BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

BBC Homepage
England
Inside Out
East
East Midlands
London
North East
North West
South
South East
South West
West
West Midlands
Yorks & Lincs
Go to BBC1 programmes page (image: BBC1 logo)

Contact Us

   Inside Out Extra: Wednesday February 25, 2004

THE RECTOR OF STIFFKEY

Harold Davidson. Image  Copyright Kathryn Collier and Colin St. Johnson
HAROLD DAVIDSON | the centre of a Stiffkey scandal

Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk was perhaps better known as the Prostitutes' Padre. He was thrown out of the Church for immoral behaviour in the 1930s. But was he the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice?

Seventy years after the rector's disgrace, his family are launching a new campaign to clear his name.

Tucked away in the dusty files, new evidence is emerging that casts doubt on his convictions.

Double life

"I think today, Harold would not be convicted."
Reverend John Penny

Rector Harold Davidson led a double life. As well as his congregation in Stiffkey, he commuted to Soho where he ministered to a rather different flock.

These were down and outs and prostitutes, who he had helped for years.

The commuting Rector ran into trouble when he was late arriving back from soul-saving in Soho for the annual Remembrance Day service. The Bishop of Norwich was incandescent with rage.

Investigation

Doubting the reason for his Soho visits, the Bishop's lawyer had a private detective agency crawling round country lanes and peering into Soho café windows for signs of Harold and girls of easy virtue.

Stiffkey church
Stiffkey's quiet village church

The Bishop's detectives uncovered little information that could be used against Harold.

Analysis of the trial transcripts reveals that of 40 girls that were questioned, only one had a bad word to say about him and, at the time, she was bribed with money and alcohol. When she sobered up, she recanted.

Nevertheless, Harold was charged with five counts of immoral behaviour, which included embracing a girl in a Chinese restaurant.

Sensational trial

The Bishop's star witness in the sensational trial was a 17-year-old prostitute named Barbara Harris.

But now the Rector's granddaughter, Kathryn Collier, has discovered evidence never presented at the trial, which challenges Barbara's damning testimony.

Kathryn says, "These are letters from the Rector to Barbara, which show absolutely perfectly that he was just simply taking care of her as he always claimed."

Barbara Harris. Image  Copyright Kathryn Collier and Colin St. Johnson
Barbara Harris was the Bishop's star witness

Kathryn showed Inside Out a number of letters signed "your sincere friend and padre", written to a girl who claimed in court she never even knew he was a priest.

Inside Out managed to obtain another letter which was allegedly penned from Barbara to the Bishop. It contained 14-pages of lurid allegations against Harold.

Interestingly, the hand-writing and signature on this incriminating letter are noticeably different to others from Barbara.

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."

Family battle

Karilyn Collier
Harold's granddaughter Kathryn Collier

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."

Sad ending

Life became much worse for Harold, following his banishment from the Church. In an attempt to raise money for an appeal, he exhibited himself in a barrel at Blackpool.

He then joined a fair to preach from the lion's den. Sadly he trod on the lion's tail, which was how he met his end.

Seventy years after his funeral, his epitaph reads, "He was loved by the villagers who recognised his humanity and forgave him his transgressions. Rest in peace".

See also ...

On bbc.co.uk
Religion and ethics
Crime case closed

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

This week's stories

The Pilgrims' Way
Take a journey on one of the South East's most historic routes.

Cornish tea
Inside Out goes behind the scenes at Cornwall's tea plantation.

Storm chasers
Join the storm chasers in search of Yorkshire's worst weather..

BBC Where I Live

Find local news, entertainment, debate and more ...

England

Free email updates

Keep in touch and receive your free and informative Inside Out updates.
Subscribe
Unsubscribe



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy