A single tear ran down Lord Montagu’s face, Even after so many years the agony and humiliation of that moment in his life stayed with him still.
The dawn police raid, the fraught days of the trial, the horror of his family at seeing him being paraded as a ‘cause célèbre’, the most famous since Oscar Wilde.
It is hard now to even comprehend how someone like the softly spoken, inherently kind, loyal Lord could ever have found himself in such a position.
But those were the days when merely being homosexual was a crime. This year is the 50th anniversary of the repeal of that law The Sexual Offences Act. It was abolished in 1967.
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was one of the most famous people to be charged with indecency but ironically, much to the charagrin of the establishment, it was largely due to his court case that the end of the law which condemned homosexuality as an ‘evil’ happened.
Instead of supporting his arrest and trial, the public rounded on the politicians and demanded an end to the vile discrimination.
At the end of his trial a huge crowd outside the court cheered as he appeared, some shouting ‘Good luck Sir!’
Speaking of those times Lord Montagu, who inherited his title at the age of two, recalled: ‘I was amazed when the crowd cheered. It was rather comforting, actually.’
The Lord, who died two years ago year at the age of 88, only spoke in depth about his ordeal once refusing to become, as he said sagely ‘a celebrity convict.’
He said: ‘It was never my intention to become a martyr for the ‘gay’ cause any more than Oscar Wilde went to gaol to become a homosexual icon.’
He said he didn’t want to become the Lord Brocket, or Jonathan Aitken of his day – both men went on to become campaigners and write books about their experiences in prison after being jailed.
Lord Montagu claimed: ‘I think it’s the wrong way to do it. If you ever want to recover yourself in the public’s eye, you’ve got to do something else, you’ve got to achieve something.’
But speaking about his ordeal years later he admitted proudly: ‘It is now widely accepted that the public reaction to our imprisonment was the single most important factor in the change of the law.’
Explaining why he had refused to speak about it at the time and for many years after he wiped away a tear and said: ‘It’s difficult to bring it all back. One does find it very hard to talk about. I feel very emotional about it.’
He had been living a double life when the scandal happened in 1953, engaged to Anne Gage from Shropshire.
But some of the week he would visit London gay haunts to spend time with men. It was a dangerous thing for such a high-profile man to do.
Lord Montagu was clear about his feelings at the time, later saying: ‘I am bisexual. To describe it any other way would be honest, I remember feeling that I didn’t have to apologise to anybody. I am what I am.’
But such declarations could never have been made openly in those days. The then Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (1951–1954) had described homosexuality as ‘evil’ and declared that he would ‘rid England of this plague.’ Every year over 1,000 men were jailed for homosexual offences.
Lord Montagu commented: ‘People can’t understand it now. They can’t imagine the furtiveness.’
As Lord Montagu said in his memoir, Wheels within Wheels, ‘the skies over Chelsea were black with people burning their love letters’.
‘There was a sort of them-and-us situation. It was all very secretive. There were all-male dancing clubs and I would go to the theatre, to films. I had a double life in many ways. I would have four days in London and three days a week in Beaulieu, where I would have weekend parties. I was a bachelor and we had all sorts of parties.’
The court case arose out of what Lord Montagu described as a ‘very innocent affair.’ He had invited journalist Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers, who was his cousin, to enjoy a holiday at the family beach hut in Beaulieu in 1953. He had met Wildeblood while working as a PR in London. The two men had become close friends.
Also invited to the beach hut were two airmen – Eddie McNally, 23, who was seeing Wildeblood at the time and his friend John Reynolds.
Homosexuals were banned from joining the armed services – a law that remained in force until recent years.
Recalling their time at the beach hut, Lord Montagu said: ‘We had some drinks, we danced, we kissed, that’s all.’
In court, the airmen remembered it somewhat differently, claiming there had been ‘abandoned behaviour’ and claiming sexual acts had taken place. Wildeblood denied this, instead saying the break had been ‘extremely dull.’
Whatever the truth it was to lead to one of the most infamous court cases Britain had ever seen.
Lord Montagu was first investigated by the police after he complained about a camera being stolen while some Boy Scouts were camping during August Bank Holiday that year.
Instead of investigating the theft, the police turned their attention to the Lord and claimed he had molested one of the Boy Scouts who was aged 14.
The case collapsed when it came to court, but Lord Montagu said it was the failure of this trial which was to lead to his second, claiming the establishment was ‘on a witch hunt and wanted blood’.
In January 1954 Lord Montagu was arrested in a dawn raid at Beaulieu He said: ‘I will never forget being woken up at 7am with the police banging on the [bedroom] door, and I was in bed alone, may I say.
‘There was this crash-bang, bang-bang on the door. One of the things they tried to take away was my visitors’ book to find out who had been staying there but the butler managed to hide it from them.’
After his second arrest, he first appeared at Lymington Magistrates Court where he was formally charged with conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons, then eventually stood trial at Winchester Assizes in 1954. Alongside the Lord in the dock were co-defendants Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers.
All three men were charged with several indecency offences against the RAF men and of conspiring with Lord Montagu to commit them.
Terrified at the consequences of jail and dishonourable discharge from the forces, McNally and Reynolds turned Queen’s Evidence and testified against them.
Lord Montagu was accused of engaging in sexual activity with Reynolds – a charge he denied.
Recalling his trial, Lord Montagu said: ‘At the time it was a sensation and attracted more publicity than any event in my life. For a while it made my name a household word, not only in Britain but throughout much of the rest of the world. It was a wretched business and caused me great distress. The trial was horrific. Frightening. Terrible. Very traumatic. One was always being caught out, being asked trick questions.’
He recalled: ‘I didn’t feel I’d done anything wrong. I feel that I let down the family a little bit. My sister and my mother came to court and they were marvellous and supportive. But my grandmother didn’t understand what was going on. She was born in the Victorian era.’
He said he admired his co-defendant Wildeblood who admitted his affair with McNally saying: ‘He was completely honest and spoke the truth. Of course, all that time we had no idea what the public was thinking outside, nor did we know what the attitude was going to be from other people.’
Lord Montagu paid for his own transcript of the case certain that in years to come it would stand testament to a terrible travesty of justice.
His elder son, Ralph, the present Lord Montagu, 56, keeps the document safe. He said: ‘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.’