Date of Birth: 20 October 1926, London, UK
Birth Name: Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu
Nicknames: Lord Montagu
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who has died aged 88, was the founder of the National Motor Museum, a pioneer of the stately home movement and, as a hereditary member of the House of Lords, an active parliamentarian whose views on heritage and transport commanded widespread respect.
His name became more widely known, however, through his involvement in what became known as “The Montagu Case”. In 1953 Montagu, although engaged to be married, was arrested on a charge of sexually assaulting a boy scout at his beach-hut on the shores of the Solent. The charges were thrown out, but shortly after his acquittal the young peer was re-arrested, together with his cousin, the Dorset landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers, and the diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail, Peter Wildeblood.
This time the charges involved homosexual activities with two aircraftmen who had turned Queen’s Evidence and were prepared to testify against the accused. In a lurid and highly publicised trial at Winchester Assizes, Montagu vigorously protested his innocence. He was, however, found guilty, albeit on lesser charges than those against his co-defendants.
All three were sentenced to prison but there was widespread public disquiet. This was prompted partly by what was perceived as the unfair victimisation of a public figure, together with serious irregularities in police behaviour, which even involved tampering with Montagu’s passport.
There was also concern about the criminality of sexual acts between consenting adults. Unlike the discredited boy scouts in the earlier case the aircraftmen were adults and at no time complained that they had been forced to commit any acts without their willing agreement. As a direct result of the case a committee of enquiry was set up under the chairmanship of Sir John Wolfenden and, after a lengthy delay, the law on homosexuality was eventually reformed.
Montagu always believed that he and his friends were the victims of a reactionary conspiracy headed by diehards like the home secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, later Lord Kilmuir, and Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice. Montagu always maintained that men such as this not only saw “reds” under every bed, they saw them in every bed as well.
Montagu served almost a year in prison at Wormwood Scrubs and Wakefield before returning to resume the running of his family estate in Hampshire and to pursue his interests in motoring, journalism and politics. For many years he declined to comment publicly on the events surrounding his imprisonment but in 2000 he published a candid autobiography, Wheels within Wheels, in which he wrote frankly about all aspects of his life and declared his belief that bi-sexuality was a universal condition and one which would come to be acknowledged as such. As a result of the case and his unrepentant candour he became an unlikely icon of the gay movement, of which he himself was never an active member.
Indeed the trauma of the case was such that when it came to writing his memoirs he could still not face the prospect of reading the case transcripts and papers stored away in a trunk in the vaults of Coutts Bank but instead retained a ghost-writer to read the material and write a draft, which he finally brought himself to correct.
Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu was born on October 20 1926. His father, the second Lord Montagu, had already fathered four daughters by his two wives, as well as another girl, born to his mistress Eleanor Thornton, his sometime secretary and the model for the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy .
His father had been trying for a son and heir for 36 years and according to legend the local euphoria was such that at dawn on the day of the birth the sleeping swans on the Beaulieu River suddenly took off and flew three times round Palace House.
The second Baron died when Edward was only two and a half so the boy succeeded to the title in 1929. Lord Montagu, a somewhat sickly blond child, cruelly nicknamed the white mouse, was brought up in an almost exclusively female household of mother, nannies, governesses and sisters. In later life he used to wonder whether this feminine domination contributed to his own ambiguous sexuality.
His conventional upper-class education at St Peter’s Court, Broadstairs, and Eton was interrupted by the Second World War. This led first to evacuation along with the rest of St Peter’s to a country house in Devon and later with a small group of other affluent refugees to the Canadian Ridley College, where he learnt to appreciate ice cream and jazz – two enduring passions. Returning to Eton two-and-a-half years later and with a noticeable Canadian accent he had some difficulty acclimatising, and was relieved to leave school and join the Brigade of Guards Training Battalion at Sandown Park.
After an enjoyable period with the Grenadier Guards in Windsor and London he was posted to the 3rd Battalion in Palestine. This he later described as no picnic, since he and his comrades found themselves caught in the middle of the early stages of the savage Arab-Israeli conflict. This made such an impact on him that it was the subject of his maiden speech in the House of Lords, when he returned to read Modern History at Oxford.
