'A Clerical Error'

Reverend Harold Francis 'Jumbo' Davidson
Davidson preaching in 1932
Barbara Harris was the Bishop's star witness
Norwich Cathedral
This photograph from the 1920s shows tens of thousands of tourists crowding the beach and the promenade in Blackpool
Harold Davidson: The Rector of Stiffkey
This photograph of Davidson with Estelle Douglas, taken on 28 March 1932, was critical evidence that led to his conviction by the Consistory Court
The original Church House was founded in 1887 and built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was knocked down and replaced in 1937 the year of Davidson's death.
Rosie Ellis, one of the main witnesses at Davidson's trial.
Rector with Freddie the Lion in 1937, Skegness.
The Rector with his barrel.
Harold Davidson's grave at Stiffkey in 2010.
Harold's granddaughter Kathryn Collier
BBC production Inside Out

There are doctors who murder their patients, bent coppers, corrupt solicitors or judges who break the law all provoke a strong sense of public disquiet, even outrage probably. However, when it comes to ‘men of the cloth,’ it then seems smiles accompanied by great hilarity of the ‘nudge-nudge,’ wink-wink’ variety seems to be more the order of the day.

It appears from time to time that a dodgy vicar is fair game for some entertainment.

Francis ‘Jumbo’ Davidson

One such vicar was the Reverend Harold Francis ‘Jumbo’ Davidson who was the rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk. He was aged 57 years; and was born on the 14th July 1875 in Sholing in Hampshire.

In 1932 he put the ecclesiastical courts in a right quandary, but, the general public were royally entertained by the various newspaper reports of this singular affair in which a man who had been dubbed ‘the prostitutes padre,’ was both disgraced and finally defrocked.

Harold Davidson was descended from a long line of Protestant churchmen and so after being ordained in1902 held a position as an assistant curate in Westminster. In 1906 he let London opting for a quiet existence as the rector of the parish of Stiffkey with Morston, a sleepy fishing community in the northwest part of Norfolk.

However, it wasn’t very long before he missed the bright lights of London, together with the hustle and bustle that that City brings.

It wasn’t long before he found out that he could easily tend the needs of his Norfolk flock by putting in just a couple of days a week. He started to get into the habit of staying in London for much of the rest of the week and as a result became a tireless campaigner for just about every cause he could think of. He spent time writing to various MP’s and influential families begging for donations, saying for in his words, ‘the less fortunate.’

Sorry ladies, I didn’t know this was your changing room

Two of his favourite causes were the plight of newsboys and waitresses but they was easily eclipsed by his concern for actresses and prostitutes. Davidson became, with the full backing of the Bishop of Norwich, the accredited chaplain to the actor’s Church Union: he took to appearing backstage at a number of West End theatres, where he was later variously remembered as a ‘well-meaning innocent’ and ‘a voyeuristic pest’ – ‘Sorry ladies, I didn’t know this was your changing room, ’spoken in a suitably bumbling-vicar sort of way. This was the sort of ‘mistake’ he was apt to make with startling regularity.

However, it was when he started taking London prostitutes back to stay at his home in Stiffkey with his wife and five children that some of the locals started to get a little bit twitchy. As yet there was no real evidence that he himself was ‘playing around’ but some of the antics that occurred between the girls and the local lads were thought at that time to be ‘plain shocking.’

It was only a matter of time before a complaint was made over the behaviour although that didn’t happen until 1931. It was then that Davidson was late for an Armistice Day service. A Norfolk landowner promptly wrote to the Bishop of Norwich and this letter incorporated charges of ‘impropriety’ in his complaint. On the 2nd February 1933 The Eastern Daily Press briefly reported that ‘complaints concerning the moral conduct of the rector of Stiffkey had been lodged.’

From  a short ‘handful’ of words it quickly became an affair of national interest – now, Davidson was becoming a source of embarrassment to the Church and the Bishop felt he had to act quickly to stop this becoming a major scandal. He was duly hauled before the Church Consistory Court, situated at the Great Hall of Church House, Westminster. He was put on trial which lasted exactly 25 days.

The Consistory Court

The Consistory Court hearing commenced on the 29th March 1932, under the presidency of the Norwich diocesan chancellor, F. Keppel North. Davidson had five charges laid against him which included ‘embracing a young woman in a Chinese   restaurant, making improper suggestions to a waitresses and also maintaining an immoral liaison with a named woman for 10 years.

