Robert Stephen Hawker

Henry Sewell Stokes

Henry Sewell Stokes (1808-1895). From a painting by Edward A. Fellowes Prynne, 1891.

The following biography is from West Country Poets: Their Lives and Their Works. Being an account of about four hundred verse writers of Devon and Cornwall, with poems and extracts. Edited by W. H. Kearley Wright. London: Elliot Stock, 1896.

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The subject of the present notice (the late Henry Sewell Stokes), formerly of Truro, and late of Bodmin, who for twenty-five years was Clerk of the Peace for Cornwall, and afterwards clerk of the Cornwall County Council, was born at Gibraltar, June 16, 1808, where his father practised as proctor and notary. That gentleman was a native of Dartmouth, and educated at the Grammar School there, when the father of the late John Russell, of Tor Down, was its headmaster. Mr. H. S. Stokes at the age of seven was brought to England, and placed at St. Saviour’s Grammar School, Southwark, and subsequently at the school of Dr. Giles at Chatham, where he had for a school-fellow the late Charles Dickens. In 1823 he returned to Gibraltar, and studied English and Foreign mercantile law for three years, and the French, Spanish and Italian languages and literature. He then came to Tavistock, and served his articles with the late Mr. C. V. Bridgman, solicitor; and in 1834 he settled in practice at Truro, of which town he became Mayor in 1856, and was subsequently Town Clerk (1859) till his appointment as Clerk of the Peace for the county in 1865, which he held until his death.

In 1836 he produced the first edition of ‘The Vale of Lanherne,’ which his wife (a daughter of the Rev. W. Evans, of Parkwood, Tavistock) adorned with a sketch of Lanherne Nunnery and the Church of Saint Mawgan. The former compositions of Mr. Stokes had procured him the privilege of acquaintance with the poet Campbell, with Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Bowring, and Mr. John Herman Merivale, one of the translators of the Greek Anthology, and he received from his faithful friend and patron, the late Mr. Humphrey Willyams, of Carnanton, valuable suggestions in his poetic descriptions. This work was noticed with much commendation in some of the principal periodicals of the time, and brought to the author at his residence in Truro a most unexpected visitor in the person of Alfred Tennyson, from Mr. Hawker’s rectory at Morwenstow.

In 1853 Mr. Stokes published an enlarged and illustrated edition of ‘The Vale of Lanherne,’ which met with much appreciation by the public press in the West of England, and was cordially noticed in various periodicals, notably in the Quarterly Review, in an article on Cornwall by the late Herman Merivale. He also received gratifying letters from several eminent writers and critics, including Mr. W. S. Landor, Mr. Matthew Arnold, and Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer (afterwards Lord Lytton).

In 1855 Mr. Stokes produced a booklet of verses, entitled ‘Echoes of the War,’ containing a ‘Lament for Eliot,’ being an elegy on the death of the Hon. G. C. C. Eliot, who fell at Inkerman. These ‘Echoes’ have long been out of print, but the ‘Lament’ has been since reprinted by Mr. Stokes among his ‘Rhymes from Cornwall.’ A critic in the Westminster Review, in July, 1855, described the ‘Echoes’ ‘as the sincere response of a warm British heart to the tales of noble deeds, and nobly endured suffering, which have come to us from the Crimea,’ and said the poem on Inkerman was ‘an easy, spirited ballad of the kind we wish our war-poets had hit on more frequently, instead of the high-flown metaphysical strain.’ Of the ‘Chantry Owl, and other Verses’ (1881) two editions have appeared, which were received favourably by the press; and his later volume of ‘Restormel’ (1875) was also noticed with special favour. Of his longer poem, ‘Memories, a Life’s Epilogue,’ an edition was published in 1872, and a revised edition in 1879. It was favourably noticed in nearly all the principal journals, and reviewed at some length by Mr. Gosse in the Academy, who said that ‘since the death of Hawker, in 1875, the mantle of Cornubian song had fallen on the shoulders of his old friend and fellow-singer, Mr. Stokes.’

