WELCOME TO THE ONLINE SPACE FOR MORWENSTOW CHURCH
The purpose of the website is to let you know about Morwenstow Church, its people and its activities. On these pages you will find:
- General information on our Church and our local community
- a schedule of Services & Events
- contact information for the Curate-in-Charge and other members of his team with specific responsibilities
- … and various articles, photographs and other illustrations which will be added in due course.
AN INTRODUCTION TO MORWENSTOW CHURCH
The Parish Church of St Morwenna and St John the Baptist, Morwenstow, is dedicated to Morwenna (a local saint) and St.John the Baptist, and is part of the United Benefice of Kilkhampton with Morwenstow, within the Diocese of Truro.
A non-stipendiary Curate-in-Charge (known locally as ‘the Vicar’) lives in Kilkhampton and is responsible for both churches, each of which has its own Parochial Church Council (PCC).
Morwenstow Church is probably best-known for its links with the 19th century cleric, poet and eccentric, the Rev. R. S. Hawker, Vicar from 1834 to 1875. His vicarage (now a private house) stands nearby. The Church has close and very active links with St. Mark’s Church of England Primary School, located at the nearby hamlet of Shop.
The Church is approached through a lych gate with a slate stile alongside. An adjacent stone and slate building was formerly used as a temporary mortuary, and is still known locally as the ‘Dead House’.
The interior walls of the Church are plaster-covered; the north wall of the chancel carrying a fragment of a 15th or 16th century wall painting believed to represent St. Morwenna. Opposite is a piscina, once used for washing Holy Communion vessels. This was uncovered by Hawker in 1855, having been hidden beneath the plaster for some 300 years.
The reredos above the altar features a triptych of engravings of the Crucifixion by the artist John Baptist Jackson (1701-1780), as well as a remarkable red chalk drawing of St John the Baptist by the Venetian artist, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1683-1754).
Fine carvings abound, including pew ends dating as far back as 1539, and there are many historic tombs beneath the floor of the Church as well as in the churchyard. Between the pulpit and the lectern is the tomb of Hawker’s first wife, Charlotte. Hawker married again and was buried with his second wife, Pauline Anne, in Plymouth.
The Church has many memorials and some impressive stained glass windows. Particularly noteworthy are the Waddon Martyn windows (commemorating a prominent local family) and the Hawker Memorial window.
The restored original figurehead of the brig.‘Caledonia of Arbroath’ is mounted inside the Church high on the north wall opposite the entrance. For generations it served as the grave-marker for the crew of this ill-fated vessel, wrecked nearby in 1842. They, along with some 40 other shipwreck victims, were given a Christian burial by the Rev. Hawker. A weather-resistant replica of the figurehead now serves as the grave marker.
The Church has eight bells and an enthusiastic band of bell ringers. Four of the bells (including a tenor weighing 8 hundredweight) were cast in 1753 and the remaining pair in 1902.
For worshippers and other visitors there is a free car park near the lych gate, with a small car park for disabled visitors accessed from the driveway leading down to the Old Vicarage.
A short stroll out to the cliffs and then south along the Coast Path takes one to ‘Hawker’s Hut’ – the driftwood hut where the Rev.Hawker wrote sermons and poetry and contemplated the sea.
The Parish Church of St Morwenna and St John the Baptist, Morwenstow, Cornwall EX23 9SR, England
THE WRECK OF THE BRIG. “CALEDONIA” OF ARBROATH – AND THE RESTORATION OF HER FIGUREHEAD
On Sunday 7th September 2008, local people in North Cornwall were joined by visitors from throughout the UK and overseas at a special service in Morwenstow Church commemorating a tragic shipwreck that occurred nearby 166 years ago to the day. They also came together to celebrate the fact that the vessel’s world-famous figurehead has been restored and returned to the Church for the enjoyment and inspiration of future generations.
