When 28-year-old Lord Montagu was arrested for homosexual offences and put on trial at Winchester Assizes in 1954, the world turned its eyes to the Hampshire courtroom.
The exact charge was “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons”. Alongside Montagu in the dock were his co-defendants Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers — all three accused on the strength of the evidence of two RAF airmen who turned Queen’s Evidence.
Montagu was convinced he had done nothing wrong and paid for his own transcription of the proceedings so there would be an accurate record. Fifty years later the transcript is a unique historical document from a key moment in the journey towards equal rights for gay men.
“My father had foresight,” says Ralph Montagu, 56 and, since Lord Montagu’s death in 2015, the 4th Baron Montagu. “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.”
Pitt-Rivers, Montagu and Wildeblood leaving court after being found guilty in 1954
The case was an attempt by then Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe to expunge homosexuality from society. It was to have the opposite effect; by the end of the case crowds were cheering Lord Montagu. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison, but public revulsion at his treatment meant that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, decriminalising homosexuality, became inevitable.
Nonetheless, the transcript, now owned by Ralph, makes for startling reading; there can be an air of menace and disgust about the proceedings, with the prosecuting counsel freely using the term “pervert”. “There were certain words that were then used completely judgementally without in any way being challenged,” says Ralph. “It’s not bedtime reading, but it was a different age so of course attitudes were different.”
Born seven years after the trial, Ralph knew nothing about it until he was taunted at school. “Then my aunt, who had supported my father throughout the trial, told me about it. My father wanted to put it behind him.” Lord Montagu went on to establish the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, in Hampshire.
Unlike Wildeblood, who became a gay rights campaigner and wrote the 1955 book Against the Law, Montagu didn’t allow himself to be defined by the trial. He was married twice, first to Ralph’s mother, Belinda Crossley, in 1959. “It was only five years [after the trial],” says Ralph. “But she accepted that that had happened and accepted him.”
There were no parties at Beaulieu then, in 1967, when the act came into force. “I think he was quietly proud,” says Ralph. “What had happened to him had triggered a process, which ultimately resulted in a change in the law. The legalisation, in a way, was a footnote, because apart from anything else, he pleaded not guilty throughout.
“About a year ago there was a general pardon to those who had previously been convicted of homosexual offences, and people asked me: ‘Would your father be pleased?’ I know what he would have been saying. There wasn’t much point to a pardon, because they were innocent in the first place.”