Cornish Mermaid – Half Priest, Half Fish August 27, 2011Posted by Beachcombing in : Modern , trackback
First the good news. Robert Stephen Hawker (obit 1875) was the eccentric’s eccentric: a vicar who lived most of his life in the wild Cornish parish of Morwenstow. This was a man who hung a mouse for breaking the sabbath, believed that birds were ‘the thoughts of God’ (Beachcombing adores the sentiment) and, yes, played the part of a mermaid.
One absurd hoax that he played on the superstitious people of Bude [where he grew up - pictured] must not be omitted. At full moon in the July of 1825 or 1826 [aged 22 or 23], 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 halfway 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 awe-struck 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 re-appeared, 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’. (26-27)
This is marvelous stuff but with good there is also bad news. The passage quoted here is culled directly from Sabine Baring-Gould’s biography that while not a tissue of lies has a fairly big handkerchief of mendacity wrapped around it. The story of RSH hanging a mouse, for example, comes from Sabine Baring-Gould and perhaps fortunately for the mouse is not true. Is the mermaid story also a fiction? Piers Brendon in his brilliant biography of RSH gives his own version of the story: ‘Hawker’s most celebrated was the best-humoured and the least harmful. This was his impersonation of a mermaid. For several moonlit nights, he sat at the end of the long Bude breakwater draped in seaweed, combing his locks and singing mournful dirges, to the consternation of the local inhabitants. Finally a farmer loudly announced his intention of peppering the apparition with buckshot, whereupon it dived into the ocean and was never seen again.’ (42)
Beach would be a lot happier if something had appeared in the south-western press as nineteenth-century mermaid stories sometimes did. But no luck to date. Any proof for RSH and his mermaid impersonation? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
28 Aug 2011: Angela Williams writes in from the R.S.Hawker website that is well worth a gander: ‘I can’t offer any definite proof for the mermaid story, but it was certainly included in ‘The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker’, edited by Hawker’s fairly strait-laced son-in-law, C. E. Byles, who claims to have had it confirmed by ‘one of the elders of the parish’. The Open Library have a good selection of works by/about Hawker and the information can be found on pages 6 -7 of ‘Life and Letters’. There are a couple of other references in the same biography which suggest that Hawker had a thing for mermaids, though it’s always hard to tell when he was serious as opposed to just having fun winding up his visitors. If you haven’t come across these already they can be found on pages 69 and 167.’ Thanks for this Angela!