Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

Stiffkey Revisited

There can't be many rural graveyards that boast the remains of a vicar who was mauled to death by lions, but I saw one this week, thanks to my daughter.

It was her birthday recently - she's hit 11 - and to celebrate we agreed to fulfil one of her three lifetime ambitions. These are [i] to cycle to India; [ii] to read a newspaper while floating on the Dead Sea; and [iii] to tour England in a VW camper van. Number three seemed by some distance the cheapest and least life-threatening, so we hired a van and headed for East Anglia.

We had no particular route in mind but, glancing at the map, I was surprised to see that the A149 coast road passes right through the Norfolk village of Stiffkey. The chance to see the place where the unfortunate Reverend Harold Davidson once lived (at least on Sundays) was simply too good to miss, and at three on the afternoon of our second day we pulled up beside a picture-postcard rural church to discover what trace, if any, remained of the place's most infamous incumbent.

Harold Davidson became notorious in the early 1930s when the newspapers latched onto his efforts to 'rescue' London prostitutes - work that became so all-consuming that he frequently spent six days of each week in the East End, hurrying home to Norfolk just in time to take Sunday Communion. On Remembrance Sunday 1930, however, Davidson failed to make it back to his parish in time (rumour had it that he dallied too long in town and missed a train), and an angry parishioner reported him to the church authorities for immoralty.

This was just the sort of story the prurient papers of the day enjoyed, and the Davidson case was soon front-page news. Found guilty of 'inappropriate intimacy' with nippies from the Lyons Corner House, Davidson was defrocked and took to supporting himself by standing in a barrel on Blackpool pier. He seems to have been quite an inventive huckster; later shows featured a tableau in which Davidson feigned being roasted alive in a giant oven while being prodded with a pitchfork by a man dressed as a devil.

Eking out his precarious celebrity, the former Rector of Stiffkey was engaged to appear at Skegness in 1937 as a 'modern Daniel', displaying himself in a cage alongside two lions. Most of those who have written on the Davidson case report that he was killed partway through the season when he tripped over one of the animals' tails, prompting the enraged beast to turn on him and maul him. This account has recently been disputed; there are those who now believe the mauling was not a fatal one and that the Rector may have been killed by an injection of insulin administered soon after the attack for his supposed diabetes. But, in any case, he died, and I had always assumed - given the man's parlous financial circumstances - that he had been buried in Skegness.

It was rather heart-warming, then, to discover that Davidson's former parishioners had thought so highly of him that they paid for his body to be brought back to Stiffkey, where it was interred by the north gate of the churchyard in a grave that is still well-tended today. Nor is the former Rector entirely forgotten inside the church; a few pages of typewritten notes about his case can be seen on a noticeboard just inside the door, and these paint a very different portrait of the notorious Rector. Davidson, according to this account, was immensely popular with his parishioners, and widely noted for the eloquence of his preaching; charabancs filled with worshippers from nearby parishes would descend periodically on Stiffkey to hear his sermons.

It was good to have my memory of this faded period revived, and pleasant to discover that, if Davidson was ever guilty of more than naivity in his attempts to comfort fallen women, Stiffkey has long forgiven him. The only real disappointment of the trip was the discovery that the delightfully coy variant on the village name that was once, for obvious reasons, insisted on (parishioners at one time referred to the place as "Stewkey") has fallen into disuse. In our more upfront times, no-one seems to mind coming from the upstanding village of Stiff Key any more.



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