The prosecution, a high profile   team was headed by Roland Oliver KC and included a future cabinet minister, Walter Monkton. Meanwhile Davidson had an experienced group of lawyers to defend him. The hearing was held in Westminster instead of Norwich due to the enormous amount of press interest and the number of London based witnesses.

The hearing was started by Roland Oliver who gave a brief history of Davidson’s life in London. The first one into the witness box was Barbara Harris and gave her evidence. Davidson’s lawyers failed to mention to the court certain obvious differences between the handwriting in Harris’s handwriting in the letter and other examples of her writing. One person described her evidence to ‘a whip of scorpions,’ which Davidson took full in the face.

Davidson first met Harris in September 1930, when she was just 16 years of age. He had used his favourite ploy – affecting to confuse her with a well-known film actress of that time. The idea was to persuade her to go for a meal with him. After that, he began regular visits to her lodgings and gave her small amounts of money, promising to find her work. There were times when he shared a room with her, and at first he kept to a chair in the room. Harris wrote ‘but after the first few nights he did not.’ In her evidence she said that she did not have intercourse with him. However, he did attempt to on several occasions, she went on,’ when she repulsed his advances, she claimed, that he had ‘relieved himself.’

Harris went on saying that there were other aspects of their odd relationship during her very long examination. She said that Davidson had often said he would divorce his wife and then marry Harris. She said there was another occasion when she and another girl, who was dressed in her nightgown danced in front of him, supposedly in order to judge their dancing abilities. The picture that Harris painted and the evidence she gave, if true, Tucker said that it was a ‘man completely out of control, who was running around London entertaining teenage girls and adopting the guise of a friendly priest to ingratiate himself.’

The next witnesses were a number of landladies, waitresses and other women, all of whom confirmed Davidson’s habitual pestering without making any serious accusation of misconduct.

Davidson takes the stand

On the 25th May Davidson took the stand, he appeared totally relaxed and ready for some ‘fun.’ His light-hearted, even flippant manner created, said Tucker, ‘the flavour of a comedy routine with Davidson’s counsel as the ‘straight man.’ Davidson’s financial problems were aired – he took great exception when his association with Gordon was presented as a ‘partnership in crime.’

However, he was soon back as his usual self when he caused disbelief as well as amusement in the court when, questioned about the ‘boil-lancing incident with Rose Ellis, he professed not to know what a ‘buttock’ was and claiming, that it was a phrase I have honestly never heard. So far as I remember, it is a little below the waist. At this stage, only Harris’s largely uncorroborated testimony had provided ant specific allegations of immorality, the rest of the evidence was inconclusive and it seemed that the prosecution might fail. Then, Davidson’s cause was severely damaged, however when Oliver produced a photograph of him, which was taken on the 28th March 1932, with a nearly naked girl. She was Estelle Douglas, the 15 year old daughter of one of Davidson’s oldest friends. Davidson explained that the picture had been intended as a publicity shot to help the girl find work as an actress. He protested that he had been set up, and did not know she was naked under her shawl; he thought she was wearing a bathing suit, as she had been in an earlier photograph. On the 6th June after the closing speeches from both sides, the court adjourned until the 8th July to allow the Chancellor, who alone would determine the outcome of the proceedings, to consider his verdict.

During the lengthy court proceedings Davidson continued to officiate at Stiffkey and Morston, although his erratic attendance meant that often substitutes had to be used to take the various services. On the 12th June 1932, the Rev. R.H. Cattrell arrived to officiate at the evening service in Stiffkey. He had just begun when Davidson entered the church and attempted to seize the Bible. The two priests wrestled with the Holy Book for some seconds before Cattrell yielded, telling the congregation, ‘as nothing short of force will prevent Mr Davidson from taking part, I can see nothing left for me to do but to withdraw.’

The crowds of reporters and sightseers who arrived at weekends led the Archdeacon of Lynn to issue a statement deploring the ‘Media Circus’ and asking that the ‘full spirit of worship’ be restored to the Sunday Services.


