Wall Street Crash, Prostitutes, Vicar, Eaten by a Lion – What Happened in London on July 8th, 1932

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your London fix for July 8th.

Story time. History time.

Yesterday we were in 1898. We continue to fast forward. Today we’re in 1932.

July 8th, 1932.

The event the whole world is talking about is the Wall Street stock market crash. And today it hit rock bottom.

On July 8, 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell to its lowest point during the Great Depression.

But that’s Wall Street. We’re London. We’ve got other fish to fry.

And, yes, there’s a smattering of the usual this, that and the other news-wise. There was, for example, a minor train crash at King’s Cross. Nothing very serious. No one was injured. A little bit bigger than a points failure a whole lot smaller than a serious accident.

But we’re going to slip those moorings. Slip the moorings of the big league stuff. The Dow Jones in free fall, stockbrokers on Wall Street in free fall out of windows. And slip of the moorings of the nickel-dime stories.

We’ve got one that’s pure escapism. Quintessentially British. Bizarre, whacky, you couldn’t make it up.

Start with the Prostitutes’ Padre – a foolish, daft, naughty, probably slightly mad, full-of-good intentions, sexy vicar. End with him being eaten by a lion in a circus.

Like it? I thought you would.

Our Vicar is Harold Francis Davidson. The Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk. Yes, Stiffkey. As I said, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Our man of the cloth was born in 1875 in the suburbs of Southampton. But quickly enough there was a London connection. As a teenager, he went to school in Croydon, in south London. He wanted to go on stage. In fact, as a 20-year-old, he performed in a comedy sketch in Steinway Hall in London.

But Harold Francis Davidson’s father wanted his son to be a clergyman. And Dad ruled. He wasn’t the brightest young man. He toiled away at Grindle’s Hall in Oxford. And did finally get a degree. His contemporaries remembered that he had pictures of actresses on the walls of his room. But a curate he became. And he had some pretty good appointments. First in Windsor and then – and I like this ever so much because the church is near and dear to us at London Walks – St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square.

He married an Irish actress. They had four children. Well, they didn’t have four children. Molly, his wife, had four children. Harold Francis Davidson served as a naval chaplain during the First World War and he later admitted that he knew the fourth child was not his.

He was a busy boy. His wife complained about the ‘waifs and strays’ he put under their roof at Stiffkey. There were financial difficulties. A bankruptcy ensued. The financial difficulties were compounded by Harold’s falling into the clutches of a swindler.

But Stiffkey – the boonies – wasn’t much to Harold’s liking. Perhaps understandable, that. A harpy of a wife. Four small children. A vicarage full of strays and waifs. And so to the fleshpots of London Harold came. He was spending a lot of time here. He got an appointment as a chaplain, accredited to the Actors’ Church Union. He was working in and around the theatres in the West End. And what do you know, in that twilight world Harold was drawn to vulnerable women, some of them as young as 15 or 16.

Well intended, for the most part, it seems, he realised that such girls were easily led into casual prostitution.

His London stints were full of remarkable encounters.On one occasion he saved a teenager from drowning herself in the Thames. He said, “whenever I had any spare time in town, I kept my eyes open for opportunities to help that type of girl, namely, the country girl stranded on the alluring streets of London.” It might well all have been innocent, well intended. But there’s no question that it became an obsession. The Rev lived in rented rooms. He battled with suspicious landladies over unpaid rent. He said he was picking up an average of 150 or 200 girls a year. He would take them for a cup of tea, get them theatre tickets, listen to their problems, try to help them with accommodation and employment. But he had the misfortune to meet Rose Ellis. She would become his chief accuser. He certainly did her a good deed to start with. He paid for her medical treatment for syphilis. The boom was lowered in the summer of 1931. For whatever reason, the bishop of Norfolk took against the Prostitute’s Padre. The bishop hired a firm of private detectives to watch Harold’s comings and goings. And who he was associating with. He wanted them to collect evidence of Davidson’s slackness. And that slackness included Rose Ellis in the witness box. She testified that they had slept several nights in the same room, and that he had once tried to have ‘connection’ with her, as she put it. Harold fought his corner. He said his activities, seen in the eyes of ‘the icebergs of chastity’ could be construed as unseemly but they were still worthy of a man of the cloth. He said, ‘for years I have known as the Prostitute’s Padre and that is the proudest title that a true priest of Christ can hold.

The authorities didn’t think so. The trial was a sensation. It was proven that he had the keys to the rooms of young girls and that he often called on them late at night. That was at best circumstantial evidence. But then the prosecution produced its bombshell. A photograph with a naked 15-year-old girl. Admittedly she had her back to the camera but it was clear that she was starkers.

One headline read: Nude Photo Bombshell. It did for Davidson. He claimed he’d been entrapped. He said he’d been offered money for posing with one of his 15-year-old friends. He thought publicity photos would assist him in his endeavours. He was wrong. He was found guilty on all five counts of immoral conduct. He was of course deprived of his holy orders. And his income, his living. Next stop: the circus. Harold used his notoriety to draw crowds at fairgrounds and circuses. He was a big draw at the freak show on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. He was roasted in a glass oven while a devil prodded him with a pitchfork.

But in time that got old. He ceased to be a draw. Like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the reverend dropped like a stone. He was forced to seek employment as part of an act at a menagerie at Skegness amusement park. They billed him as A Modern Daniel in a Lion’s Den. He was tasked with entering a cage holding two lions. He’ be in there for ten minutes, talking to the spectators about the injustice of his case. One day one of the lions had had enough. It mauled the vicar. Killed him. End of story. In the words of his biographer, “the vicar of Stiffkey was indeed foolish and eccentric both in his life and in the manner of his death.” And the July 8th, 1932 connection? It was the day judgement was handed down. As the Evening Post put it, “The Reverend Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, was found guilty by the Church Consistory Court in Westminster, of immoral conduct in respect of Rosie Ellis and Barbara Harris, of improper suggestions to a waitress, of kissing and embracing Miss Harris, of accosting and importuning other waitresses…Politics were the basis of the accusations; he was innocent, but his enemies were more powerful.”

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast for July 8th. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –

to front our walks with distinguished

professionals. By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare

Company actors, a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the Guide of the Year Award)… well,

you get the idea. As that travel writer

famously put it, “if this were a golf

tournament, every name on the

Leader Board would be a London

Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya soon.

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