The Cornish Origins of Harvest Festival
Robert Stephen Hawker, the eccentric Parson of Morwenstow in coastal North Cornwall, is credited with creating the Harvest Festival we celebrate today.
Two weeks prior to this first Harvest Festival service, a notice went up in the village which read:
"Let us gather together in the chancel of our church, and there receive, in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls."
On the 1st October 1843 “Parson Hawker” gathered his parishioners for the very first Harvest service thanking God for providing such plentiful food. The local corn bread was taken at communion during this service.
Although Christians had always given thanks for the Harvest, Parson Hawker turned it into the annual ritual it now has become. News of his Harvest service was spread by high church magazines and universally adopted.
Hawker was born in Plymouth, his father was a Cornish curate. As the family was poor, Hawker had to married a lady 20 years older, in order to have the necessary funds to attend Magdalene College in Oxford. Ordained in 1831, Hawker was totally elated to be offered Morwenstow, an unappealing parish that had not had a vicar in residence for over 100 years.
Hawker had a great fondness for the bleak Morwenstow church, which he had known all his life. The arches were Norman, the font was Saxon, and the waves crashing on the cliffs below could be heard throughout the church.
His personality has been described as: “irresistibly quixotic and mischievous, displaying the disconcerting mixture of shrewdness and naivety that is often the hallmark of a saint”.
Here are some excellent examples of his eccentricity:
- He dressed in multi-coloured clothes, including a pink fez and yellow horse blanket he said was the ancient habit of St Padarn. No one really knew if he was joking or not.
- He had a phase of only eating clotted cream
- He ex-communicated his cat for mousing on a Sunday
- He tried to rescue ship wrecked sailors
- He used to pretend to be a mermaid by dressing up complete with wig, swimming out to sea, sitting on a rock and singing
- He claimed he could talk with St. Morwenna, the fifth century princess who gave his church its name.
- He was a poet
- He smoked opium (after the above, this might not be too much of a surprise)
As the Harvest is celebrated again this year, don’t forget this unconventional old chap, Robert Stephen Hawker. The man who started this lovely tradition in Victorian times down on the wild North Cornish coast. It is surprising, perhaps, he is not better remembered.