Peter Wildeblood was born in Italy in 1923, the only child of Henry Wildeblood, a retired engineer from the Indian Public Works Department, and his second wife Winifred, daughter of an Argentinian sheep rancher. (He had older brothers from his father’s first marriage, but as they were already grown with families of their own when Peter was born, he was raised as an only child.) His father was sixty at the time of Peter’s birth, a circumstance which in later life he wondered was responsible for his sexuality.
Wildeblood was raised and educated in England from the age of three. He attended boarding school from seven, and at thirteen won a scholarship to Radley College, a public school near Oxford. From Radley he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, although he was forced to drop out after ten days because of ill health. It being then 1941, shortly thereafter he enlisted with the RAF and trained as a pilot in Southern Rhodesia (a British colony at the time; now Zimbabwe), but after a succession of crashes he was grounded and retrained as a meteorologist. He remained in Rhodesia for the duration of the war, where he had a number of sexual experiences with women, which only served to confirm his suspicion that he was homosexual. When he returned to Oxford after the war, he spent many of his weekends in London, where he moved in almost exclusively queer circles.After graduating with second-class honours, Wildeblood worked as a hotel waiter and sold articles to magazines such as Vogue and Punch. When the hotel sacked him, he wrote a play, Primrose and The Peanuts, about the North Rhodesia groundnut scheme. It played for two weeks in Camden Town to good reviews in the national press. Meanwhile, Wildeblood got a job with the Daily Mail, first as a royal correspondent, and was promoted five years later to diplomatic correspondent.
Around that time, he began a relationship with RAF Corporal Edward McNally. It was during a visit in the summer of 1953 to a beach hut owned by his friend, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, that Wildeblood came unstuck. He later recalled the weekend had been “extremely dull,” but when letters from Wildeblood and Montagu to McNally and another serviceman and fellow-attendee at the beach hut, John Reynolds, were found by the RAF, they were offered immunity from prosecution if they agreed to turn Queen’s evidence against Wildeblood, Montagu, and Montagu’s cousin, Michael Pitt-Rivers.
Wildeblood, Montagu, and Pitt-Rivers were arrested simultaneously on 9th January 1954. 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, and the story was the front headline of every major newspaper the following morning.
The treatment the three men received certainly lends credence to Montagu’s lifelong assertion that he, personally, had been the subject of a Home Office witchhunt. A trial the previous year, in which he was accused of having sex with a fourteen-year-old Boy Scout at the same beach hut, had resulted in his acquittal. Now, he maintained, the Home Secretary who had called for “a new drive against male vice”, and the Police Commissioner who vowed to “rip the cover off all London’s filth spots”, were looking for a high-profile conviction.
Nothing about the beginning of the trial seemed to go in the defendants’ favour. Wildeblood’s counsel specifically requested that women be on the jury: on the day the trial was convened, no women were called for jury service. Wildeblood recalled how, on one of the opening days, he was spat at in the street 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.”
Yet as the trial unfolded, its progress covered avidly by the national press, public mood began to shift. It became apparent that McNally and Reynolds had been bullied and virtually blackmailed by the police into giving evidence against the defendants. Their personal lives and integrity were called into question, their characters ripped apart on the stand. Far from the innocent young servicemen the prosecution had painted them as, they were seen as puppets of a vindictive system, or worse — cowardly liars, throwing their friends to the lions in order to save their own skins.
Wildeblood distinguished himself on the stand by doing something no man in the public eye in England had ever done before: he admitted his homosexuality (actually, he used the term “invert”). He attempted to explain his nature to the jury, and to describe his passionate and loving — and, he claimed, chaste — relationship with McNally. It was a noble effort, and one doomed to failure. Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers were sentenced to 18 months imprisonment; Montagu to a year for conspiring to incite acts of gross indecency.
The right which I claim for myself, and for all those like me, is the right to choose the person whom I love.
— Peter Wildeblood
The jury may not have been moved, but the public was. After the guilty verdict was read, a mob of over 200 gathered outside the courthouse. The convicts were convinced, as they waited for over two hours to be taken out, that the mob was there to abuse them. They couldn’t have been more wrong. McNally and Reynolds needed police protection to get through the crowds protesting the verdict, while when Wildeblood, Montagu, and Pitt-Rivers were finally brought out, they were met with thunderous applause.
Following the extraordinary scenes of the trial, the Home Secretary charged Lord Wolfenden, who was about to head a committee looking into the matter of prostitution as it pertained to the law, to add homosexuality to his remit. When Wildeblood was released from jail, one of the first things he did was testify before the committee, whose ultimate recommendation was the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Wildeblood’s biographic account of his life, trial, and incarceration, Against the Law, was published in 1955, shortly after he was released from jail (he served twelve months of his sentence). 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 does him credit. 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.” Writing in The New Statesman, CH Rolph called it “the noblest, and wittiest, and most appalling prison book of them all”.
While writing Against the Law, Wildeblood bought a small bar in Soho, frequented by ” a bizarre mélange of crooks, prostitutes, pimps and members of Peter’s own somewhat different social world” (in the words of Patrick Thursfield for The Guardian). The people Wildeblood met in his club were to inspire a second book, A Way of Life, published in 1956 and comprising a dozen essays detailing the different lives of those he had met there (although all served to try to normalise homosexuality and prove that it existed in all walks of life).
Two more novels followed, The Main Chance (1957) and West End People (1958), the latter of which was rewritten as a musical, The Crooked Mile, which had great success in the West End (The Times declared, “There has been no better British musical comedy for many years”). Wildeblood then moved into television, becoming a respected writer and producer for Granada TV. In the early 1970s, Wildeblood was offered a position at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He moved to Toronto, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1980. He worked for CBC for sixteen years before retiring to Victoria, where he indulged his passions for cooking, gardening, and nature, cultivating plants to attract hummingbirds, and photographing a friendly raccoon which used to sit in his pear tree.
I wish Wildeblood’s story could have ended there, but it was not to be. In 1994, he suffered a catastrophic stroke which left him mute and quadriplegic, but his brain was unaffected. For almost eighteen months, he was totally incapacitated, locked inside his own mind. It was a period of “near despair,” but when Wildeblood was finally able to breathe without a ventilator, a friend had the inspired idea of teaching him to type on a computer with his chin. His first fax read: “After a lifetime of one-finger typing, I think I can master one-chin typing.” Able to communicate once more, Wildeblood lost no time corresponding with friends and reasserting himself in his household, giving orders for how he wanted his beloved garden to be arranged.
Wildeblood died 14 November, 1999, aged 76. Lord Montagu was the friend who broke the news of Wildblood’s death to the press.
Wildeblood’s photo courtesy The Lotte Meitner-Graf Archive.
Born on this day: David Campos (44, American), member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Cheryl Maas (30, Dutch), Olympic snowboarder; and John Pérez (45, American), politician.