Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

Undiscovered heroes of history: Peter Wildeblood

To many, Peter Wildeblood is not a well-known name. And yet, in the fight to decriminalise homosexuality in Britain, he was a hero of giant proportions.

Born in the Italian Riviera but brought up in England, a scholarly young Peter attended Radley College and later Oxford, although this was interrupted by his Second World War service with the RAF in Rhodesia. After Oxford he became a journalist at the Daily Mail where he quickly made a name for himself becoming Royal Correspondent and then Foreign Correspondent.

Peter had risen through the ranks and was regarded as a highly intelligent man deserving of respect. He was, however, aware by this point that he was homosexual. The difficulty was that England was confused over how to react to homosexuality, which seemed, to the authorities, to be more prevalent then than it had been at any time before the Second World War. The investigators put this down to a ‘spreading of the disease’ caused by wartime soldiers being away from their families. The response was a major crack- down on all signs of homosexuality and the best way, the authorities decided, was a high profile court case to set an example.

Thus came Wildeblood’s moment of fame when he was arrested in January 1954 for ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons’. Nearly a year before Wildeblood had holidayed in the seaside cottage of a friend, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the youngest peer in the House of Lords (who was arrested with Peter on the same grounds a year later). He had not holidayed alone, however, having brought along his RAF lover Edward McNally and Edward’s friend, John Reynolds (also from the RAF).

All four, plus one other (Michael Pitt-Rivers, Lord Montagu’s cousin) were accused of homosexuality and committing indecent acts over the course of their holiday, but the two RAF men, (thinking the higher class Wildeblood, Montagu and Pitt-Rivers would get off with a fine), gave evidence to help the prosecution and thus gain lighter sentences. Lord Montagu denied all accusations but the true test came when Peter was asked if he was a homosexual. Throwing his entire case away, along with Montagu’s and Pitt River’s, he answered ‘yes’ and became the first homosexual to openly admit to it. Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers were sentenced to 18 months in prison whilst Montagu received 12 months.

After his sentence Wildeblood began campaigning for homosexuality to become legal. His big chance came in 1957 when he argued for the legalisation of homosexuality to the Wolfenden Committee, a board mandated to decide what to do about homosexuality. With Peter’s testimony, it was decided that private acts
of homosexuality should be legalised, a law passed in 1967.

Wildeblood spent the rest of his life campaigning for homosexual rights, returning to writing in many different forms until his death in 1999. His struggle was important, yet largely anonymous, and in that respect Peter Wildeblood is truly an undiscovered hero of history.

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