Robert Stephen Hawker

William Maskell (1814-1890)

WILLIAM MASKELL. From a portrait by Richmond, in the possession of Mr. Alfred Maskell.
(Life & Letters, p. 594)

*  *  *  *  *

In The Life & Letters of R. S. Hawker, William Maskell is described as ‘an intimate friend’ of Hawker, and a person whose name ‘will appear often in these pages’. Mr. Maskell, writes Byles, ‘is perhaps best remembered by the collection of ancient liturgies in the British Museum that bears his name. His ‘Monumenta Ritualia Ecclesiae Anglicanae’ was published in 1846. He was examining chaplain to Bishop Phillpotts, and in that capacity examined the famous Mr Gorham. In 1850 he joined the Church of Rome. In 1856 he bought and rebuilt the Castle at Bude, where he continued to reside, becoming a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant for Cornwall. He died at Penzance in 1890, aged 76.’ (Footnote to Preface, p. x)

Although a description of his writings makes dry reading today, it’s easy to see their appeal to the scholarly side of Hawker’s nature. At first glance it’s not apparent what else the two men might have had in common, but a search of the web reveals Maskell as a complex and interesting character.

Details of his early life are elusive; according to the Dictionary of National Biography he was born circa 1814 and was the only son of a solicitor in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. He attended University College, Oxford, took Holy Orders, and ‘was instituted to the rectory of Corscombe, Dorset, and devoted himself to learned researches into the history of Anglican ritual and cognate matters’.

In 1847 he moved to St Mary Church, Torquay, where he acted as domestic chaplain to the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, and was involved in the Gorham Controversy. In his mid-thirties he resigned his living and was received into the church of Rome. He retired to Bude to live the life of a country gentleman and antiquary, making his home in the Castle and taking an interest in the life of the village. The DNB’s description of him as ‘A man of considerable literary and conversational powers’ suggests that Hawker would have found him a very congenial neighbour.

A letter from Hawker to another friend, J. G. Godwin, dated 4 October 1871, offers an unexpectedly light-hearted insight into the web of relationships which supported him in his isolated parish:

To-day another start. I was sitting in the smoking room with Inge the Kilkhampton Curate when a dark man in a wide-rimmed hat came down the path, rung and sent in his card ‘The Bishop of London.’ So I was fairly caught. Four or Five daughters came with him. He apologized for not having paid his respects to me before, &c &c. They stayed two hours saw the Church and went away apparently pleased. I had had two invitations to meet him at Dinner . . . and refused them both.

Byles writes: ‘The visitor was Bishop Jackson, who had succeeded Tait when the latter was translated to Canterbury. The Vicar and the Bishop were evidently not in sympathy on matters theological.’ Hawker’s subsequent account of how he described the interview to Maskell provides a clear indication of the ease between them:

I have written Maskell and told him of the visit I received from the successor of Bonner. I said ‘He has arranged every preliminary for your Stake and Chain. The event is to come off in the middle of the Castle Green at Bude [i.e., in front of Mr. Maskell’s house]. You are to be brought out clad in a loose Gown with all your Works fastened fiendishly around your Waist. A. is to preach, which is very bitter. I asked the Bishop for your ashes; but he refused, saying “With Martyrs of that kind there is no sediment whatever.” ‘ (Life & Letters, p. 593-4)

Maskell was a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club and his domestic arrangements at Bude Castle were far from austere. They included a private chapel and a collection of rare and beautiful items now in the British Museum.  The exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’ (2011) included a number of objects acquired from Maskell during his lifetime and if, as seems likely, he showed his finds to Hawker then the latter must have derived great enjoyment from viewing such outstanding examples of ecclesiastical history.

William Maskell married twice and had a son, Stuart Eaton Maskell, by his first wife. At some time during his friendship with Hawker he moved from Bude to Penzance but the two continued to correspond. Maskell was one of Hawker’s many defenders after the publication in 1876 of Sabine Baring-Gould’s controversial and inaccurate biography, and in his review for the Athenaeum he criticised Baring-Gould for his ‘reckless repetition of silly gossip’. His description of the revised version and its minimal improvements as ‘a disgrace to English biographical literature’ deserves to be better remembered.


In The Life and Letters, C. E. Byles makes use of a number of quotes from William Maskell in order to illustrate aspects of Hawker’s life and character. A selection is included below.

” Mr Hawker was an admirable correspondent : his letters were full of curious illustrations of the subject he was writing about, often filled with anecdote and graphic in description. Nor was there any want of satire about most people whom he had lately seen or come in contact with. To publish his correspondence after he became Vicar of Morwenstow, could it be collected from the different quarters where possibly portions still exist, would, even at the present time, set the whole neighbourhood in a blaze. Many and many a Scandal supposed to have perished long ago by being buried is there (shall we say?) embalmed. Few, again, to whom he was accustomed to write, can have forgotten the warm tone of his thick, yellow-tinted paper, and the thin red lines (all prepared for his own use), and the bold, firm hand-writing, and his peculiar seals the one, the mystic fish; the other, the pentacle of Solomon.”


Referring to Sabine Baring-Gould’s account of Hawker’s first marriage he wrote, “The whole story is a myth, and it is wonderful that Mr. Gould should have idly allowed himself to repeat such a fiction. The run, hatless, for a couple of miles has no foundation beyond the invention of Mr. Gould’s informant. Neither was Miss I’Ans ‘his godmother,’ nor had she ‘taught him his letters.’ The two had never seen each other until Robert Hawker was at least eight years old,” and after that, for years, he had been often thrown into her society, and grown up in habits of frequent intimacy and with increasing feeling of regard. The marriage was nothing but the common story of a young man marrying a woman considerably older than himself; and Charlotte I’Ans, at forty, was a person of considerable attractions, well educated, fond of literature, a good companion, and in every respect a lady. She was suited to be the wife of such a man; and they lived together for nearly forty years in harmony and affection. Mrs. Hawker had always the truest regard for, and admiration of, her husband; and, on his part, he never seemed to tire of paying her every attention and kindness in his power.”


And finally a fitting and generous tribute to his old friend, “One assertion, at least, may be made. None among the many who knew him, especially those of his own parish, will ever think of Robert Hawker without remembering his genial manner and kindliness of heart; his unwearied hospitality; his hatred of the misuse of power; his readiness at any cost to resist oppression, not of himself only but of others; and, above all, his love and tenderness for the poor. Qualities such as these may well serve to cover, if they could be named, a multitude of sins.”


– Click here to read the full text of Williams Maskell’s 1863 booklet Bude Haven : a pen-and-ink sketch with portraits of the principal inhabitants (PDF)


– British Museum: images and descriptions of 172 items originally purchased from William Maskell

Dictionary of National Biography: entry for William Maskell, 1893 (PDF)

Text © Angela Williams, 2012