‘The Poor Man and His Parish Church’

THE POOR MAN AND HIS PARISH CHURCH

A True Tale

THE poor have hands, and feet, and eyes,
Flesh, and a feeling mind :
They breathe the breath of mortal sighs,
They are of human kind.
They weep such tears as others shed,
And now and then they smile :–
For sweet to them is that poor bread,
They win with honest toil.

The poor men have their wedding-day :
And children climb their knee :
They have not many friends, for they
Are in such misery.
They sell their youth, their skill, their pains,
For hire in hill and glen :
The very blood within their veins,
It flows for other men.

They should have roofs to call their own,
When they grow old and bent :
Meek houses built of dark grey stone.
Worn labour’s monument.
There should they dwell, beneath the thatch,
With threshold calm and free :
No stranger’s hand should lift the latch,
To mark their poverty.

Fast by the church those walls should stand,
Her aisles in youth they trod :–
They have no home in all the land,
Like that old House of God.
There, there, the Sacrament was shed,
That gave them heavenly birth ;
And lifted up the poor man’s head
With princes of the earth.

There in the chancel’s voice of praise,
Their simple vows were poured ;
And angels looked with equal gaze
On Lazarus and his Lord.
There, too, at last, they calmly sleep,
Where hallow’d blossoms bloom ;
And eyes as fond and faithful weep
As o’er the rich man’s tomb.

They told me of an ancient home,
Beside a churchyard wall,
Where roses round the porch would roam,
And gentle jasmines fall :
There dwelt an old man, worn and blind,
Poor, and of lowliest birth ;
He seemed the last of all his kind–
He had no friend on earth.

Men saw him till his eyes grew dim,
At morn and evening tide
Pass, ‘mid the graves, with tottering limb,
To the grey chancel’s side ;
There knelt he down, and meekly prayed
The prayers his youth had known :
Words by the old Apostles made,
In tongues of ancient tone.

At matin-time, at evening hour,
He bent with reverent knee :
The dial carved upon the tower
Was not more true than he.
This lasted till the blindness fell
In shadows round his bed ;
And on those walls he loved so well,
He looked, and they were fled.

Then would he watch, and fondly turn,
If feet of men were there,
To tell them how his soul would yearn
For the old place of prayer ;
And some would lead him on to stand,
While fast their tears would fall,
Until he felt beneath his hand
The long-accustomed wall.

Then joy in those dim eyes would melt ;
Faith found the former tone ;
His heart within his bosom felt
The touch of every stone.
He died — he slept beneath the dew,
In his own grassy mound :
The corpse, within the coffin, knew
That calm, that holy ground.

I know not why — but when they tell
Of houses fair and wide,
Where troops of poor men go to dwell
In chambers side by side :–
I dream of that old cottage door,
With garlands overgrown,
And wish the children of the poor
Had flowers to call their own.

And when they vaunt, that in those walls
They have their worship-day,
Where the stern signal coldly calls
The prisoned poor to pray,–
I think upon that ancient home
Beside the churchyard wall,
Where roses round the porch would roam.
And gentle jasmines fall.

I see the old man of my lay,
His grey head bowed and bare ;
He kneels by one dear wall to pray,
The sunlight in his hair.
Well ! they may strive, as wise men will.
To work with wit and gold :
I think my own dear Cornwall still
Was happier of old.

O ! for the poor man’s church again.
With one roof over all ;
Where the true hearts of Cornish men
Might beat beside the wall :
The altars where, in holier days,
Our fathers were forgiven,
Who went, with meek and faithful ways,
Through the old aisles to heaven.

R. S. Hawker, 1840.

Printed privately in leaflet form in 1843, and published in Reeds
Shaken with the Wind. The Second Cluster. 1844. Reprinted in
Echoes from Old Cornwall, and in The Cornish Ballads.

*  *  *  *  *

Anglicans Online recently published an interesting short article about Hawker which has encouraged me to do some research on his well documented opposition to the workhouse system. Although I have mixed feelings about the above poem, which sounds sentimental and dated to modern ears, Hawker’s passion for social justice and basic human dignity shines through the rather plodding lines, and the fact that he chose to have it privately printed as a leaflet suggests that he considered it to be of value.

In 1840 Hawker was in his late thirties and had been vicar of Morwenstow for only a few years. He was one of the first Victorian parsons to introduce the practice of holding a weekly offertory at the end of services to collect alms for charitable purposes and by October 1844 a national debate on the subject was under way in the press. Hawker, who defended the principle of the collections in a letter to the English Churchman, was singled out by name for an attack in The Times, and responded with his customary vigour. He rebuked the owner, John Walter, for permitting himself to ‘invade the tranquillity’ of his parish, robustly defended his position, and concluded with the following splendid and topical advice:

‘You are, I am told, an elderly man, fast approaching the end of all things, and, ere many years have passed, about to stand a separated soul among the awful mysteries of the spiritual world. I counsel you to beware lest the remembrance of these attempts to diminish the pence of the poor, and to impede the charitable duties of the rich, should assuage your happiness in that abode where the strifes and triumphs of controversy are unknown, ‘Because thou hast done this thing, and because thou hadst no pity.’ And lastly, I advise you not again to assail our rural parishes with such publications, and to harass and unsettle the minds of our faithful people.’… (Life and Letters, p. 176)

Dr Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, later wrote to thank Hawker for the pleasure reading the letter had given him, adding ‘If [ John Walter ] has any sense of shame, he ought to feel deeply the exposure.’

The underlying impression of helplessness and frustration, and the inability of all concerned to agree on an effective method for supporting the less fortunate members of society, seem familiar today. Piers Brendon in his excellent biography, Hawker of Morwenstow, describes how Hawker vented his anger against a vicious landlord, telling him ‘that he had a God and that as he dealt with John Cann and his crippled boy so he would be requited’. Brendon’s comment that ‘In effect this was the language of impotence’, also suggests that little has changed between Hawker’s time and ours.

Hawker persisted valiantly in his support for his struggling parishioners, in the face of his own ill health and increasing family responsibilities. His correspondents included Louisa Twining, a member of the wealthy tea-importing family and one of the first women to become elected to a workhouse board of guardians, and he was quick to praise those landlords who discharged their obligations to their tenants in a spirit of generosity and compassion. Hawker’s letters on the subject contradict the impression of isolation and remoteness from worldly concerns that he often conveyed when describing his life to acquaintances, and they make invigorating reading. His first wife, Charlotte, appears to have fully supported his efforts, and since Hawker’s earnings were inadequate to cover his charitable outgoings it seems probable that part of her own inheritance went on providing food, fuel and clothing for the poorest inhabitants of the parish. During the period of Hawker’s second marriage his financial difficulties increased alarmingly and in a letter written to a friend only a few years before his death he describes himself as cut ‘to the very heart’ by his distress at being ‘so shorn of the power for charity’.

Throughout his forty years as vicar Hawker’s efforts eased the plight of many parishioners to whom even the smallest improvement in circumstances brought temporary relief. He set an example that often put his wealthier contemporaries to shame and his writings make a valuable contribution to the history of the labouring poor.

LINKS

- The Life and Letters of R. S Hawker, edited by C. E. Byles

- The Workhouse – the story of an institution 

FURTHER READING

Piers Brendon, Hawker of Morwenstow: Portrait of a Victorian Eccentric. Picador, 2002.

Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd. (1874) Oxford University Press, 2008

Henry Mayhew, London Labour & The London Poor. (1851) Wordsworth Editions, 2008.

 

Text and photo © Angela Williams 2010, 2011