The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker was an eccentric English clergyman remembered for writing the patriotic Cornish song Trelawny, originating the tradition of the Harvest Festival – and dressing as a mermaid.
Hawker was born in Plymouth in 1803 the eldest of nine children. When he was ten years old, his father took holy orders and left Plymouth leaving his son in the care of his grandparents.
He was a bright boy and was reading and writing poetry from a young age, but the family could not afford to support when it came to studying at university. Instead, he married a woman more than twice his age and it was she who financed his degree at Oxford.
Hawker was ordained in 1831 and became curate at Bude in Cornwall where he answered his other calling – to be a mermaid. He fashioned a wig out of seaweed and wrapped an oilskin round his legs then rowed out to rock where he sat and began to sing. This ‘performance’ went on each evening for several months until a local farmer threatened to pepper him with shot if he didn’t stop his warbling. Hawker replaced his mermaid lament a rousing rendition of God Save the King and then returned to shore.
Hawker kept a menagerie of animals including ten cats who often made up much of his congregation. Although an animal lover, he publicly excommunicated one of the cats having found catching a mouse on the Sabbath.
His other pets included a ‘highly intelligent’ pig called Gyp and a stag called Robin which Hawker insisted was tame even though it was in the habit of attacking visitors to the vicarage and pinning them to the ground.
Odd though he was, Hawker was a compassionate man. Many ships were lost on the treacherous Cornish coast and the bodies of drowned sailors were either buried on the beach where they were washed or returned to the sea. Hawker arranged to give them a proper burial in the Morwenna churchyard.
Hawker became increasingly addicted to opium and he built himself a hut overlooking the beech out of driftwood where he would spend his days writing poetry. One of his poems told the story of an imprisoned bishop titled ‘The Song of the Western Man’, now more widely known as ‘Trelawny’, the unofficial Cornish anthem.
He died in 1875 and his funeral was noteworthy because the mourners all wore purple in honour of Hawker’s sense of style. And Hawker’s Hut can still be seen today as the smallest property in the National Trust.