On the 8th July 1932 Keppel North announced his verdict, Davidson was found guilty on all five charges of immorality. The sentence would be determined by the bishop, in the meantime, Davidson was entitled to seek leave of appeal to the Privy Council. Sorely in need of funds to meet his ever mounting legal costs, Davidson reverted to his old carer as a stage entertainer. On the 18th July he made his debut with a  variety act at the Prince’s Cinema in Wimbledon and later toured the provinces until, possibly dissuaded by the pressure from the Church Authorities, theatres declined to book him. He then continued his public performances by appearing in a barrel on the Blackpool seafront, ‘Golden Mile’ where thousands paid to observe him through a small window. Not everyone was impressed. In fact one customer recalling this event some years later said, ’He was very tatty and the place stank.’ He shared his sea front billing with, , among other attractions, ‘Mariana, the Gorilla Girl, the ‘Bearded Lady from Russia and Dick Harrow, the world’s ‘fattest man.’

To the consternation of Hammond and some other parishioners, the bishop delayed issuing an instruction forbidding Davidson to preach. After Hammond locked the church in Morston, the rector preached to a large congregation on the grass outside the church. In August, Davidson’s licence to minister as a priest was revoked, his last service was at the morning service in Stiffkey on the 21st August 1932, when around 1.000 people congregated outside the church. That afternoon he demanded Hammond to hand over the Morston church keys be handed over to him. Hammond refused, in fact he turned Davidson around, so facing the opposite way and then administered a hefty kick to his ‘rear end.’ Hammond was later fined for this assault on Davidson.

No regrets

In July and again in October, Davidson was refused leave to appeal to the Privy Council on the grounds of either fact or law. The Consistory Court then reconvened for sentencing Davidson at Norwich Cathedral on the 21st October 1932. Davidson was allowed to briefly address the Court where he admitted his behaviour had been indiscreet, but regretted none of his actions and proclaimed his innocence in the strongest possible manner ‘of any of the graver charges that had been made against him.’

Then, in what can only be described as ‘a horrible little ceremony. Bishop Pollock delivered the most severe sentence available – that of deposition; saying ‘now therefore me, Bertram … do thereby pronounce decree and declare that the said vicar Reverend Harold Francis Davidson’ being a priest and deacon ought to be entirely removed, deposed and degraded from the said offices.’ He was this defrocked. As the ceremony ended he made a furious impromptu speech, denouncing the sentence and declaring his intention to appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Consistory Court has awarded the prosecution costs against Davidson, who now faced enormous legal bills and now had no regular income. His only recourse was to return to Blackpool and resume his career as a showman; this became his ‘milieu’ for the next four years, interrupted from time to time for the occasion prosecutions for obstructing the walkway. He served a nine-day spell in prison in 1933. That was non-payment of rent that was owing to one of his London Landlady’s. He informed the press, ’while I am in the barrel I shall be occupied in preparing my case.’ Although his barrel act remained his staple performance, he introduced variations over the next few years. He was frozen in a refrigerated chamber, and roasted alive in a ‘glass fronted oven.’ While this was happening he was continually poked by a mechanised devil using a pitchfork.

Attempted suicide

In 1935 the freezing routine led to his arrest and prosecution for attempted suicide, (It was an offence in those days.) However, he won his case in court and was awarded £382 damages as a result of his imprisonment. How much Davidson made from his various acts is uncertain. Tucker believes quite strongly that the main beneficiary was his agent, Luke Gannon.

Meanwhile Molly Davidson had managed to acquire a small house in South Harrow, where Davidson spent his winters. Off season he worked, when he could get some, at one time he worked as a door-to-door book salesman and another time as a ported at St. Pancras railway station. However hard he tried he could not avoid press attention. In November 1936 he was arrested and fined for pestering two 16 year old girls at Victoria station. He had approached them offering them auditions for a leading role in a new West-End show. That same month he interrupted a church assembly at Central Hall in Westminster, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury was present. Davidson was prevented from addressing the meeting, at which he dropped numerous copies of a mimeographed pamphlet titled ‘I accuse,’ in which he listed his grievances and castigated the church’s hierarchy.

The cage held two fearsome lions

By 1937 the interest is Davidson’s Blackpool sideshows was waning and for that summer, he accepted an invitation to join the ‘self-styled’ Captain Fred Rye’s animal themed show in the east coast resort of Skegness. He considered this a step upwards in his career from what he termed as ‘the blatant vulgarities of Blackpool.’ In this new show his act consisted of a 10-minute address which was delivered outside of a lion cage, the cage held two fearsome lions. After giving the address he would enter the ‘lion’s den’ and spend a few minutes with them in the locked cage. This required great courage on Davidson’s part as he was so very fearful of most animals but lions in particular. A 16-year old lion tamer, Irene Sumner was there supervising proceedings. This act was billed as ‘Daniel in a modern Lion’s den.’ This was very popular and attracted very large audiences, strangely attracting significant numbers of members of the clergy.

