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The lion-taming vicar who 'saved fallen women'

Harold Davidson, the rector of Stiffkey, led a double life - and one that ended tragically.

Despite his duties to his parishioners, his wife and four children, he declared he had a mission to work among London's poor and rescue young girls he considered in danger of falling into a life of vice. He called himself 'the Prostitutes' Padre'.

So during the weekends he looked after his parishioners in North Norfolk but during the week he ministered to the needs of some 40 prostitutes in London’s red light district of Soho, trying to 'save them from their sinful ways'.

Stiffkey is a small North Norfolk village just five miles to the west of Blakeney. Its huge saltmarshes run down to the sea and are carpeted during the summer in the blue flowers of wild sea lavender. The former fishing village has given its name to its distinctive cockles or Stewkey Blues which are stained blue from the local mud where they live.

But Stiffkey won national recognition - even notoriety and embarrassment - with a salacious story in the 1930s which had a shocking and unlikely ending for the Rev Davidson.

There was a public scandal when parishioners finally complained to the Bishop of Norwich. They were tired of and angry at Mr Davidson's neglect of his local duties - reinforced when he missed his train heading home from London and was late for Stiffkey’s annual Service of Remembrance,

The Bishop was furious and hired private detectives to trawl Soho for evidence of the rector’s immorality. In fact Mr Davidson asserted to his bishop that being called the 'Prostitutes' Padre' was 'the proudest title that a true priest of Christ can hold.'

Little evidence was found but Stiffkey’s 5 feet 3 inch tall rector was convicted of five counts of immorality by a church court. Despite denying any wrongdoing, Harold Davidson was thrown out of the church and defrocked in 1932.

It is then that this amazing tale, the lifeblood of red-top tabloids, reaches an even more unlikely and desperately sad outcome.

The rector continued to protest his innocence. And in a bizarre attempt to raise money to clear his name he exhibited himself in a barrel on Blackpool seafront.

Now aged 62, he became a circus performer reenacting the biblical tale of Daniel in the lions’ den where he would enter the cage and talk to the lions. Sadly, he trod on one lion’s tail during a performance in Skegness in July 1937 and was mauled and killed in full view of the circus audience.

Harold Davidson was buried in Stiffkey church with 3,000 attending his funeral. His grave in the village churchyard is still tended. His epitaph reads: ‘He was loved by the villagers who recognised his humanity and forgave him his transgressions. Rest in peace’.

The verdict on the rector is that he was naïve but not a bad man. It seems now that the damning written evidence presented in court by one prostitute was not in fact in her handwriting.

Stiffkey church, the graveyard and a photograph of Harold Davidson
Stiffkey church and the graveyard where the notorious rector Harold Davidson, pictured, is buried

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