The Bude Mermaid

ROBERT STEPHEN HAWKER was born at Stoke Damerel on 3rd December, 1804,
and was baptised 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 to Altarnun, 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 speed 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 _grace_ is a bad rhyme for _peace_, and one
naturally wishes to put grease in its place. Your hymn may be good”—and,
as he went out of the door—“but 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 stayed there only 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 a yeoman 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, high-spirited 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, playing on his brother the trick Cleopatra had played on Anthony;
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 in aversion the good pious ladies, who swarmed round the
doctor. It was the time of sedan-chairs; and trains of old spinsters and
dowagers were wont to fill the street in their boxes between bearers, on
the occasion 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 each sedan 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 a certain leading physician 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, etc., till every medical man
in Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport had been to the house of the
spinsters. When these 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 remained with Mr. Jacobson a few months only.
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. The difficulty was got over in a manner somewhat novel.

There lived at Whitstone, near Holsworthy, four Miss I’ans, daughters of
Colonel I’ans. They had been left with an annuity of £200 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 Bude, an old manor 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 I’ans 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
Colonel I’ans, 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 parlour. 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 did believe in them when they
ran in a river of flame over your yellow nankeen waistcoat.”

The marriage with Charlotte I’ans took place on 6th November, 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. Jeune,
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, etc., 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 unsavoury 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 accidently turned up in an ancient
history of Cornwall. Therein I read, ‘that the silly 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 pig-sties 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-been, 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 endeavouring 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.

Hawker’s 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.

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 flavour, 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 recognised. Then it
was known to few except his wife and her sisters.

Of 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 half-way
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 awestruck 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 reappeared, 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 £300 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:[1] he took his
degree of B.A. in 1828, and then went 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 grey fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land.