On the 28th July 1937, at the evening performance, Davidson gave his usual speech in front of a packed house before entering the lion’s den as usual. The two lions, Freddie and Toto were sitting quietly on their stools. Then, according to one witness, who stated, ‘in scarcely credible terms, the little clergyman from Norfolk and one of the lions started acting out the classical Christian well-known story out in full. Later eyewitnesses reported that, after Davidson had cracked his whip and shouted, Freddie the larger of the two lions became agitated and knocked Davidson over, the lion then seized Davidson by the neck and started running around the cage with him and shaking him. Sumner struggled to pacify the lion, who by this time was really upset and was showing a fierce act of snarling at her. Eventually the lion dropped Davidson who lay there very still. By this time the audience were screaming and parents were struggling to get their children outside the tented arena. Irene Sumner managed then to drag poor Davidson to safety. He was badly gashed and pouring blood, He suffered a broken bone in his neck. One story that circulated at this time was that while Davidson was waiting for the ambulance to take him for treatment, the story says that he asked that the London newspapers be informed of this incident involving him, in time for the first editions. No one really knows if the story was actually true.

According to some press reports, Davidson sat up in bed and asked his visitors details of what had happened to him while he was in the Lion’s cage. However, most of the historians of this story believe that Davidson never regained consciousness. He died on the 30th July 1937, his death possibly hastened by an insulin injection administered by a doctor who somehow believed that Davidson was diabetic. The Coroner recorded ‘death by misadventure.’

His friends and well-wishers covered the funeral expenses, which took place on the 3rd August 1937 in Stiffkey churchyard, in front of a large crowd estimated to have been around 3,000 people. People who were unable to get into the churchyard found vantage points on roofs and in trees. The walls of the churchyard also gave a very good vantage point.

When later, the headstone was put in place, it contained a line from Robert Louie Stevenson and read, ‘For on faith in man and genuine love of man all searching after truth must be found.’

Meanwhile in Skegness, Rye saw Davidson’s death as a business opportunity and advertised this new attraction as; – ‘Come and see the actual lion that mauled and caused the death of the ex-rector of Stiffkey.’

By contrast, Molly Davidson’s financial plight had become desperate, when her family applied to the Church Authorities for help, Archbishop Lang acted on her behalf behind the scenes and eventually she received grants from two Church Authorities. Molly died in a Dulwich nursing home in 1955.

A fair Trial

Not everyone felt that the Reverend Harold Davidson received a fair hearing as this extract from the BBC Inside Out – The rector of Stiffkey shows.


Now, Harold has a surprising new ally. None other than the present priest at Stiffkey, the Reverend John Penny. He is the first churchman to speak out in support and he wants the case reopened.

“I think most people realise now that Harold had a raw deal. I think that the evidence that’s coming out shows more and more that the way the prosecution was handled, left out material which should have been presented.

“I think that today Harold would not have been convicted.”

Jonathan Tucker, who is writing a new book about the Rector says, “I’ve gone through the evidence of the trail… From what I have pieced together I think that he was a genuinely decent man. Perhaps a little naive.”

More allies

Now, Harold has a surprising new ally. None other than the present priest at Stiffkey, the Reverend John Penny. He is the first churchman to speak out in support and he wants the case reopened.

“I think most people realise now that Harold had a raw deal. I think that the evidence that’s coming out shows more and more that the way the prosecution was handled, left out material which should have been presented.

“I think that today Harold would not have been convicted.”

Jonathan Tucker, who is writing a new book about the Rector says, “I’ve gone through the evidence of the trail… From what I have pieced together I think that he was a genuinely decent man. Perhaps a little naive.”

Colin St. Johnson is the Rector’s grandson. As well as recently paying for his grandfather’s grave to be cleaned, he says the Church should come clean too.

“I have written to the Arch Bishop, but I haven’t had any satisfactory answers at all. They say ‘oh, it’s too long ago, he had a fair hearing’. Well he didn’t.

“The successors of the people who stitched him up don’t want to have anything to do with him.”

Written and researched by David Rowland.

Special thanks. 

The Law’s strangest cases by Peter Seddon. Published in 2001 by Robson Books, London.             

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