The reverend in the lion’s den
I recently found a postcard, which my grandfather received from his brother who was on holiday in Skegness. The postmark is very faint, but it might be 1937. The writer said he had “seen that de-frocked vicar in a cage of lions”. Someone later circled this in pencil and added some exclamation marks. Any idea what this could be?
This was the famed Rector of Stiffkey. Whoever added the exclamation marks was probably impressed that your great-uncle saw a major celebrity shortly before he died.
The Rev Harold Francis Davidson (1875–1937) was appointed to the living of Stiffkey-with-Morston in Norfolk in 1906. Here, he and his wife Moyra, a former actress, had two sons and two daughters. One of the latter was by another man, but Davidson nonetheless brought her up as his own.
During the 1920s Davidson began to spend weekdays in London on a one-man mission to save young women from prostitution. He would often approach them in the streets, and claimed to have saved many from a life of vice by helping them find jobs, particularly in the theatre, which was his great passion in life.
Unsurprisingly, his work aroused suspicion. A church investigation spent a year looking for evidence against him, but came up with nothing apart from one girl who claimed he had tried to seduce her. Davidson was charged with moral offences at a church court in 1932.
The press revelled in the detail, but the case remained flimsy until a photograph was produced of him with a young woman who was naked apart from a shawl. The picture may well have been a forgery; Davidson’s family and most of his parishioners remained convinced of his innocence.
Davidson was nonetheless found guilty and defrocked. Needing to earn a living, he turned his notoriety into money by appearing in seaside fairs. In 1937 he was appearing in Skegness as “a modern Daniel in a lion’s den”, in a cage with two lions. He was mauled by one, and though his injuries were not serious, he died of medical complications a few days later. The general belief nowadays is that he was innocent. He had been naïve, perhaps, but was probably no lecher.
Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.