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Faith and Reason: Scandal in Lincoln and death in Skegness

Sixty years ago it was the Rector of Stiffkey - and he was found guilty. Paul Handley wonders to what extent the Church is affected by the cases of its consistory courts.
The Dean of Lincoln will be pleased to hear that his court case this week won't cause the "incalculable damage" to the Church of England that he predicted on Wednesday. For what stain still attaches to the Church from a remarkably similar case which took place one hot July 63 years ago?

It would be unwise (and expensive) to overstress the similarities. For one thing, in the earlier case the Rev Harold Davidson was found guilty of "immoral acts, immoral conduct, and immoral habit". For another, Davidson met his end in a tragic but farcical accident in a circus sideshow. Dean Jackson is very much alive, and of course, not a showman at all. But still . . .

Harold Davidson was known as "the prostitute's padre". His living, from 1906 until he was deprived of it in 1932, was Stiffkey in Norfolk; but his parish was Soho. Throughout the 1920s, he would spend six days in Soho, on the streets, in cafes and theatres, befriending teenage girls who had come to London and yet retained some innocence - feeding them, helping them to find a (different) position. He would take the night train on Saturday to be in Stiffkey for the Sunday morning service, then return to London early on Monday. The only variation was during rail strikes.

The cause for scandal was clearly in London; but the accusation of impropriety eventually came from a major in Norfolk. The Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Bertram Pollock, set two men from the Arrow Detective Agency on to Davidson, and finally they produced a body of evidence against the priest. (Most of this was never produced in court, having been obtained with the help of somewhere between four and eight glasses of port in the saloon bar of the Grant Hotel, Charing Cross.)

The consistory court case began in Church House, Westminster, in March 1932, before the Worshipful F. Keppei North. Davidson was charged with five charges of immorality under the Clergy Discipline Act, 1892. He denied them all.

The press crawled all over the case: even before the trial began, North fined the Daily Herald and the Empire News for contempt of court. Headlines like "Rector's midnight call on waitress" and "Artist's model for whom Rector took room" ensured that seats in the public gallery were always at a premium. In the end, though, despite the hundreds of girls whom Davidson had befriended, the case swung on the evidence of one young woman, and a photograph.

The woman was Barbara Harris, who had written to the Bishop shortly before the trial: "Others might stand up to him because they believe him to be an accentric [sic] nice old man, as I believed at one time. I know lots of things against him."

Harris had been 16 when she first met Davidson in 1930. For the first three months he had visited her regularly, posing as her uncle. Later, he had let her stay in his rooms, initially arranging to sleep elsewhere, but soon returning each night and pestering her to sleep with him (or have "sexual connection" with her, in the court language of the time). She always resisted, she said, claiming to have blacked his eye on one occasion.

It was her word against his, and she, sitting beside the judge, who was hard of hearing, to give her evidence, clearly made the better impression. Davidson's defence was inconsistent and muddled, alternately sober and truculent. Lost in the 2,300 pages of transcript were little warning bells, like a landlady's testimony that Harris lived in a world of fantasy and had expressed the wish to be involved in a big trial.

But it was the photograph that did for Davidson. The clergyman is shown with the 15-year-old Estelle Douglas, helping her to pose, he said, for an artistic tableau. The shawl, the only thing she is wearing, has slipped. When Davidson tried to explain something about the photograph (maybe to point out the innocent-looking aspidistra in the background), North recoiled: "Keep your distance, Sir." Davidson was lost. The guilty verdict was pronounced on 8 July. Davidson was defrocked three months later.

Attempting to raise money for an appeal, Davidson accepted a job as an attraction on Blackpool's Golden Mile. For a while, he was on display inside a barrel, with a chimney for his pipe smoke. Later, he shared a cage with two lions in Skegness. On 28 July 1937, one of them mauled him to death.

Dean Jackson complains about his treatment at Lincoln. At least they haven't yet thrown him to the lions.