The wreck was that of the brig. Caledonia of Arbroath, which was lost with all hands – apart from one crew member – in 1842. The celebration marked the 166th anniversary of the disaster, as well as the completion of a four-year restoration of her historic figurehead, a famous relic of the days of sail. After spending more than a century and a half in the churchyard as the grave marker for the crew who are buried there, it had deteriorated badly and was almost lost to the ravages of time and the harsh Atlantic weather until a conservation programme was undertaken.
Disaster struck when the 200-ton Caledonia was en route from Odessa in the Black Sea via Falmouth to Gloucester with a cargo of wheat. She was driven onto rocks beneath Morwenstow’s towering cliffs in a fierce nor’westerly gale. Her Captain, Stevenson Peter, and seven (or possibly eight) crew members lost their lives, but a young Jerseyman called Edward Le Dain survived, clambered up the cliff and was nursed back to health in the village. There are also reports that a local lad found a live tortoise washed up on the beach near the wreck.
The victims lie in the churchyard with the bodies of up to 40 other shipwrecked sailors, many of whom were given a Christian burial over a period of several years by the then Vicar, the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker. Parson Hawker – a renowned cleric, poet and eccentric – was Vicar of Morwenstow from 1834 to 1875.
For generations the distinctive white figurehead – a carved wooden figure of a Scottish female clad in kilt, sporran and tam o’shanter, and brandishing a shield and claymore sword – was
maintained and occasionally repaired by parishioners. However, a detailed inspection in the autumn of 2004 revealed near-irreparable internal damage caused by rot and decay (a fate that had befallen most other externally-displayed historic figureheads around the UK in recent years).
The appeal, the restoration and the replica
A fund-raising appeal called The Caledonia Conservation Fund was launched by the then Vicar, the Rev. Peter Abell. The figurehead was removed, carefully dismantled and subjected to a slow drying out process. Following scientific analysis of the paintwork, a small team led by one of the UK’s leading conservers of carved wooden artifacts, Hugh Harrison, from Exmoor, undertook the restoration. It took more than two years to complete.
Internal and structural damage proved to be even worse than had been apparent originally, but by the integration of some new timber and modern synthetic materials, the figurehead was saved. Most of the external surface is original, including various intricately-carved features uncovered and then stabilised after many layers of paint had been removed.
Although Morwenstow Church Parochial Church Council had at first hoped to return the restored figurehead to the churchyard, expert advisers were adamant that because of its fragility, further prolonged exposure to the weather would have led to further deterioration – and eventually total loss – within a very short timescale. In addition, one of the major sponsors of the project, The Pilgrim Trust, made its support conditional upon the figurehead being protected from the weather.
With the approval of the Diocese of Truro, it was finally agreed that the restored figurehead would be mounted inside the Church and that a weather-resistant replica, indistinguishable from the original, would be created and installed in the churchyard as the sailors’ grave marker. Not only was it thought to be important that the image of Caledonia should continue to stand watch over the graves, but many people felt that the churchyard looked ‘incomplete’ without the presence of the distinctive white figure which had been a prominent feature for so long.
Rod Hare, a specialist craftsman whose workshop is at Bickleigh, near Tiverton, created the replica.
Both versions of the figurehead were completed and ready for installation by the end of August 2008.
A day of celebration
On Sunday afternoon, 7th September 2008 the Church was packed with local people, visitors and dignitaries for the service of dedication and celebration to mark completion of the restoration programme and the figurehead’s return to Morwenstow. The Vicar was joined by the Ven. Clive Cohen, Archdeacon of Bodmin, who dedicated both figureheads and delivered the sermon. The church bells were rung and the service included rousing hymns and prayers appropriate to the occasion, as well as readings of the works of the Rev. R.S. Hawker and other poets.
Prior to the main service, a brief service of remembrance took place on the cliff-top near Hawker’s Hut, above the spot where the Caledonia foundered and where the lone survivor clambered to safety. Then, in honour of the Scottish sailors who lost their lives – as well as the survivor – a piper played a lament and accompanied the group as they walked back across the fields to the Church, pausing en route to bless the sailors’ graves and the new grave marker, and to inspect a commemorative brass plaque donated by a well-wisher.
Dr Angus MacDonald played the bagpipes and Malcolm Topham was organist at the church service.
