Emily Bourne, Assistant Archives Officer, takes a closer look at Lord Beaverbrook's Private Papers from the Parliamentary Archives.
In the long run up to the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which partly decriminalised male homosexuality, the lives of individuals became caught up in both media and political campaigns for and against reform. In the early 1950s arrests on the grounds of homosexuality were at an all-time high and the exponential increase invoked strong emotional reactions for the government to confront the issue.
This can seen in the Parliamentary Archives collection. One of our records is a letter from Percy Elland, editor at the Evening Standard, to media mogul and politician Lord Beaverbrook. It reveals the news that Lord Montagu of Beaulieau had been arrested on charges of sexual offences for the second time. With him was Peter Wildeblood, a journalist at the Daily Mail, one of the Evening Standard’s primary competitors. Written in January 1954 Elland writes, ‘Scotland Yard are definitely stepping up this activities against homosexuals.’
Lord Montagu was arrested along with his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and his friend Peter Wildeblood. They were put on trial for performing “gross offences” and “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons” with two RAF servicemen during a party at Montagu’s beach hut. All three men were found guilty of “consensual homosexual offences”. Lord Montagu was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood were sentenced to 18 months.
The Montagu trial was a catalyst which increased the public desire for law reform. This was reflected in the House of Commons when MPs including Sir Robert Boothby and Desmond Donnelly called for a Royal Commission to review the laws.
Just three months after the arrests, it was announced in April 1954 that a committee would be set up to review the law relating to homosexuality. Three years later the Woolfenden Report, named after John Wolfenden who chaired the committee, was published and recommended that:
‘Homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence.’
Peter Wildeblood gave evidence of his experiences before the Wolfenden Committee, he also went on to publish his account of life as a homosexual man in an honest and emotive autobiography.
In his letter Elland writes, ‘there was a great roar of laughter in Fleet Street at the news that Kenneth Tynan has stood bail for Peter Wildeblood’. Tynan was a prominent theatre critic who features again in our collection when in 1967, he gave evidence before the Joint Committee on Theatre Censorship. He spoke in favour of removing censorship bans on stage performances.
This letter demonstrates the way the press often treated cases of homosexual arrest as sensational and scandalous, regardless of the experience of the men involved. It provides us with an insight into the subject of homosexuality in the mid-twentieth century and the complex emotional, moral and political attitudes which were confronted and contended with on the uphill battle to eventual decriminalisation in 1967.
To mark the 50 year anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act the Parliamentary Archives are putting on 2 talks in July. You can book here, https://soa19july.eventbrite.co.uk and https://soa11july.eventbrite.co.uk
You will get a chance to see the letter at the talks.