Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Tragicomic Tale of the Rector of Stiffkey

We’ve written before about the odd effect that the Fylde and Wyre seems to have on otherwise genteel members of the clergy; of Parson Potter of Pilling and his wreck plundering; of Harrison and Clegg, the Elswick and Kirkham ministers, who fought each other with vehemence from the pulpit to the grave; of William Thornber and his pugilistic tendencies between bouts of womanising and alcoholic consumption; of Reverend Pacock of Garstang and his penchant for poaching deer; and of the vicar of Singleton famed for his ale house with a ‘naughty’ woman in it. But none of the above could ever really compare to the defrocked Rector of Stiffkey, Harold Davidson, about whom the Evening Gazette wrote for his obituary in 1937: “…a year ago he was on view again on Central Beach (Blackpool) prostrate in a pit with an automatic demon prodding him with a trident.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves as always. That’s the end of the tale. Its origins transport us to a wretched and desolate location, far from the dwarf-wrestling, midget-stripping, fortune telling, jar-baby infested back streets of Blackpool, all the way to deepest, darkest Southampton in fact.
Harold Francis Davidson was born on the 14th of July 1875 to Reverend Francis Davidson and his wife, part of an enormous clerical family, no less than twenty-seven members of which were ordained in the Anglican Church (one of them even being the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Randall Davidson). It was hardly surprising therefore, that after finishing school Harold decided to become an actor.

He did quite well on the thespian circuit, even becoming close friends with the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. (Which is fair enough.) Harold’s old dad, however, never one to break with tradition, still insisted on his son becoming a clergyman, which was really where Harold’s life started to go horribly wrong.

In September 1903 Harold Davidson was ordained as an Anglican priest (his first mistake) and given the parish of Stiffkey on the coast of Norfolk. Three years later, in 1906, he married Molly (his second mistake) and having served time as a naval chaplain during the First World War, returned home to find her inconveniently up the duff by another man.


Right, there he is, look -- or at least there’s our version of him. We didn’t want to infringe on any copyrights, as always, so we’ve drawn him up and coloured him in. Don’t ask where we got the colour scheme. We just made it up.

Anyhow, in 1918 Davidson went to minister the deprived underclass at the Dockland Settlement in London, commuting regularly between Stiffkey and the East End. (Third mistake.)

Then, in November 1930, the good rector returned home somewhat later from London than usual, in the process missing the annual Stiffkey War Memorial Service. (Fourth, and probably, biggest mistake.)

Major Phillip Hammond, one of the local landowners to whom Davidson had (a bit stupidly on reflection) refused the position of churchwarden in 1919, took exception to the rector’s late appearance and decided to investigate exactly what he’d been up to down the capital.

Well, when I say investigate, the phrase ‘stitch up’ is perhaps more appropriate, although in all fairness to the parties concerned there’s still a massive question mark hanging over the resulting allegations to this day.

You see, a detective agency was hired to trawl the fishwives and prostitutes of the Docklands, not one of the forty of whom interviewed had a bad word to say about their favourite priest. One girl, however, plied with drink and financial compensation for her troubles, set in motion the court case that was to be the rector’s ultimate downfall. Sixteen-year-old Barbara Harris claimed that he had posed as her uncle and had arranged for her to live at his London home. She also reckoned that the reason he’d missed his train on Remembrance Day was that he was: "Trying to kiss me at the time".


Right, that’s a drawing of Barbara Harris above, based loosely on a photograph of her arriving at the courthouse. Again, the colour scheme probably isn’t accurate. In fact it’d be a miracle if it was. It’s also not a very good likeness, but you can’t have everything.

During the trial a photograph was produced showing Davidson confronting a naked fifteen-year-old girl wrapped in nothing but a shawl. (There were counter allegations that the photograph had been faked and, for obvious reasons, we’re not about to track it down and reproduce it here.)

As it turned out, by the end of the court case, she wasn’t the only one defrocked.

