It was a wild rock bound coast with frequent wrecks, and, I fear, some wrecking. And the old priest on such occasions gave sufficient personal help in saving life. The summit of the cliffs was covered with gorse clad pasturage. On one of our visits I was walking with the old man along the edge of the cliffs; it was getting latish in the summer, and the stunted furze bushes were thickly draped with cobwebs. I observed to him that evidently the spiders had been busy. He stopped short, faced me and said, ‘My young friend, all that gossamer is not the work of spiders. This is the substance called numein, of which the angels’ drapery is woven.’ I never knew whether it was jest, or poetry, or credulity that prompted these quaint utterances.

Published by the Hawker Society by kind permission of the Master, Fellows and Scholars of Pembroke College, Oxford

Hawker papers at Pembroke College (PDF)

  1. Following RSH’s death Sabine Baring-Gould published his biography, including the claim that Charlotte was his godmother. Various other inaccuracies were pointed out, as a result of which the first edition was withdrawn and a new revised edition published in the same year of 1876. The godmother claim, however, remained uncorrected despite public denials by several of RSH’s friends as reported by C E Byles in his ‘Life and Letters of RSH’ published in 1905. In his 1975 centenary biography Piers Brendon dismisses the claim. []