What is it with men of the cloth and scandalous women? I’ve lost count of the number of rectors I’ve written about at the Gimcrack. Here’s another one from a village in Stiffkey, Norfolk.
Harold Francis Davidson, sometimes known as the “Prostitutes’ Padre“, was a Church of England priest who was defrocked in 1932 for his allegedly licentious lifestyle.
During the First World War he served as a Royal Navy chaplain. When he returned, his wife, Molly, whom he had married in October 1906 after a six-year engagement, was pregnant by another man. There was some pressure on him to leave her, but he refused, claiming marriage vows were for life.
In November 1930, Davidson was late back from London for the annual Remembrance Day service. Major Philip Hamond, who had disliked Davidson since he refused to allow him to be churchwarden in 1919 and had had several further altercations with him since, was ‘incandescent with rage’ and accused Davidson of doing it as an insult to the war dead. A complaint was made to Henry Dashwood, solicitor to the Church of England and adviser to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.
Dashwood then began investigating Davidson’s activities in London. He hired the Arrows Detective Agency to follow the rector and report his activities in London. The private detectives uncovered little; of the 40 girls they interviewed only one would say anything against him and then only when drunk (she recanted when sober).
from: Married to the Sea
His defence was that his work in London had been authorised by his bishop, and that only one had actually given evidence of immorality, she having been paid by the prosecution. He admitted to trying to help up to 1,000 girls with advice and sometimes money. The rector’s family including his daughter Patricia gave evidence that some of the girls had visited the family at Stiffkey and that neither she nor her mother had objected. The hearing lasted 26 days and attracted enormous crowds.
On 8 July Davidson was convicted on all charges. After he had exhausted his appeals, he was defrocked at Norwich Cathedral. Davidson then went to Blackpool to live off his notoriety. He would appear either in a barrel or being apparently roasted in an oven while a figure dressed as a devil prodded him with a pitchfork.
For the summer season in 1937 Davidson worked at Thompsons’ Amusement Park in Skegness, where he was billed as “A modern Daniel in a lion’s den”. He would enter a cage with a lion called Freddie and a lioness called Toto, and talk for about ten minutes about the injustice he felt had been meted out to him. On 28 July, he was moving through his act when he accidentally tripped on the tail of the lioness. Perceiving this as an attack, Freddie attacked and mauled him. Renee Somer, the 16-year-old lion attendant entered the cage and fought the lion back using a 3 ft whip and an iron bar.
Davidson was taken to Skegness Cottage Hospital with a neck injury and broken collar-bone and lacerations on his upper body. The lion had mauled him at the neck leaving a gash behind his left ear. The injury was not severe; the lion was old, toothless and sedated. He was recovering from his injuries and it was arranged that he should be taken back to London when his employer, a Captain Rye, sent private doctors to treat him. They diagnosed an advanced case of diabetes without testing him for the disease. They ordered insulin and supervised the injection themselves. The rector sank into a coma and died the next morning. Davidson’s widow refused to wear black and arrived for his funeral dressed in white. She wanted it to be a celebration of his amazing life.