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Otherwise known as 'The Rector of Stiffkey' or 'The Prostitutes' Padre'
Born 1875 Died 1937

Harold Francis Davidson was educated at Whitgift School and Exeter College, Oxford and in his youth seemed uncertain as to whether he should pursue a career as an actor or as an ordained priest. But after an early flirtation with the stage and a successful run in Charley's Aunt it appears that as the result of his father's influence (who was the vicar of Sholing, Hampshire), he chose the latter rather than the former course.

Thus after studying for holy orders at Oxford, Harold obtained the position of curate at the Church of Holy Trinity in Windsor before becoming the rector of the village of Stiffkey in Norfolk in 1905. However the Reverend Davidson was not content to live the life of a simple country priest and came to believe that he had a greater vocation in life, which turned out in his case to be the rescue of fallen women. And so Harold devoted much of his time to this self proclaimed mission to save the female of the species, believing that the more attractive and youthful the woman, the more in need she was of saving; "I lack to catch them between 14 and 20" was how the Rector himself put it. Thus although duties as rector required his presence in Norfolk over the weekend, Harold spent his week days in London cruising Oxford Street in search of women suitably in need of rescuing. He was apparently of the opinion that waitresses in tea shops were particularly at risk and therefore in need of his services, an opinion not shared by the managers of such establishments who barred him from entering their premises.

It was in the course of this work that the Rector first met a young prostitute by the name of Rose Ellis in 1920. Over the course of the next ten years, 'Uncle Harold' as Miss Ellis came to know her benefactor paid her rent and procured employment for his young protege. Naturally devoting so much attention to attractive young women was bound to set tongues wagging and it was inevitable that sooner or later someone was likely to believe the worst of Harold.

Harold's career began to unravel when a parishioner and magistrate by the name of Major Philip Hammond became dissatisfied with the Rector's regular absences in London and also took a dim view of the number of young women who appeared to be resident at the rectory and duly complained to the Bishop of Norwich. The bishop engaged a firm of private detectives to investigate, who tracked down the aforementioned Rose Ellis and after plying her with port in a Charing Cross hotel and offering her the sum of forty shillings, extracted a compromising statement regarding her relationship with 'Uncle Harold'.

Once Ms Ellis had sobered up, she thought better of her previous confession and so naturally sold her story to the Daily Herald, claiming that her relationship with the Rector was entirely innocent and that she had been tricked by the detectives into telling untruths about him. Whatever the truth of the matter, Harold was naturally transformed into something of a national celebrity as a result of these revelations in the national press. Attendance at Harold's services rocketed as the curious turned up to hear him loudly proclaim his innocence from the pulpit as he drew parallels between his own persecution and that of Christ himself. Unfortunately the publicity ultimately only caused the poor Rector further trouble as in February 1932 another prostitute and former client of his named Barbara Harris came forward and made a number of specific allegations against him including those of rape and breach of promise.

It was as a result of these allegations that Harold Davidson was called to appear at the consistory court before F. Keppel North, the chancellor of the diocese of Norwich, charged with five counts of immorality under the Clergy Discipline Act and "habitually associating with women of a loose character for immoral purposes". The trial opened in March 1932 and naturally given the prior publicity in the Daily Herald created something of a sensation, being reported in great detail and with much enthusiasm by the national press.

Although Harold denied all the charges his goose was truly cooked when the prosecution produced a photograph of the Rector in the company of a young and clearly naked model. Although Harold claimed that he had been set-up Chancellor North was not impressed by his testimony which he denounced as a "tissue of lies"; Harold was convicted on all charges and thus publically defrocked and thrown out of the church.

Now unemployed Harold had need of money to fund himself and his attempts to appeal against the decision of the consistory court. He therefore returned to his alternative vocation of the stage or at least the closest he could get to it. The former clergyman was next found nailed into a barrel and exhibiting himself on Blackpool promenade for a charge of 2d. It was in this guise that he was arrested by the police on a charge of attempted suicide (on the grounds that he was starving himself to death naturally). Harold successfully defended himself from this rather absurd accusation and was acquitted and then brought an action against Blackpool Corporation for damages and won £382.

Obviously the attractions of viewing a man nailed in a barrel palled with the public after a while and so Harold was forced into adopting various novelty acts to earn a living, once appearing with a dead whale at a bank holiday fair on Hampstead Heath. By late 1936 he was appearing at Skegness where he had developed an act in which he appeared with a lion named 'Freddy' and proclaimed impassioned denunciations of the entire leadership of the Church of England. Unhappily one day in June 1937 the normally docile Freddy took offense at Harold and promptly leapt on him. Harold was severely mauled and despite being dragged free by the lion's trainer died soon afterwards of his injuries.


A gentleman by the name of Jonathan Tucker has written a biography of the former Rector of Stiffkey entitled The Life and Times of Harold Davidson but this work remains unpublished. Mr Tucker does however claim that there were grave anomolies in his trial and that the Revererend Davidson may well have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.


SOURCES

  • William Donaldson Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix 2004)
  • Robert Graves and Alan Hodge The Long Week-End: A social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 2nd Ed (W.W. Norton and Co, 1994)
  • For Jonathan Tucker's unpublished work see http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/books/tucker.jonathan/priest.shtml

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