Sometimes a real life story makes a better tale than any Author could dream up. This for me is one of those tales.
by Neil Calladine
Skegness was, and remains, a popular holiday and day-trip destination for many people from this area. However, in the summer of 1937, an event occurred resulting in the untimely demise of a famous character ensconced in a den of lions. The lion show remained for a few seasons, happy to trade on the notoriety. Perhaps your parents or grandparents can recall it? Neil Calladine tells the story of a chain of events centred around the Rector of Stiffkey and the day of 28th July 1937.
Harold Francis Davison, the former rector of Stiffkey, stood only 5’3″ tall and was known to his parishioners as ‘Little Jimmy’. An extrovert all his life he was born into a family of clerics. He has been described as a naturally gifted organiser, fund-raiser, public speaker and setter-up of charities. Always theatrical as a schoolboy he mounted performances to raise money for his local church, specialising in comic monologues.
He went to Oxford, after which he took holy orders and worked as a curate in St Martin-in-the-Fields London, where he met and fell in love with an Irish singer and Suffragette called Moyra (known as Molly). They married and moved to the village of Stiffkey (north Norfolk coast), where he spent a fortune renovating the rectory. This was opened with a charity performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – watched by the Princess of Wales – with Harold himself was perched in a tree playing Puck.
It was to be a troubled marriage. While he was serving as a Naval Chaplain in the Middle East during the war, Moyra met and became pregnant by a soldier – she gave the baby up for adoption. At the same time he lost most of his money to a rogue dealer and ended up with his children as tutor to the Maharajah of Jaipurs’ Son for a year. Meanwhile, Moyra turned deaf and began a decline into madness – she had another child, which was adopted by Harold, by an unknown father in 1919.
They restarted their lives in Stiffkey, which was to prove his undoing. For the next 12 years every week he would visit London, administering to ‘ladies of night’ or, if he couldn’t find any, young single women, waitresses and shop assistants whom he thought might succumb to that way of life. He even advised one of them to take up a life in theatre – in itself not the most moral of existences in those days!
It all went wrong in November 1930. He had always returned from London late on Saturday night to arrive home in time to deliver his sermon on Sunday morning until one fateful night – Armistice Day – he missed the train and failed to attend. A local notary called Major Hammond, who disliked him intensely, complained to the Bishop of Norwich, accusing him of ‘immorality’.
The church had to take action, although when one looks at the events some of it was what may be described as highly risky in the moral climate of the times. One report states that despite the efforts of a private detective agency very little evidence could be used – an analysis of the trial transcript revealed that of 40 girls questioned, only one had a bad word to say against him – she was bribed with money and alcohol and changed her mind when she sobered up! Nevertheless, the trial went ahead – the star prosecution witness was a prostitute named Barbara Harris, who wrote to the Bishop to condemn Harold’s behaviour. (His granddaughter, Kathryn Collier, has since discovered evidence never presented at the trial including letters from the Rector to Barbara which, she claims, prove that he was merely taking care of her as he always claimed).
The upshot of all this was he was found guilty and defrocked, although his family still protest his innocence to this day.
He immediately began a new career as a public figure, applying for a licence to give dramatic recitations against the ‘bullying and double-dealing Church of England’. He went on to present all kinds of stunts to put his case, including exhibiting himself in a barrel in Blackpool, posing on Hampstead Heath beside a dead whale and taking part in a stage skit showing him in hell, prodded by red-clad devils with tridents! However, it was in Skegness he met his unfortunate end.
Captain Fred Rye had been involved with circuses and menageries all his life, during part of which he had a lion-taming act with Buffalo Bill’s Circus, where he was known as ‘Montana Fred’. He decided that he would open a lion farm in Burgh. A former employee of Bostock’s menagerie, he purchased two lions from Bostock and founded his farm – it was reported later that he had five adult lions and two cubs.
It was in Captain Rye’s show at Skegness that Harold presented his last stunt – billing himself as a sort of Daniel in the lions’ den, he went in the cage with an alpha male called Freddie and a lioness. Reported as being ‘toothless and doped’, Freddie certainly doesn’t appear toothless in the picture that appeared in the press. All went well until one day, concluding his performance, he stepped back to take a bow and trod on the lionesses tail. Duly miffed she roared her disapproval – Freddie jumped to her defence and mauled Harold. Harold was pronounced dead in Hospital shortly afterwards.
Thankyou to the University of Sheffield for the article