It’s not often you hear about a Church of England priest being defrocked, certainly not for fraternising with prostitutes, and even less so then ending up being mauled to death by a lion called Freddie, but that’s exactly what happened to Harold Davidson, more commonly known as the Rector of Stiffkey.
Today, his ending is remembered on the side of the Red Lion pub in Stiffkey.
Davidson (July 14 1875-July 30 1937), who had a brief career on the London stage before his ordination in 1903, became rector of the north Norfolk parish of Stiffkey with Morston in 1906. He’d falled on his feet – the role came with a large Georgian rectory, an income of £503 per year, rising to £800 during his incumbency, and 60 acres of cultivated land. This at a time when the population of round 350 was impoverished.
The villagers referred to him as ‘Little Jimmy’, on account of his 5 feet 3 inch stature, but the local gentry liked him less – particularly the main landowner Colonel Groom who was rebuked by Davidson for keeping a mistress.
The rector married Molly Saurin and children were born regularly, but Davidson began to spend much of the week in London, engaged in social work and as chaplain to the Actors’ Church Union which gave him occasion to go backstage in West End theatres, ministering to the needs of showgirls. He expanded this work to Paris, acting as a chaperone for dancers at the Folies Bergère.
Many out of work and would-be actresses were invited to stay ay the Stiffkey rectory, often as many as twenty at a time, much to the consternation of the local landowners who feared for the morals of their farmhands.
At the outbreak of the first world war aged 39, Davidson join the Royal Navy as a chaplain, and in 1916 found himself in the Middle East on HMS Fox where he was arrested by the naval police during a raid on a Cairo brothel. He explained he was looking for a diseased prostitute who had been infecting the ship’s men.
Davidson returned to Stiffkey in 1919 to find his wife was six months pregnant. Unfortunately, he realised his service leave did not coincide with the conception.
He quickly resumed his pre-war routine of spending the week in London, leaving early on Monday and returning late on Saturday in time for Sunday services. Rural trains weren’t always reliable though, and sometimes he’d fail to arrive.
The self-styled ‘Prostitutes’ Padre’ focused his attention on waitresses at the capital’s many teashops, which were hugely popular at the time.
Author Ronald Blythe wrote in his 1964 book The Rector of Stiffkey that he was enticed by ‘the ineffable harmonies created by starched linen crackling over young breasts and black-stockinged calves in chubby conference just below the hem of the parlourmaid’s frock’.
There is little evidence that Davidson behaved indecently, but Blythe continued, ‘The Reverend Mr Davidson’s downfall … was girls. Not a girl, not five or six girls even, not a hundred, but the entire tremulous universe of girlhood. Shingled heads, clear cheeky eyes, nifty legs, warm, blunt-fingered workaday hands, small firm breasts and, most importantly, good strong healthy teeth, besotted him.’
When he asserted to the Bishop of Norwich that his ‘Prostitutes’ Padre’ moniker was ‘the proudest title that a true priest of Christ can hold’, his boss was less convinced and hired a private detective to follow the reverend around the seamy streets of Soho. Despite not finding any credible evidence, Davidson was found guilty of five charges of immoral conduct and defrocked in 1932. At the consistory court, his defence wasn’t helped by the prosecution having a photograph of him with a near-naked teenage girl.
The former rector protested his innocence and to raise funds turned himself into a seaside performer, protesting his innocence by conducting a hunger strike in a barrel at Blackpool, pretending to be roasted on a spit by the devil and appearing in Skegness as Daniel in a den of real lions for the self-styled ‘Captain’ Fred Rye’s animal-themed show. One night this went terribly wrong when he accidentally stood on the tail of a lion called Freddie and was mauled to death.
So many onlookers came to Davidson’s funeral at Stiffkey churchyard on August 3 that they had to take vantage points on walls, roofs and in trees.
In Skegness, Rye saw the tragic death as a business opportunity – crowds flocked to see Freddie, now known as ‘The Actual Lion that Mauled and Caused the Death of the Ex-Rector of Stiffkey’.