SAMUEL Johnson, man of letters and all-round wit, was a great one for a quip. “When a man is tired of London,” he would announce, “he is tired of life.” Or, “Your manuscript, sir, is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” It's a wonder he didn't get a slap more often than not. “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” That was one of his. But for once, Samuel had it wrong. If patriotism fails you, there's always religion. The Church will take anyone. Look at Edward Drax Free, Rector of Sutton from 1808 to 1830, who filched the lead off the church roof, kept a stash of pornography in his rooms, encouraged his pigs to dig up the graveyard, frequently got into punch-ups with members of his parish, impregnated any housekeeper foolish enough to work for him and wound up shooting at the authorities when they finally came to turf him out of the rectory.
He was a bit special, was old Edward, and it took another century before a wayward vicar came along to rival his reputation. Reverend Harold Davidson of Stiffkey was certainly not so robust a character as Drax Free. His offences were mild compared to those of many other clergymen. But for the sheer outlandish panache with which he tumbled from grace, the Rector of Stiffkey is without peer.
Stiffkey, whose residents understandably insist on pronouncing it “Stewkey”, is to be found in the vicinity of Norfolk. Which was more than could be said for its Rector. Six days out of seven, you would have had a better chance of turning up the Rev on Piccadilly or thereabouts, where he ministered to the fallen women of London. Naturally, new ones were falling all the time, so that was where he concentrated his energy. He liked, as he cheerfully, indeed proudly admitted, to get them young - “from 14 to 20.” There was a better chance, he explained, of saving them. Specifically, he liked to get them young and pretty. The morals of ugly girls were in far lesser peril.
Davidson gloried in his nickname of The Prostitutes' Padre. No sense, he reasoned, in preaching to the converted, and he often failed to get back to Norfolk in time to do so. It was this which, in 1931, led to his downfall. He went AWOL for a service commemorating Armistice Day. The enraged churchwarden, a former army major, grassed the Rector up to the Bishop. The charge: neglecting his duties to consort with trollops
The case was to become Britain's religious trial of the century. A succession of witnesses, from
teenage tarts to knocking-shop landladies, arrived to testify. Some branded the Reverend a sex pest, others defended his indignant protestations of innocence. His case wasn't helped when he professed complete ignorance of the word “buttock”. The prosecution promptly introduced a photograph into evidence. It showed the Rector posed beside a naked girl unmistakably endowed with an arse like a pair of pink Maltesers. He was found guilty and unfrocked. The Rector, however, was a trouper - a real one, it transpired. He had paid his way through Oxford as an actor. Now he chose to exhibit himself as a sideshow act in Blackpool while he prepared his appeal. Crowds of eager gawkers would pay 2d a head to stare as he sat in a barrel, scanning his law books. Posters declared that it was all the Church of England's fault: “The lower he sinks, the greater their crime.” The attraction proved too popular, and was shut down when the crowds became unmanageable.
After the inevitable failure of his appeal, the former Reverend divided his time between gatecrashing high-level church functions and pursuing his showbiz career. He staged a hunger strike in his barrel, but called it off after ten days when he was prosecuted for attempted suicide, amid rumours that he had been surreptitiously feeding on smuggled fruit. Next he shared top billing on Hampstead Heath with a dead whale. After that he would display himself supposedly frozen, or wearing a loincloth on a bed of nails, or roasting in a glass oven while a mechanical imp of Satan jabbed his harris with a pitchfork.
The Rector was terrified of animals, so it must have taken extraordinary courage for him to perform one particular routine in Skegness. He would roundly berate the Anglican hierarchy before climbing into a metal cage, home to a pair of dozy lions. One night, one of the great cats, a male named Freddie with no known views on the Church of England, gave the poor Rector a terrible mauling.
As Davidson lay fatally wounded in hospital, the promoter stuck up banners inviting the populace to witness “The lion that injured the Rector.” It was a sad but fittingly ludicrous end for a man who had provided the nation with so much entertainment. The Rector of Stiffkey remained an expert self-publicist to the last. “Don't miss. . .” he murmured with his dying breath,
“. . . the evening edition.”