Michael Augustus Fox-Pitt-Rivers
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About 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 homosexuality as they then stood.
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. He served in World War II, and in 1946 gained the Substantive rank of Captain.
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 foursome 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 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."
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 was charged along with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Peter Wildeblood. Pitt-Rivers and Lord Montagu denied the charges and denied also that they were homosexual. 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.
Michael Pitt-Rivers married Sonia Brownell, the widow of George Orwell, in 1958. They were divorced in 1965. 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. He spent most of his adult life with his partner, William Davis, who inherited his estate on his death.
His role in the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom was explored in the 2007 Channel Four docudrama A Very British Sex Scandal.
Michael Pitt-Rivers died in December 1999 aged 82.
Pitt-Rivers, Michael Dorset. A Shell Guide Published by Faber and Faber (1966)
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