Lord Montagu: trial that heralded gay law reform

lord montagu

The Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser reported on January 25 1954, that – shock, horror – men DANCED TOGETHER at a party hosted by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. The trial of Montagu (27), his cousin, Major Michael Pitt-Rivers (37), and London Daily Mail diplomatic correspondent Peter Wildeblood (30) consumed a lot of newsprint that year.

However, despite the best attempts of homophobes, Lord Montagu’s trial became the catalyst for gay law reform in Britain — something which prompted movement on the issue in other countries, including Australia.

Agent provocateurs, illegal searches, tapped phones, forged documents

The Montagu trial demonstrates the importance of combatting homophobes at every turn. Because just one determined bigot can wreak untold damage on numerous lives. David Maxwell Fife seems an unlikely candidate for that. After all, he helped draft the European Convention on Human Rights. But he was nevertheless a vicious homophobe.

Appointed Home Secretary by Winston Churchill in 1951, Maxwell Fife began a campaign to “rid England of this male vice … this plague.”

Graham Stewart wrote in the London Times, “A year after his arrival at the Home Office, the combined prosecution rate for actual or attempted sodomy or gross indecency had soared to 5,443 (it had been 1,276 in 1939).”

Stewart wrote that Maxwell Fife benefitted from a compliant commissioner of police who supported his objective.

“The use of agents provocateurs to trap gay men was greatly increased. In seeking a conviction in the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the police made searches without the appropriate warrants, tapped telephones and forged documents.”

Lord Montagu

Reputedly Britain’s most eligible bachelor, Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, hobnobbed with society beauties like Princess Margaret. But the bisexual baron also conducted discreet liaisons with men.

In 1953, Montagu reported the theft of a camera after a troupe of boy scouts camped on the Beaulieu estate. In November, police charged him with molesting a 14-year-old member of the troupe. Montagu later said that of everything he endured over the following few years, the false charges of pedophilia caused him the most distress.

Although the charges failed, the police obviously found something they thought worth pursuing. (Perhaps shots of men in bathing suits on the stolen camera.)

In December, evidence of criminal sexual activity came to light in what the prosecution later described as an ‘entirely independent investigation by the RAF’ and ‘entirely unconnected to the previous case’.

Searches conducted by the RAF turned up love letters from Montagu and his friend Peter Wildeblood to two airmen. (Two airmen who had been photographed by Montagu in bathing suits.)

It seems a remarkable coincidence.

Breathed unnatural love in almost every line

The prosecutor later said the letters “breathed unnatural love in almost every line.”

The two airmen admitted being gay, ‘queens’, one said. They also provided the names of numerous other airmen and civilians they’d had sex with. But the investigators only ever took an interest in the three well-known men among their lovers. Both the RAF and the Director of Prosecutions agreed not to prosecute the two airmen who consequently became Crown witnesses against Montagu, Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood.

Both Montagu and Pitt-Rivers denied being gay while Wildeblood openly admitted his homosexuality. All three pleaded not guilty and derided the trial as part of Home Secretary Maxwell Fife’s homosexual witchhunt.

Found guilty, Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood received 18-month sentences and Montagu a year.

Montagu paid for a transcription of the proceedings. His son said decades later, “My father had foresight. He knew history was being made. That’s why he commissioned his own transcripts of the trial. He knew that one day these would be an important record.”

All three of the men lived full lives following their release from prison.

Lord Montagu continued to develop the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. He chaired English Heritage for almost a decade and remained in the House of Lords until his death in 2015. He married twice but was openly bisexual.

Against the Law

On his release from prison, Peter Wildeblood published the book Against the Law. Adam Mars-Jones wrote in the Guardian, “The title plays with the overtones of the word ‘against’: before Wildeblood was sent to prison his activities merely contravened the law; afterwards they opposed it.”

Wildeblood’s testimony to the 1957 Wolfenden Committee is credited as helping pave the way for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom a decade later.

Michael Pitt-Rivers married in 1958. However, the marriage ended in divorce in 1965. He spent the remaining 34 years of his life with a male partner.

Ironically, it was homophobe David Maxwell Fife who set up the Wolfenden Committee. He never dreamed it would recommend decriminalising homosexuality. Perhaps the dickhead never knew that committee chairman Sir John Wolfenden had a gay son.

David Maxwell Fife is a powerful reminder of the need to combat homophobia at every turn. Queer news platforms must hold haters to account and ignore misinformed complaints that reporting on phobes ‘gives them oxygen’. Bigots aggressively pursue their hate-filled agendas. However, knowledge is power. A forewarned community is forearmed.

Because sadly, love does not always win.

Read more: January 24 <— On this day —> January 26

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  1. Yolande Stiffel
    26 January 2022

    I find these articles very informative and they remind us of just what a difficult time it was for gay men let alone others in the LGBTQIA community. Thank you for sharing them.

  2. 27 January 2022

    Thank you for reading them and supporting our communities, Yolande! You are one of my favourite allies <3

  3. Russell Grenning
    27 January 2023

    Peter Wildeblood’s trailblazing book is still in print and is highly recommended as an authentic insight into the homophobia in the UK in the 1950s.

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