Now, if all of this sounds familiar, then it’s not surprising. Michael Palin’s film ‘The Missionary’ was based rather loosely on Davidson’s pastoral duties in London -- ‘loosely’ being the operative word.

With the removal of his income, the ex-rector was forced to return to his roots as a theatrical entertainer, and promptly headed for the sunnier climes of Blackpool. (See, we got there in the end.)

In 1932 he turned up on the promenade fasting in a barrel in order, apparently, to win a five hundred pound bet. “I should like it to be known,” he solemnly declared, before lowering himself in. “That every fibre of my being revolts against the indignity of this procedure.”

Unfortunately the stunt went slightly wrong, attracting so huge a crowd that he and his P.R. man were arrested for causing an obstruction.

In June 1933, he was arrested again, this time in his promenade booth, for failure to pay a forty-three pound debt to a hotel in London. Or rather he wasn’t arrested in his promenade booth. As the Evening Gazette reported: “He went to prison, but not after he had left the booth under a pretext which deceived the officers, raced out of the building and down the promenade, the officers in pursuit, ultimately finding sanctuary in his apartments. There he locked himself in his bedroom, and, as the bailiffs were hammering on the panels of the door, opened the window, climbed down the water-pipe and completed his escape in a taxi cab.”

Following a few more stints being roasted alive and prodded by his automated devil (Davidson certainly knew how to cash in on his notoriety, and, let’s be honest, there’s nothing that the good folk of Blackpool like more than a sinner fallen from grace -- headfirst into a bucket of horse muck for preference) in 1935 he was arrested once again, for another attempt to allegedly ‘commit suicide by fasting’. (Rumour had it that he was actually vacating his barrel of an evening to visit the chippy round the corner…although we can’t confirm this.)

Accordingly the rector appeared in court dressed in the flamboyant ecclesiastical robes in which we’ve pictured him at the top of this article, and described himself as: “An ex-clergyman of no fixed abode.” Presumably his barrel didn’t count as a permanent address.

He was found not guilty and successfully sued the Blackpool Corporation in return for unlawful arrest.

One year later he was arrested yet again, for trespass at Victoria Station in London (no doubt helping a few more fallen women back onto their feet) and then again in 1937 (this time on his way out of a lion’s cage) for not paying his previous fine.
Of course, you can’t expect a character with a history such as the Rector of Stiffkey’s to shuffle off this mortal in the usual, boring fashion. His end came in 1937 whilst performing at Skegness, once again in a lion’s cage. (You can sense what’s coming here, can’t you?) His act, basically, consisted of Davidson wandering about the cage complaining loudly to the lions about how badly he’d been treated by society. (Yes…his performances really were that pathetic…although this one more than made up for the bad reviews.)
Obviously the lion involved in the incident considered the rector’s treatment of him to be even worse than society’s treatment of the rector. Some say that Davidson tripped over the lion’s tail during the act. Others reckon that he stood on the lion’s toe. Whatever the case, according to William Bliss, an eyewitness at the event: “He was carried around the den like a cat carries a mouse.”

The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of ‘Death by misadventure’, fitting for a ‘Life of misadventure’ perhaps. Now come on, be honest, even David Blaine couldn’t pull a stunt like that -- although I can’t help hoping that one of these days he just might.

20 comments:

Andrew said...

Good tale. Nowadays every present at the lion show would need counselling.

F.G. Marshall-Stacks said...

I just love it that he so totally gave the Agincourt fingers to all those ordained Davidsons.
serves them right.
His funeral must have been a complete circus.
Last night, the present Archbishop of Canterbury must have been on his knees with his Coronation ego not praying for the continued good health of Our Majesty (just sayin'. he must want that role so bad.).

Brian Hughes said...

Andrew,

Including the lions, I suspect.

F.G.

Have I missed something on the news about Owd Beardy Williams? Was he trying to get his own back for Thomas Becket again?

RVB said...

I can't say I really enjoy hearing the personal tales of the Wyre, I'm afraid Brian. But don't let a young 'un like me change your well-established thinking processes by putting my radical ideas into action.

