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The Dirty Vicar by Martin Knight

Who was the original dirty vicar? Over the years a stream of cases have found their way into the Sunday tabloids detailing the ‘lurid’activities of country vicars cavorting with married, hymn-singing parishioners and the associated fall-out. The phrase itself was immortalised if not coined by the Monty Python’s Flying Circus team in one of their seventies TV sketches. But a strong claim for the mantle of the original dirty vicar, or at least, the first to be exposed as such by the national media, must be one Harold Francis Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, in the county of Norfolk. The entire case is a quintessential English tragicomedy; even the village name –Stiffkey –conjures up a Kenneth Williams flared-nostril sneer but it was the dramatic and surreal demise of this very unusual man that makes it hard to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Harold Davidson was born in 1876 and took up a career in the church and became ordained in 1902. He was an assistant curate in Westminster when he was offered the post as rector for the country parish of Stiffkey and Morston just inland from the North Norfolk coast in 1906. A small man at five feet three inches the Norfolk villagers, always slightly cynical about outsiders, dubbed him Little Jimmy. Soon though they accepted him especially when, like almost every other able-bodied man in the village, he went off to fight and possibly die in the Great War of 1914-18. Harold did come home but it is rumoured that when he arrived he was devastated to find that his wife was pregnant and quite obviously by another man. In later life Harold’s daughter Pamela, who was born in 1919 always claimed that her actual father was a Canadian lodger at the rectory and not Harold, so it is probable that this rumour was in fact true.

Following his undoubtedly scarring experiences of war and his wife’s infidelity Harold threw himself into his work. However, with a population of less than 300, Stiffkey offered little in the way of variety and challenge and the rector at some point decided he would try and save fallen women (prostitutes to you and me). Unable to find anyone to save in Norfolk he took to taking the train to London during the week, carrying out his work, and returning to Stiffkey at the weekend in time for his Sunday sermon. Soon the village became divided between those who applauded their rector’s tireless devotion to his cause even if he was away from the village and those who were entirely suspicious and cynical about his motives. These misgivings hardened when Harold began to bring some of these fallen women back to live in the rectory to help ‘rehabilitate’them. His critics moved from regarding their rector as a mildly amusing con-man to perceiving him as a malignant threat to their tranquil and wholesome village life. Stories abounded about goings on in and out of the rectory. It is without doubt that some of the local boys took advantage of these new very obliging young girls in their midst but whether they contracted gonnorrhea or not, as was claimed by some, was never proved. Older villagers said the only time Harold Davidson spent more than seven consecutive days in the village was when the trains didn’t run during the General Strike of 1926. Eventually in 1932 word drifted down to Fleet Street about the ‘Randy Rector of Stiffkey’and the News of the World despatched one of their finest investigative journalists eastward. The hack couldn’t believe his luck as he tuned into the best of the village gossip. He managed to talk to some of the girls who had been helped by Harold and two in particular were prepared to swear that their saviour’s interest in them was more physical than spiritual. The NOTW even managed to contrive a secret photograph of the rector with one of the girl’s facing him in a semi-naked state. Tried and found guilty by a Sunday tabloid, who convienently overlooked the possibility that if the girls were prepared to sell their bodies for money then they would quite likely sell made up stories for the same, the Church of England put their legal machinery into action. A trial opened in March 1932 and finally ended with a guilty finding in July of the same year. Davidson steadfastly protested his innocence but the Bishop of Norwich very publicly defrocked him in October 1932.

Harold threw himself into clearing his name with the same gusto he had applied to his trips to London. Trips that earned him the nickname –‘The Prostitutes Padre’. He was not without support in the village; many believing his intentions were always honourable and that he had been the victim of an early tabloid paper set-up. Guilty of naivety perhaps, but nothing more. If he was merely a sexual predator, a dirty old man (he was fifty-six years old at the time of his defrocking), then why disrupt a good thing by bringing the prostitutes he was busy servicing back to Norfolk, where even he would realise it would attract scrutiny? If he was guilty of the allegations levelled at him then why devote the rest of his life fighting the judgements bought down on him when the publicity could easily have triggered further revelations. Why were there no further revelations? The case was by no means as clear-cut as history would record but the former rector did little to help himself because somewhere along the line Harold Davidson lost the plot.

He started by writing letters to newspapers, to politicians, to anyone he could think of. When these failed to elicit responses he began to turn up at his successor’s Sunday sermons at Stiffkey church and disrupt the services. When he was legally prevented from entering church property he went on hunger strike but soon found out that fasting had little point if no-one knew you were starving yourself to death. Luke Gannon, a showman from Burnley, saw potential in Harold’s plight and state of mind and invited him to starve and preach his message from inside a barrell on Blackpool’s promenade among the other sideshows. The journey from pulpit to freak show had been alarmingly fast. Harold couldn’t have been entirely serious about his starvation programme because he managed a few seasons without dying and was able to submit an application for the Blackpool Football Club’s vacant manager’s job. One can only conclude that by now he was sufficiently unhinged to be enjoying his sad celebrity.

Somewhere along the line Harold developed his act to a sort of Daniel in the Lion’s Den parody. By 1938 he was sharing a cage with a bored old lion called Freddie in a circus show at Skegness on the east coast of England. He walked around the cage shouting and screaming about all the injustices that had been done to him as the lion followed with lazy eyes his progress around the cage. On July 28 1938 Freddie had had enough. He leapt across the cage and took the old man in his mouth (his teeth had been removed years before) and shook him violently. The small crowd roared their approval thinking it was all part of the show but Harold was seriously mauled and was only rescued as Freddie began to tear strips from his body with his claws and attempted to begin eating him. He died a few days later.

His eccentricity could well have been genetic. His daughter Pamela who died aged 81 in 2001, led an almost equally colourful life. Although she stuck by her father after he was defrocked and joined him in this travelling circus/fairground troupe she sometimes claimed that Harold was not actually her father. Her real father, she claimed, was a Canadian lodger at the rectory in Stiffkey. She became the girl on the flying trapeze and while touring Germany, she caught the eye of Herman Goebbels who tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. Thereafter she moved through the Land Army and US Red Cross to marriage to a Battle of Britain pilot, with whom she later ran a riverside pub called the Trewern Arms at Nevern, Pembrokeshire.

Today Stiffkey remain an enchanting little village much the same now as it was in Harold Davidson’s day. A narrow road heading towards the neighbouring coastal hamlets of Morston and Blakeney (both of whom have had Derby winners named after them) threads its way past the pub, the couple of shops and the villager’s cottages until the church becomes visible on your right and the rectory stands proud directly in front. The church and churchyard are charming but unremarkable for the area, only if you glance through the visitors’book inside the church do you get a hint of the strange goings-on here nearly seventy years ago. One entry signed by an American tourist says ‘I just had to visit the church of your famous dirty vicar’. Outside in the graveyard lies Harold himself. The Church of England were determined not to allow him to return in life but in death, I guess they assumed he’d be less of a thorn in their sides. As with most churchyards the older the grave the less chance there is of the plot being tended but Harold’s is carefully and regularly looked after even after this passage of time. On the summer’s day I stood by his grave an elderly man looked at me with mild curiosity.

“Well kept grave”I commented hopefully.

“Tis that”he replied “and strange this is, but no-one in the village has ever seen anyone tending it, ever...