Michael Pitt-Rivers

Major Michael Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (27 May 1917 – December 1999) was a West Country landowner who gained notoriety in Britain in the 1950s when he was put on trial charged with buggery. This trial was instrumental in bringing public attention—and opposition—to the laws against homosexual acts as they then stood.

Michael Pitt-Rivers
Michael Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers

(1917-05-27)27 May 1917
DiedDecember 1999 (2000-01) (aged 82)
Known forBeing a defendant in the 1954 Montagu trial
Criminal charge(s)"Conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons"
Criminal penalty18 months imprisonment
Partner(s)William Gronow-Davis
  • Captain George Henry Lane Fox-Pitt-Rivers
  • Hon. Emily Rachel Forster
RelativesJulian A. Pitt-Rivers (1919–2001) brother

Early lifeEdit

Pitt-Rivers was the son of Captain George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers and the Hon. Emily Rachel Forster, who died in 1979. A West Country landowner and conservationist of colourful antecedents, his great-grandfather was Lt-Gen A.H. Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers whose ethnographic collection, donated to Oxford University in 1883, formed the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum named after him.[1] He served in World War II, and in 1946 gained the substantive rank of Captain.[2]


In the summer of 1953, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu offered his friend Peter Wildeblood the use of a beach hut near his country estate. Wildeblood brought with him two young RAF servicemen, Edward McNally and John Reynolds. The four were joined by Montagu's cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers. At the subsequent trial, the two airmen turned Queen's Evidence and claimed there had been dancing and "abandoned behaviour" at the gathering. Wildeblood said that it had in fact been "extremely dull". Montagu claimed that it was all remarkably innocent, saying: "We had some drinks, we danced, we kissed, that's all."[3]

Arrested on 9 January 1954, in March of that year Pitt-Rivers was brought before the British courts, charged with "conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons" or "buggery".

Pitt-Rivers, Montagu, and Wildblood were charged. Pitt-Rivers and Lord Montagu denied the charges and denied also that they were homosexual.[4] After an eight-day trial held at the Winchester Assizes, on 24 March 1954, Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood were sentenced to 18 months and Lord Montagu to 12 months in prison as a result of these and other charges. Their case led eventually to the Wolfenden Report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom. It took ten years for this to come to pass, with the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Later lifeEdit

Michael Pitt-Rivers married Sonia Brownell, the widow of George Orwell, in 1958. The couple divorced in 1965.[1][5]

He spent most of his adult life with his partner, William Gronow-Davis (1941 – 20 September 2015), who inherited his estate on his death.[6]

Pitt-Rivers spent much of his wealth on a lifetime of travel, financed by selling the most productive land from the Rushmore estate he inherited in Dorset. In 1991, he began the restoration of the Larmer Tree Gardens, which had been in a state of neglect since the death of his grandfather in 1900. The gardens reopened to the public in 1995.[7][8] He and Gronow-Davis collected many works of art, including sculptures by their friend Elisabeth Frink.[9]

Michael Pitt-Rivers died in December 1999, aged 82.

The role of Pitt-Rivers in the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality was explored in the 2007 Channel Four docudrama A Very British Sex Scandal,[10] and the 2017 BBC film Against The Law.[11]


  • Pitt-Rivers, Michael (1966), Dorset. A Shell Guide, Faber & Faber.


  1. ^ a b c "Pitt-Rivers", The Peerage.
  2. ^ "Regular Army", Supplement to The London Gazette, 4 January 1946.
  3. ^ Lamb, Rachel (30 September 2000). "The real Lord Montagu". Southern Daily Echo. Retrieved 23 July 2015.
  4. ^ Aldrich, Robert; Wotherspoon, Garry (2000), Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: from World War II to the Present Day, Routledge, p. 445, ISBN 9780203994085.
  5. ^ Diski, Jenny (2002), "Don't Think About It", The London review of books (review of The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling, Hamish Hamilton).
  6. ^ "Outdoors: The thrill of the Chase", The Independent, 8 August 1998.
  7. ^ "Larmer Tree Gardens", Garden Visit.
  8. ^ "Lieutenant-General A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers", Past. The newsletter of the Prehistoric Society (newsletter), The Prehistoric Society, April 2000.
  9. ^ UK, Dukes Auctions, Dorchester, Dorset. "Duke's to sell the collection of the late William Gronow Davis MFH". Dukes Auctions. Retrieved 23 December 2017. William Gronow Davis was the lifelong partner of the late Michael Pitt-Rivers. ... Both William and Michael were great patrons of the arts and friends included Dame Elisabeth Frink, whose work is well represented in this collection.
  10. ^ "A Very British Sex Scandal (2007)". IMDb. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
  11. ^ "Against the Law (2017)". IMDb. Retrieved 22 February 2018.