Monday, 4 July 2011

Peter Wildeblood: Against the Law

Everyone should have heard of the Montagu trial that occurred in England in 1954. For those that haven't, let me set the scene...

Following WWII, there was a period in the late 1940s through the 1950s where homosexuality was not only illegal, but actively prosecuted in England, especially in London. Agent provocateurs were routinely - if illegally - used by the Metropolitan police to entrap gay men. The police commissioner at the time, Sir John Nott-Bower, had vowed to "rip the cover off all London's filth spots". The Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, called for "a new drive against male vice".

While I do not suggest that anyone should take for granted the received wisdom that there was any such thing as a 'gay pogrom' in London at this time (those who subscribe to this view would do well to read Matt Houlbrook's compelling 'Queer London'), the fact remains that gay men lived in a time when fear of persecution was very real; where it was safer to have anonymous encounters with strangers in 'public' places; where giving your name could mean your ruin, and long-term relationships were all but impossible to conduct.

Peter Wildeblood was just another gay man living in this world. In 1953 he was a successful journalist -  Diplomatic Reporter for the Daily Mail, no less. He lived quietly in a small flat and he tried to keep his head down and his private life secret. All of that was shattered in January 1954, when the police came for him. An old flame had turned queen's evidence against Wildeblood and two friends, Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Lord Montagu. The police's earlier attempts to nail a sex conviction on Montagu had proved futile, until Eddie McNally and John Reynolds, two young men in the RAF, were discovered with letters from Wildeblood and Montagu, which mentioned a weekend in a beach hut at Montagu's estate.

Very quickly, a sinister process was implemented. McNally and Reynolds were bullied and cajoled by the police until they agreed to testify against Wildeblood, Montagu and Pitt-Rivers, in exchange for immunity from prosecution themselves. The three men were arrested simultaneously, the flats of Montagu and Pitt-Rivers were searched without warrant, and all three were denied access to legal advice for over five hours. The press knew that they had been charged before they did.

During the subsequent trial, Peter Wildeblood distinguished himself by admitting in the dock that he was, indeed, homosexual (actually, invert was the term he used). He attempted to explain his sexuality to a jury of 12 men (Wildeblood had insisted that women be present: no women were called for jury service that day) who were all hostile to what he was saying. What he did that day was not only brave, it was unheard of. He tried to explain how he came to have a passionate emotional relationship with McNally, without committing any crime while they were together. It was a noble effort, and one doomed to failure. Wildeblood was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment.

His account of his life, from his early childhood; his war service; his relationship with McNally; his experience of the trial, is all recounted in Against the Law, a quietly-moving and well-reasoned book. There is no bitterness in Wildeblood's tone; he recalls the many, many injustices he suffered at the hands of the police and legal establishment with a wry irony which no doubt took years for him to reach. He is even sympathetic in his descriptions of the arresting officer, a man he felt 'under different circumstances, I might have made a friend'; and the prosecution barrister, a man 'I could not hate...because he probably believed [what he said in court] no more than I did.'

There are many, many parts of the book which today seem dated, and will raise a number of hackles - the usage of the words normal and pervert are just two examples - but the book is very much a product of it's era: as was the treatment meted out to Wildeblood in the first place.

The Montagu trial altered public opinion on the laws against homosexuality. At the beginning of the trial, Wildeblood recalls bleakly being spat at by 'a respectable-looking, middle-aged, tweedy person wearing a sensible felt hat...I was quite sure she had never spat at anyone in her life before. And yet, she had hated me enough to do this.' The thought depressed him greatly. However, the guilty verdicts against all three men saw extraordinary scenes unfurl outside the courthouse. A crowd of over 200 people gathered outside to protest the verdict, abusing McNally and Reynolds as they left the court under police protection, and applauding Montagu, Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood when they were escorted out two hours later.

Peter Wildeblood is a hugely significant figure in the history of (British) gay emancipation, but one that is too often overlooked. He was the first man to stand up publicly, on a national stage, and not only admit to his homosexuality, but defend it. Following his release from gaol, he was one of only three gay men who met with the Wolfenden Committee to discuss the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and he was the only one prepared to be named. The truth truly did set him free.

Kate Aaron is an author of queer and fantasy novels and short stories. Find all her books on Amazon now

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this piece. I was lucky enough to conduct an oral interview with Lord Montagu for my thesis, and here's some earlier work that I did on the subject


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