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Hidden History: The vicar defrocked for immoral conduct

The latest in our Hidden History series is so bizarre you might think we've made it up!

It's the true story and extraordinary scandal of the former vicar of Stiffkey in Norfolk who was defrocked for immoral conduct in the 1930s.

Destitute he turned himself into a circus performer and ended up being mauled by a lion after accidentally treading on his tail.

Harold Davidson. Credit: ITV Anglia

The final resting place of the notorious Rev Harold Davidson is in the churchyard at Stiffkey near Wells-next-the-Sea.

He died 77 years ago but his fall from grace is still being talked about in the village today. He's even featured on the pub sign

"People come in more or less everyday and ask about the naughty vicar of Stiffkey. It happened over eighty years ago and he was taking in ladies of the night at the time, yes it's still well talked about."

– Frankie Franklyn, manager the Stiffey Red Lion

History has remembered him as the wayward priest who brought disrepute to the Church of England.

It was his work with prostitutes in London's red light district that caused his demise.

"Davison with a wife and family ensconced in the rectory would set off each Monday morning from Norfolk and not return from his strange perambulations until late on a Saturday night or early on Sunday morning. And these journeys continued every week month after month. Year after Year"

– Anglia Television reporter Michael Robson in 1964

What was a rector doing ? Speeding up to London , abandoning his flock for the heady pleasures of the capital?

Harold Davidson toured the busy streets and sordid streets, the cafes and the tea shops. He accosted girls, he enticed them, he chatted them up.

Then once a contact was made he would set them up in some form of lodging and make his personal attempt to covert them from sinful ways. And on the seventh day he was back on the five five from London to Wells and then to Stiffkey, a leap into the vestry to robe for Matins.

The Bishop of Norwich doubted the reasons for his Soho visits and had a private detective follow him. They found little against him but he was still charged with five counts of immoral conduct.

Harold Davidson falls victim to a set up. Credit: ITV Anglia

The case provided tittlating fodder for the newspapers. But on the eve of his trial he fell victim to a set up, he was humiliated by a woman who was was naked under a shawl - it made a sensational picture for the press photographers.

Finally on Trafalgar day 1932 the church assembled at Norwich to defrock him.

Evidence since the trial show that a letter from star witness 17 year old prostitute Barbara Harris containing 14 pages of lurid allegations against Davidson was not her hand-writing.

"A misguided do-gooder but with a good heart. That's my conclusion. And I have tried to find the dirt, I've tried to find the scandal, you know I spent three years writing this book but it doesn't exist."

– Author, Jonathan Tucker

"He was concerned about young girls, who got pregnant, fled home, came to London and fell on hard times or became prostitutes run by gangs or whatever and he didn't thing enough was being done for them. Of course the family would like an apology because it ruined my grandfather's life patently."

– Colin St Johnston, Davidson's grandson

You'd think that his defrocking would have finished him off but Davidson was irrepressible.

He became a performer, protesting his innocence in bizarre aways such as conducting a hunger strike in a barrel at Blackpool, pretending to be roasted on a spit by the devil watched by sniggering sightseers and amazed bystanders.

Harold Davidson turned to the circus after being defrocked. Credit: ITV Anglia

In 1937 he appeared in Skegness in a den of lions. But he got badly mauled in full view of a mob of spectators.

He died on 30 July, his death possibly hastened by an insulin injection administered by a doctor who believed that Davidson was a diabetic. The coroner's verdict was death by misadventure.

Three thousand people attended his funeral. And the view all these years on seems to be that he was a hopeless priest but no philanderer.

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