The figurehead restoration project and service of dedication aroused wide interest; not only among parishioners, but among holidaymakers, historians and students of the life and works of the Rev. Hawker. As the day’s programme evolved so, too, was interest in the story of Caledonia and her figurehead re-kindled in Scotland.
In addition to Cornish community and diocesan dignitaries attending, Angus Council and the town of Arbroath were represented by the Depute Provost of Angus, Councillor Peter Murphy, accompanied by Council Officer Mr John Davie. Councillor Murphy read the following poem of thanks to the Rev. Hawker, written by an Arbroath Doctor, David Arrot, on behalf of his grieving community in October 1842, about a month after tragedy.
Lines to the Rev. R.S. Hawker
Vicar of Morwenstow
Who so benevolently superintended the interment of
The bodies of the crew of the brig. Caledonia
Of Arbroath, lost on the coast of Cornwall.
Deem it not rude – a stranger dares to send
These lines to thee, who are the stranger’s friend.
Feebly indeed, by words, can I impart
The humble tribute of a grateful heart;
A tribute due to him who strove to save
The sons of Scotland from the angry wave.
What though thine arm was impotent to wage
Th’unequal contest with the ocean’s rage?
If Heav’n decreed that death should be their doom,
Thy pious care provided them a tomb.
To thee the ruthless sea gave up her dead,
That thou might’s lay them in their lowly bed.
HAWKER! to thee a pitying heart is giv’n
Worthy indeed, a delegate of Heav’n.
No kindred came to pay the tribute due,
To the cold ashes of the shipwreck’d crew;
No mourning widow’s burning tears were shed
O’er him whom she deemed living – who was dead;
No mother gaz’d on him who was her joy;
But now, alas! Her dead – her sailor boy.
No – and no train of kindred mourners come
To bear their kinsman to their last sad home.
Twas thine to shed the sympathetic tear,
In pity bending o’er the strangers’ bier –
Thine to fulfil the self-imposed trust,
To lay their bones in consecrated dust.
Thou need’st no thanks from me, a grateful bard;
Thy virtuous action finds its own reward.
What though on earth thou ne’er shalt cease to share
The Mother’s, window’s, and the orphan’s prayer!
Such deeds as thine are register’d in Heav’n,
And there alone can due reward be giv’n.
A family reunion – and an amazing discovery
To this day descendants of the Rev. Hawker continue to take an interest in Morwenstow Church and the figurehead restoration project, as has Mr Nick Jouault, the great, great grandson of the wreck’s survivor, Edward Le Dain. Like his ancestor he is a Jerseyman and he came to Morwenstow to light a candle in memory of the Caledonia and her crew during the church service. As preparations for the service progressed, so other descendants of Edward Le Dain were found living in Cornwall. They, too, attended the service and shared in the lighting of the candle.
However, until just prior to the ‘big day’, it was not known if there were any surviving descendants of the Caledonia sailors who lost their lives. Amazingly, during the summer of 2008, a report of the figurehead’s restoration in a Scottish newspaper attracted the attention of Maureen Cant of Montreal, Canada. She brought a heart-warming new dimension to the whole story.
The great, great, great niece of a young seaman called Alexander Kent, she revealed that a family archive which she and her father, Joe, had assembled included an original, hand-written letter from their ancestor, posted to his parents just before he set sail on the Caledonia’s ill-fated voyage. So touched were they by the arrangements being made by the people of Morwenstow, that they flew to the UK to visit their ancestor’s grave and Maureen delivered the first public reading of the letter during the service.
The Project Team and The Caledonia Conservation Fund
The figurehead restoration project was co-ordinated by a working party consisting of three members of the Parochial Church Council: Bob Pirie, Arthur Bryant and Paul Hudson.
The PCC is indebted to the many people who supported the project most generously, including two charities: The Pilgrim Trust (the major sponsor) and the Barbara Whatmore Charitable Trust. However, its completion in time for the 166th anniversary was only been made possible through an interest-free loan of the funds still needed from a local benefactor (which has since been repaid).