A tale of a vicar and prostitutes
May 12 2009 By David Whetsone, The Journal
A theatre company called Penny Dreadful specialises in reviving "famously forgotten" lives on stage.
Currently on the road is the latest offering, The Missionary’s Position, which tells of the Reverend Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, a parish in Norfolk.
Those with very long memories might recall him as the Prostitutes’ Padre, subject of a tabloid feeding frenzy before tabloids were even invented.
One who remembers devouring the 1930s newspaper coverage is Mabel Ripley, who is now in her 90s and recently moved into a retirement home in Southport.
Still bright as a button, though, according to grandson Greg Haiste, and loving the fact that he is playing the Rector - of fond memory - in the Penny Dreadful production which comes to Stanley on Friday.
"Roll up! Roll up!" we might say to be truly in keeping with this true tale – but we’ll come to that.
You get the sense that Greg, who has had parts in Emmerdale and Heartbeat, never tires of telling the tale of the Rector of Stiffkey, who outraged stuffier parishioners with his concerns for the physical and spiritual well-being of the young ladies of London’s Soho.
So dedicated was he to saving them from all sorts of perceived dangers that he would take frequent trips to the notorious neighbourhood to minister to them.
Sometimes, it was alleged, the young prostitutes would minister to the rector in a way deemed not to be entirely in keeping with his calling.
"Occasionally he’d miss his train back to Stiffkey and he would have to spend the night in these girls’ rooms," says Greg. "But it is possible that his intentions were completely innocent and honourable."
On this point debate rages even to this day. The rector ran into real trouble when he was late arriving back from his missionary work for the annual Remembrance Day service.
The Bishop of Norwich, who was not a happy man, engaged a lawyer who put a private investigator on the case
Even though most of the young women questioned didn’t have a bad word to say about the Rector of Stiffkey, he was charged with five counts of immoral behaviour and thrown out of the Church – which is to say defrocked.
The main witness against him was a 17-year-old prostitute, Barbara Harris, but her evidence has subsequently been thrown into doubt. Descendants of the Rector of Stiffkey have striven to clear his name in recent years.
But it seems Harold Davidson might have been his own worst enemy.
Even if he was wholly innocent – claiming during the hearing, apparently, that he didn’t know the meaning of the word "buttock" – he was not one to blend into grey anonymity.
Penny Dreadful recall him as "perhaps one of the last great eccentrics", a cigar-smoking cleric who demonstrated his tap dancing skills while defending himself in the witness stand.
After he was defrocked, he continued to cause outrage by succumbing to the lure of showbusiness.
In Blackpool, he became an attraction by advertising his decision to fast in a barrel.
Alternatively he would appear to be roasted in an oven while being prodded by a figure dressed as a devil.
The end came in Skegness in 1937 where he was billed as ‘A modern Daniel in a lion’s den’.
He would enter a pen with a lion and a lioness and talk about the injustice that had befallen him.
One day he tripped over the lioness’s tail and the lion attacked and mauled him.
He died in Skegness Cottage Hospital after more shenanigans which suggest it wasn’t the lion who was responsible for his death.
Greg Haiste says his parishioners always loved him. Indeed, 3,000 people attended his funeral Understandably, the actor adds: "And I’m having a ball playing him."
See The Missionary's Position, directed by Mick Barnfather, at the Lamplight Arts Centre, Stanley, on Friday at 8pm. Tel. (01207) 218899.