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A hammer and gavel

The scandalous trial that paved the way for British LGBT+ liberation

Image: A hammer and gavel |

Embroiled in a crackdown against homosexuality in the 1950s, Peter Wildeblood endured a punishing ordeal at the hands of the British legal system. But his experiences turned him into one of the country’s most vocal campaigners for radical change. This is the story of a true LGBT+ hero.

Life before the scandal erupted

Born on the Italian Riviera in 1923, Peter Wildeblood had a privileged upbringing in East Sussex, studying first at a prestigious public school before going on to Oxford University. The war disrupted his education, with Wildeblood serving as a pilot in the RAF and surviving several crashes. After these scrapes, he returned to Oxford, completed his studies and started working for newspapers.

Far from being some muckraking, crusading reporter, he forged a fairly quiet and unremarkable journalistic career – first as a royal correspondent, then as a diplomatic one. But his whole world was about to be turned upside down, with consequences that changed the course of the country.

The Montagu trial

The events that made Wildeblood famous unfolded in the summer of 1953 when bohemian aristocrat Lord Montagu of Beaulieu invited Wildeblood on vacation at his beach house in Hampshire. Wildeblood arrived with his lover, Edward McNally, and a friend from the RAF named John Reynolds. Lord Montagu’s cousin, Michael Pitt-Rivers, also joined them.

The gathering took place against a febrile backdrop where gay men were relentlessly hounded by the law. Homosexual acts between men were illegal, and during the 1950s, over 1,000 men a year were imprisoned. Police would even go undercover to entrap and arrest gay and bisexual men. Lord Montagu recounted decades later, ‘People can't understand it now. They can't imagine the furtiveness… the skies over Chelsea were black with people burning their love letters.’

When word spread about the beach house holiday, all five men were arrested on suspicion of ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons’. McNally and Reynolds agreed to give evidence in court that illicit acts of ‘abandoned behaviour’ had indeed taken place. Wildeblood, on the other hand, described the gathering as ‘extremely dull’.

However, when the love letters between Wildeblood and McNally were read out during the trial, there was no way to deny the kind of connection that existed between the men. When directly asked by the prosecutors if he was a homosexual, Wildeblood simply responded ‘Yes’.

This was a courageous and historic admission that helped seal his fate. Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers were handed eighteen-month sentences, while Montagu was given twelve months.

The Wolfenden Report

Even in an era not noted for its progressive beliefs, the verdict of the Montagu trial outraged many ordinary members of the public who’d begun to regard the witch hunt atmosphere with distaste. The outcry contributed to the government’s decision to set up a committee to tackle the thorny issue of homosexuality.

The committee, led by Sir John Wolfenden, interviewed a range of witnesses including police officers, psychiatrists, religious leaders and several men impacted by the law itself. Among them was Wildeblood, who boldly testified to his experiences as a gay man prosecuted under the law he was so determined to change.

The Wolfenden Report was published in September 1957 and recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The report also stated that ‘homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects’.

It took a further ten years for the reforms to pass through Parliament, with the Sexual Offences Act eventually being enacted in 1967. Although this was a huge triumph for the LGBT+ community, it was only the beginning of their journey toward equality.

The Act only applied to England and Wales, and the age of consent for gay men was set at 21, as opposed to 16 for heterosexual couples. The sexual acts were also to be kept strictly private, meaning that they had to take place at home with no one else present in the building.

Against the Law

As well as playing a key role in the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, Wildeblood also published a groundbreaking book, Against the Law, which was a frank account of his experiences with the British legal system. Encouraged by knowing he had nothing left to hide, Peter boldly declared his sexuality for all readers to see, writing that he wished to ‘give some hope and courage to other men like myself, and to the rest of the world some understanding’.

Wildeblood challenged common misconceptions of gay men at the time, such as the stereotype that they were inherently decadent and promiscuous. He also sought to expose the grim conditions at Wormwood Scrubs. Described by one reviewer as ‘the noblest, and wittiest, and most appalling prison book of them all’, Against the Law was such a milestone that Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, suggested that a copy should be sent to every MP.

Life after the revolution

Aside from his seminal role as a gay rights activist, Wildeblood had a successful career as a writer, lyricist and TV producer. One of his major projects was writing the music and lyrics for The Crooked Mile, a West End musical set in Soho that ran in 1959. Later on, Wildeblood moved to Canada where he remained until his death in 1999 at the age of 76. He’s remembered today as the man who dared defy the repressive expectations of his time and in doing so paved the way for queer liberation in the UK.