Michael Pitt-Rivers

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Michael Pitt-Rivers
Born Michael Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers
(1917-05-27)May 27, 1917
Died December 1999 (2000-01) (aged 82)
Residence The Rushmore Estate
Nationality British
Occupation Landowner
Known for Being a defendant in the 1954 Montague trial
Criminal charge "Conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons"
Criminal penalty 18 months imprisonment
Partner(s) William Gronow-Davis
  • Captain George Henry Lane Fox-Pitt-Rivers
  • Hon. Emily Rachel Forster
Relatives Julian A. Pitt-Rivers (1919–2001) brother

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.

Early life[edit]

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 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.[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.

Later life[edit]

Michael Pitt-Rivers married Sonia Brownell, the widow of George Orwell, in 1958. They were divorced in 1965.[1][5] 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.[6][7] He spent most of his adult life with his partner, William Gronow-Davis (1941 – September 20, 2015), who inherited his estate on his death.[8]

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,[9] and the 2017 BBC film Against The Law.

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


  • 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. ^ "Lord Montagu on the court case which ended the legal persecution of homosexuals", The Daily Mail, 17 July 2007 .
  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 .
  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. ^ "Larmer Tree Gardens", Garden Visit .
  7. ^ "Lieutenant-General A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers", Past. The newsletter of the Prehistoric Society (newsletter), The Prehistoric Society, April 2000 .
  8. ^ "Outdoors: The thrill of the Chase", The Independent, 8 August 1998 .
  9. ^ "A Very British Sex Scandal", Internet Movie Database .