Thomas Rawnsley, Hardwicke's great-grandfather, established the Rawnsley Family in Lincolnshire when he moved to Bourne in the late eighteenth century. Although both his father and grandfather were born in the county Hardwicke himself was born in Oxfordshire. ‘On the 28th inst., at Shiplake Vicarage, the wife of the Rev. Drummond Rawnsley, of a son and daughter’ was the statement which announced the arrival, in September 1851, of Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, along with that of his twin sister Frances Anne. Hardwicke and his sister brought the number of Rawnsley children to five.
Approximately three miles from Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, Shiplake was a small quiet village with a church that had stood on the same site for over 800 years. Hardwicke’s father, Robert Drummond, had been vicar of the church, St. Peter and St. Paul, since 2 January 1849 and had lived, with his wife and three children, at the vicarage since 10 February of the same year. The village was to become much better known after the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, was married to Emily Sellwood in the church on 13 June 1850.
The Rawnsley and Tennyson families had been friends for many years and Alfred visited Shiplake soon after the Rawnsley family had moved in. It was in the vicarage that Tennyson spent his last night as a bachelor. The marriage service was conducted by Hardwicke’s father, whose wife Catherine was a first cousin of Emily Sellwood.
Details of Hardwicke’s early life at Shiplake are scarce. In her diary his mother notes that he is ‘a most delicate child as he has been all his life’. Delicate he may have been, but this did not prevent him participating fully in the life of a village which made a big impression on him. In his earliest surviving poem, ‘Ode to Shiplake’, written when he was not yet 11 years old, he recalls many activities of a happy childhood that included climbing the church tower at Christmas to get ivy, hay-making, fishing in the nearby River Thames, and skating on the river when it was frozen in winter.
In a later publication, Hardwicke speaks fondly of his childhood memories of summer holidays in Lincolnshire visiting his grandparents:
Born at the “Vicarage by the quarry,” from whence the late Poet Laureate had led his bride; and going each year of one’s life, away from the cedared lawn and the terraced garden, the flowery meadows, and the silver Thames below the chalk cliff, to the sand hills of the Lincoln coast, the levels of the Lincoln marsh, the windmills of the Lincoln wold, and the cornfields in the shining fen, which Tennyson, in his boyhood, had known.
By the time Hardwicke was eight years old the family had been enlarged by the arrival of three more brothers and one sister, making nine children in total. The idyllic life at Shiplake was to come to end with the death of Thomas Hardwicke, Robert’s father, on 2 July 1861. Thomas had been Vicar of Halton Holgate, Lincolnshire, since 1825 and Robert was offered the position. He accepted and was instituted by the Bishop of Lincoln in November. The family left Shiplake on 19 March 1862. Catherine was heavily pregnant with her tenth child, John Franklin, who was born at Halton Holgate on 22 May, the last of Hardwicke’s siblings.
On leaving Shiplake in 1862, when he was ten, Hardwicke wrote ‘Ode to Shiplake’. Although it is clearly an imitation of Thomas Hood’s, ‘I Remember, I Remember’, the poem is quite an achievement for a boy of his age. In the poem Hardwicke does not bemoan the fact that he is leaving; he is more responsive to the joyful memories that Shiplake has given him and which will never be forgotten:
But I never shall hear them again
I have left all those behind,
But they never will be blotted
From my memory, or my mind.
The Rawnsley family had very strong connections with Lincolnshire and the community around Halton Holgate. Thomas Hardwicke, Robert’s father, had been appointed to a perpetual curacy of Spilsby in 1813, a small town about one mile from the Rectory that Robert was now going to occupy. Thomas Hardwicke was married at Spilsby in 1815 and his three children, including Robert, were all born there. In 1825, Thomas Hardwicke took up the living of St. Andrew in Halton Holgate. The church has a large well-proportioned tower. The interior is spacious with lofty pillars. Robert spent much of his childhood in the village where the Rectory, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, was his home. The name of the village is, in part, derived from a deep hollow in the road that passes through Halton Holgate dividing the church and the rectory. During Hardwicke's childhood a wooden bridge was built over the hollow to connect the rectory and the church.
There was also another strong family connection with this area of Lincolnshire. Catherine, Hardwicke’s mother, was born Catherine Franklin, and the Franklin family were based in and around Spilsby.
When Robert and his family, including Rebecca Self, who had been Hardwicke's nurse in Shiplake, moved to Halton Holgate in 1861, the population of the village was approximately 600. Hardwicke recalls how he used to love to go fishing in the nearby dreary river, a river rightly called by the locals “Halton Dreän”, so turgid and brown was it, especially after rain. He talks of the richness of the wildlife – kingfishers, sand-martins, herons and water-voles – and the abundance of flowers.
But the river and all the surrounding Lincolnshire countryside were also imbued with the sights and sounds of Tennyson. Wherever he went as a child, whether walking, playing or riding his pony, whether inland to places such as Somersby and Bag-Enderby, or to the coast in and around Skegness, it was the poetry of Tennyson that stimulated his imagination. Even when talking to the many labourers and farmers that he met while roaming the county it was Tennyson who often came into his mind. The sights of Lincolnshire remained with him throughout his life.
Like many other villages across England, Halton Holgate celebrated the annual Harvest Thanksgiving. There are numerous references to it in Catherine’s diary and there is no doubt that Hardwicke would have enjoyed himself immensely as a child in these village activities. The celebration of the Harvest was a tradition that he kept throughout his life.
Hardwicke’s childhood at Halton Holgate was undoubtedly a happy and formative time. His love of history and tradition, the countryside and local ways of life, the sheer joy of being able to roam about freely, all left deep impressions. But whilst he may not have been mature enough at this time in his development to understand their significance, he was witness to changes that would have both positive and negative impacts on the way of life of both his and future generations. The coming of the railways and the drive to standardise the spoken language used by the young were but two examples. These impacts would seep into Hardwicke’s mind and help to form the man that he became. And little did he realise that he would follow in the footsteps of a thirteenth-century local man, John de Halton, and be elected as a Canon of Carlisle Cathedral.
Perhaps the most significant change in Hardwicke’s early years began in October 1862 when, after his first few months of living in Halton Holgate, he was sent as a boarder to Uppingham School about seventy miles from home. This was his first separation from his family and, from now on, he would only live at home for short intervals of time.
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