Walker, Robert (1709-1802) (DNB00)

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WALKER, ROBERT (1709–1802), ‘Wonderful Walker,’ was born at Undercrag in Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Cumberland, in 1709, being the youngest of twelve children; his eldest brother was born about 1684, and was ninety-four when he died in 1778. Robert was taught the rudiments in the little chapel of his native Seathwaite, and afterwards apparently by Henry Forest (1683–1741), the curate of Loweswater, at which place in course of time Walker acted as schoolmaster down to 1735, when he became curate of Seathwaite with a stipend of 5l. a year and a cottage. In 1755 he computed his official income thus: 5l. from the patron, 5l. from the bounty of Queen Anne, 3l. rent-charge upon some tenements at Loweswater, 4l. yearly value of house and garden, and 3l. from fees—in all 20l. per annum. Nevertheless, by dressing and faring as a peasant, with strict frugality and with the aid of spinning, ‘at which trade he was a great proficient,’ he managed not only to support a family of eight, but even to save money, and when, in 1755–6, it was proposed by the bishop of Chester to join the curacy of Ulpha to that of Seathwaite, Walker refused the offer lest he should be suspected of cupidity. A few years later the curacy was slightly augmented; and as his children grew up and were apprenticed his circumstances became easy. He was enabled to earn small sums as ‘scrivener’ to the surrounding villages. He also acted as schoolmaster, but for his teaching he made no charge; ‘such as could afford to pay gave him what they pleased.’ ‘His seat was within the rails of the altar, the communion table was his desk, and, like Shenstone's schoolmistress, the master employed himself at the spinning wheel while the children were repeating their lessons by his side.’ The pastoral simplicity of his life is graphically sketched by Wordsworth, who alludes to his grave in the ‘Excursion’ (bk. vii. ll. 351 sq.), and in the eighteenth of the ‘Duddon's Sonnets’ (‘Seathwaite Chapel’) refers to Walker as the ‘Gospel Teacher

    Whose good works formed an endless retinue,
    A pastor such as Chaucer's verse portrays,
    Such as the heaven-taught skill of Herbert drew
    And tender Goldsmith crowned with deathless praise.’

Walker died on 25 June 1802, and was buried three days later in Seathwaite churchyard. His wife Anne, like himself, was ninety-three at the time of her death (January 1802). Walker's tombstone has recently been turned over and a new inscription cut, while a brass has been erected to his memory in Seathwaite chapel. The latter, as well as the parsonage, has been rebuilt since Walker's day. His character may have been idealised to some extent by Wordsworth (as that of Kyrle by Pope), but there is confirmatory evidence as to the nobility of his life and the beneficent influence that he exercised. The epithet of ‘Wonderful’ attached to his name by the countryside can scarce be denied to a man who with his income left behind him no less a sum than 2,000l.

[The chief authority for ‘Wonderful Walker’ is the finely touched memoir embodied by Wordsworth in his notes to the Duddon Sonnets. See the Works of Wordsworth, 1888, pp. 825–833, and the Poems of Wordsworth, ed. Knight, 1896, vi. 249, v. 298; see also Gent. Mag. 1760 pp. 317–19, 1803 i. 17–19, 103; Christian Remembrancer, October 1819; Rix's Notes on the Localities of the Duddon Sonnets (Wordsworth Society Trans. v. 61–78); Rawnsley's English Lakes, ii. 191–2; Parkinson's Old Church Clock, 1880, p. 99; Tutin's Wordsworth Dictionary, 1891, p. 30; Sunday Mag. xi. 34.]

T. S.