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The death of Lord Montagu and why his notorious gay trial was a turning point for Britain

The death of Lord Montagu and why his notorious gay trial was a turning point for Britain

Lord Montagu: Convicted in gay trial, later came out as bi.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu has died at the age of 88. The name might not mean much nowadays, except that it became synonymous with one of the most notorious gay trials of the 20th century.

In March 1954 he, the journalist Peter Wildeblood and another aristocrat, Michael Pitt-Rivers, were convicted – on sketchy evidence at best – of gross indecency and sentenced to terms of imprisonment of one year to 18 months.

‘People can’t understand it now,’ Montagu said in an interview with the Evening Standard in 2007. ‘They can’t imagine the furtiveness. As someone said at the time, the skies over Chelsea were black with people burning their love letters.’

It all boiled down to what did or didn’t happen during a party in a beach hut in Beaulieu, on the south coast of England, one summer night. The prosecution embroidered a lurid tale aimed at the nation’s press of all-night male orgies and vice-laden drunkenness.

Wildeblood, in his account published the year after the trial, demurred, pointing out the party was rather boring and, furthermore, throughout the whole time the hut was surrounded by girl guides, apparently engaged in birdwatching.

But gross indecency was a very easy offence to commit, essentially a catch-all for any form of intimacy. Montagu himself confessed to having kissed one of the men present, which would have been enough without press-fuelled fables of Bacchic excess.

This was, in any case, a show trial, part of a concerted effort, truly a witch hunt, to ‘rid England of this plague’ of homosexuality, in the words of the then British Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe. It was a hunt which saw over a thousand men imprisoned at any one time for consensual same-sex sexual activity.

The year before his more famous trial, Montagu had been the subject of another police investigation based on earlier supposed gay Beaulieu shenanigans, allegations he always denied and which were eventually thrown out of court because of forged evidence. A high profile figure, clearly, the authorities had him in their sights.

To that end the police made every effort to secure a conviction this time round and to make sure the trial was as well publicized as possible.

‘There was this crash-bang bang-bang on the door,’ Montagu remembered. ‘The press had been tipped off and were already there,’ a point corroborated by Wildeblood, himself a newspaper man.

Lurid headlines followed, of rampant homosexual wickedness threatening the very lifeblood of the nation – headlines, as it happens, towing the government line; an all-too familiar tale.

The defendants were denied access to lawyers for hours after their arrests, the police bungled their own accounts and the three men’s convictions were secured on the statements of two witnesses, young airmen present at the beach hut, who gave evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

All the publicity, however, backfired. Despite their convictions, the mood among the public was sympathetic.

They were cheered when they left the court to begin their sentences. The injustice of it all became a key factor in the move towards decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Wildeblood, who had openly confessed his sexuality during the trial, became a key witness to the Wolfendon Committee – that committee’s report would later help secure the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

Montagu, understandably perhaps, wanted none of this. We may require victims of these brutal laws to become poster boys and girls for the cause, but few ever want to. Montagu was just one of the many who didn’t.

The terrible fear the state had imposed on gay and bisexual men in the post-War period took its toll. A public trial, the humiliation of conviction and the cruelty of imprisonment, the sense, as he confessed, of having let his family down somehow, induced him to deny everything.

It was only in his 2000 autobiography that he came out as bisexual, and only in 2007 that he felt able to talk publicly about the trial.

In the interim he’d married, thrown himself and his estate into the world of classic racing cars and went back to, as he saw it, a world of normality. In one of the interviews he gave, Montagu did make a belated claim for recognition as a sort of LGBTI hero.

‘Maybe I’m being very boastful about it,’ he told the Evening Standard, ‘but I think because of the way we behaved and conducted our lives afterwards, because we didn’t sell our stories, we just returned quietly to our lives, I think that had a big effect on public opinion.’

Maybe it did, although Wildeblood’s published account rather suggests that he, at least, did not return quietly to his life. It was his more active role before the Wolfendon Committee that almost certainly had a greater impact on the change in the law.

But Montagu’s long silence is entirely understandable. In the context of the 1950s he was supposed to be a pillar of the community, to take his punishment and carry on, not to make a fuss – to offer a veneer, at least, of respectability.

When, eventually, in 1967 the law was changed, one of the sponsors of the Sexual Offences Act, Lord Arran, warned gay men against any form of ostentatious behavior which might ‘make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done’.

Montagu’s enforced quiet would have conformed perfectly to this demand. But it’s Wildeblood who, I think, had the last word, concluding his account of the trial and his imprisonment with a plea for understanding, a demand for a more honorable sort of quiet.

‘The right which I claim for myself, and for all those like me, is the right to choose the person whom I love… to choose a partner and, when that partner is found, to live with him discreetly and faithfully.’

Kevin Childs can be followed on Twitter here.