At New College he shared rooms with his old Etonian friend Colin Tennant, later Lord Glenconner, the founder of Mustique and, like Montagu, a friend of Princess Margaret. At university he pursued an active social life to the neglect of his studies and was never entirely able to reconcile his membership of hearty traditional dining clubs like the Bullingdon with part-time jobs such as photographer to the Opera Club and the Experimental Theatre Group.
He eventually left Oxford of his own accord when his rooms were “trashed” by the Bullingdon after an end-of-term party featuring Terence Rattigan and an entire cast of Santa Clauses.
Thanks to such connections as Tennant, Montagu quickly found himself employed by the public relations agency Voice and Vision, where he was involved in the launch of the Eagle, a famous boys’ magazine in its day; publicised everything from South Pacific to Cadbury’s drinking chocolate; and became a well-known figure in café society.
He had just been voted the most promising young PR man in Britain by the American Institute of Public Relations when nemesis struck and he was arrested on the boy scout charges. For the next year or so he became the subject of endless blue jokes and innumerable bawdy songs. But he enjoyed the support of his close family and a wide variety of friends.
Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York , was a regular prison visitor and Montagu received letters of support from fellow Guards officers such as Freddie, the Kabaka of Buganda. Even prison had its lighter moments and a highlight of his time in Wakefield was a Christmas concert where he sung Noel Coward’s The Stately Homes of England as a duet with the former butler to the Duke of Sutherland accompanied on the piano by an ex-organist from Norwich Cathedral.
After the jury’s verdict on March 24 1954, Montagu’s counsel told the court bleakly that he was faced with a bitter future. Montagu was, however, resolved that as far as possible he would return to normal life. At Beaulieu he worked assiduously to restore an estate which, though ably administered by his widowed mother and a conscientious land agent, had suffered from years of low investment. In 1951 he had displayed a handful of vintage cars in the entrance hall of Palace House, partly as homage to his father, an early motoring pioneer.
Thanks to Montagu’s enthusiasm and entrepreneurial skills the Motor Museum rapidly grew to such an extent that Beaulieu outstripped more naturally endowed rival stately homes such as Longleat, Woburn and Chatsworth, and become one of the most popular and lucrative tourist attractions in Britain.
In addition to motoring activities Montagu also staged a number of concerts and festivals in the Beaulieu grounds, most notably a series of jazz festivals which culminated in what became known as the Battle of Beaulieu when, on 1961, a crowd of 20,000 got out of control. Much of the blame was attributed to groups of drunken or drug-crazed beatniks, though Montagu maintained that this was unfair to beatniks and that they were simply hooligans. The situation was made worse by the ineffective policing, which Montagu ascribed in part to a continuing vendetta on the part of the homophobic local chief constable. Montagu delayed his return to the Lords until January 1958, when he took part in a debate on the lighting of main roads. Thereafter he became a regular participant in political life and, after the partial reforms of the Blair administration, he was one of the few hereditaries chosen by his peers to retain his parliamentary rights and privileges.
His advocacy of heritage causes in parliament as well as his crucial role in the establishment of the Historic Houses Association led to his appointment, in 1984, as the first chairman of English Heritage. In almost 10 years in this post Montagu established what he believed were solid foundations. This appeared to be questioned after his succession by the colourful and controversial Jocelyn Stevens, and it was a matter of widespread surprise that Montagu’s achievements went unrecognised by any honour.
He himself used to say, ruefully, that he was already a Baron and could hardly expect to be elevated to a Viscountcy.
By his 70th birthday (celebrated with one of his characteristically flamboyant parties). Montagu had handed over most of the day-to-day running of the estate to his elder son Ralph, the child of his first wife, a local girl called Belinda Crossley. This first marriage also produced a daughter, Mary, a successful interior designer. The Montagus subsequently divorced and he later married Fiona Herbert, by whom he had a son.
Unlike Peter Wildeblood, who wrote a brilliant, polemical book about the Montagu Case called Against the Law (1955), Montagu never became active in sexual politics . He continued to take a keen interest in the arts, especially in London . At the weekend at Beaulieu he found rest and solace at his isolated Beach House, designed by Hugh Casson in the wide-decked open-plan style of the American west coast. Ironically this isolated and tranquil retreat was built on the site of the more primitive structure in which the infamous events concerning the boy scouts were alleged to have taken place in the early 1950s.