Good illustrations though...

Brian Hughes said...

Reuben,

"I can't say I really enjoy hearing the personal tales of the Wyre."

Under the circumstances, and considering what this website's main area of focus is, all I can say is 'tough'.

Reuben said...

Well I meant in terms of personal stories about certain people. Personal stories about lifestyles of past residents is interesting, but unless I knew the person quite well...then...

Jayne said...

Well I enjoyed hearing about the silly bugger and that poor lion.
And I must have missed the plundering Parson Potter of Pilling...shall go read up on that enterprising chap.

Brian Hughes said...

Reuben,

It's the personal stories that make up history, I reckon, otherwise it'd be all Kings, Queens and politics. I can't say as I ever met the Rector of Stiffkeys either, but any vicar who cavorts with prostitutes, gets prodded by an automated demon for amusement, and has his head bitten off by a lion is surely worth five minutes of my attention, if nobody else's.

Jayne,

Parson Potter was entertaining, but you'll just have to wait until the release of our new book 'Reverend Potter and the Strange Affair of Fourteen Bald Midgets' for the full story.

Bwca said...

I loved that story, and you made it more interesting than my link pal Ben Locker, because I had completely forgotten he wrote about his vicar grandfather who was arrested and flung in a cell due to being mistaken for old Stiffy.

If you put Stiffkeys into Guugle image, you get the photo of him with the naked girl and it is quite clear the guy was SET UP.
He may have deserved to be set-up, but indeed he was.
We down here, have just had our favourite whipping-girl PaulineHanson the subject of a nude photos set-up so it's All Very Familiar.

Bwca said...

... and the lion - there's pics of the lion in the cage with him.
He appears to be provoking the lion though.

Brian Hughes said...

Annie,

The old rector is at the top of my compendium of local heroes. The lion runs a close second.

shirley said...

Look on the A2 archive and there is a village lass who eventually was thrown out of nearly all the villages for shall we say dallying with miller's and there demise Preston Assizes for bastardy!! Good tale Brian.
Anyone a pic of Teddy the old Russion Bear caged for amusement at Heysham Head zoo in the 50s ??

bignick47 said...

As one of the "sparse on top" persuasion myself, I take massive and unconditional offence at your mention of the 14 bald midgets. I shall be pursuing satisfaction in the courts of this fair land and - oh sod it! Good story mate

Brian Hughes said...

Shirley,

No pictures of Teddy the Tortured Bear here...I'm quite glad to say.

Nick,

The title of my new book has now been changed to 'The Strange Affair of Reverend Potter and the Fourteen Folically Challenged Persons of a Diminutive Stature.' Unfortunately the publishers have dropped it completely because the title won't fit on the spine.

Ann oDyne said...

Jeez mate, I hope this blogpost isn't upsetting the local library polis?
All History comprises fallible individuals and that's why we are drawn to it.

Jayne said...

Crikey Dick, ditto what Annie said.
Some people(and organisations) take themselves far too seriously.

Brian Hughes said...

Annie & Jayne,

Most people don't take offence at what I write and I can only assume there's been a couple of misunderstandings recently that, with a bit of luck, have been rectified now.

shirley said...

Nick love the new title brill!!!

John said...

Brian,

Nicely done.

Is there any proof or reason to suspect the owd boy was dallying? Sounds like the guy he turned down was looking for a reason to teach our boy a lesson!

And come on.... even in our enlightened age, everyone knows a girl of ill repute is not a reliable witness. Heck, it's said they'll do, or say, anything for a few bob.

The Rectum of Stiffy should have stayed with acting. If he was on par with Sarah Bernhardt, he could have gone far!

And as an Actor, he would have been expected to frolic with ladies of the evening.

Another true tale to inspire kids against listening to their parents.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...

Shirley,

'Sparse on top' isn't something that bothers me, so I'll refrain from commenting further.

John,

I've no idea whether the rector (it's pronounced Stewkey incidentally...don't ask me why) was guilty or not. Whatever the case, he was a grand old codger in my books.