Besides these publications, Mr. Stokes has produced a small book of verse called ‘The Gate of Heaven, etc’ (1876), an ode on the Queen’s Jubilee, and various elegies. In 1884 a new edition of his ‘Poems of Later Years’ was published under the title of ‘The Voyage of Arundel, etc.,’ with additions, including the ‘Lament for Eliot’ and other poems. This recent volume contains a lithograph of the fine rock called the Armed Knight, from a sketch by Mr. R. H. Carter, of Falmouth.

Besides these poetical works, Mr. Stokes has written and published various papers relating to Cornwall, and particularly one giving an account of books and MSS. relating to Cornwall, read before the British Archaeological Association at Bodmin in 1876. Mr. Stokes also published the Cornish Guardian and Western Chronicle, 1833-1837, and he was for some years the writer of the leaders in the Devonport Independent, when that paper was published by W. Byers, and had a large circulation in Devon and Cornwall. He has also been an occasional contributor to the West Briton.

In November, 1891, Mr. Stokes was the recipient of a portrait of himself, now placed in the Council Hall, Truro, and on the same occasion a cheque for £500 was presented to him by the Lord-Lieutenant of the County, the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, as a token of the high esteem in which he was held by all classes throughout Cornwall.

In 1894 the freedom of the city of Truro was presented to Mr. Stokes, the incident being made the occasion of a popular demonstration in his honour. He did not long survive this last proof of his popularity, for he passed away in April, 1895, at the ripe age of eighty-seven. He was well styled the ‘Grand Old Man of Cornwall,’ and he undoubtedly merits the appellation bestowed upon him by the Western press of the Cornish poet.

We append one of Mr. Stokes’s spirited poems, not by any means his best, but one peculiarly Cornish :



Gallants of Fowey ! gallants of Fowey !
Good hands to get freights or take prizes — Ahoy !
Though I hang for it shortly, I’ll hazard the trip,
And be one of the crew of that sea-going ship.


The anchor is up, and the harbour-chain down,
And the bells they ring merrily out from the town ;
We shall soon find a Spaniard or Frenchman, they say,
And bring something back to this snug little bay.


To take from such prowlers it can be no crime.
We’ve no letters of marque, but can get them next time ;
So away ! and at last we are out on the sea,
And the cliffs of old Cornwall fade fast on the lee.


And bold is our captain as ever set sail,
As brave in a fight as he is in a gale ;
He sunk a big galiot when last he went out,
And the cheeses and Dutchmen went bobbing about.


A sail, boys, to windward ! which soon we’ll o’erhaul,
Set royals and spanker, and studding-sails all ;
She sees us, and seems in no haste to escape,
A fine Spanish galleon in rig and in shape.


But our captain looks ugly the nearer we come.
He whistles and swears — then looks awfully glum ;
We are caught ! ’tis a frigate ! her colours display’d
Shows she comes from the land where those cheeses were made.


A shot from her stern-post comes bowling along —
She’ll take us and keep us, I’ll bet you a song ;
Our skipper at once sends his flag to the peak,
But all of a sudden grows civil and meek.


Their boats have now reached us, the pick of the crew,
All armed to the teeth, with lieutenants no few ;
‘What’s your name ?’ quoth Mynheer as he muster’d his men ;
‘Honour’d sir,’ said our skipper, ‘ I’m Captain Polpen.’


‘And where do you hail from, and where are you bound ?’
‘From Fowey, sir, I come, and must make Plymouth Sound,
And thence to the Scheldt for a cargo of cheese ;
And here are my papers, to see, if you please.’


‘I see,’ said the Hollander, with a queer smile,
‘But I think you’ll be safer with us for awhile ;
Your pikes, guns, and swivels, and shot so well ranged,
No doubt were to be for Dutch cheeses exchanged.’


And then to the Scheldt without stopping we went,
But not with our will, and to prison were sent :
‘Twill be many a month ere I shout ‘Ship ahoy !’
A long, long good-bye to the sweethearts of Fowey !

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– Portrait of Henry Sewell Stokes at the BBC – Your Paintings website