LORD Montagu was jailed for 12 months in 1954 in a controversial case that paved the way for homosexual acts between consenting males to be decriminalised.

Known as the Montagu case, the eight-day trial at Winchester Assizes was a cause celebre that horrified the Establishment and changed the course of British legal history.

Lord Montagu, then a 28-year-old socialite and the youngest peer in the Lords, was one of three men convicted of homosexual offences.

But the prosecution provoked a wave of sympathy from the press and public, many of whom felt it amounted to little more than an unedifying witch-hunt.

Lord Montagu's nightmare began after a blazing hot day in August 1953.

He and his friends went to his beach house for a swim and were joined by two Boy Scouts who had spent the weekend acting as guides at Palace House. One of the teenagers subsequently claimed that Lord Montagu had sexually assaulted him.

The allegation was followed by an agonising three-week wait in which the peer almost suffered a nervous breakdown.

He was finally charged and told to appear at Lymington Magistrates' Court, where he was booed and jeered by a mob of about 250.

The charges were eventually dismissed, enabling Lord Montagu to spend a peaceful Christmas at Palace House. However, his joy at being acquitted and returning to his old life proved to be short-lived.

At 8am on January 9 1954 police arrived and stormed into his bedroom, even though he was still in bed.

That evening Lord Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and a third man, Peter Wildeblood, were charged with conspiracy to incite two RAF airmen, John Reynolds and Edward McNally, to commit serious offences with male persons.

For Lord Montagu, the nightmare of the previous year was starting all over again.

He later recalled: “Investigations in this new case were instigated on the very day the first case against me collapsed. I could not help feeling that someone was out to get me.”

The two lawyers involved in the original prosecution evidently felt the same, refusing to take part in the second trial.

“Jeremy Hutchinson (the junior prosecuting counsel in the first case) made no secret of the fact that he thought the second prosecution monstrously unfair and that I was the victim of a witch-hunt being conducted in high places.”

Lord Montagu was accused of engaging in sexual activity with Reynolds - a charge he vehemently denied.

He maintained it was all remarkably innocent saying: “We had some drinks, we danced, we kissed, that's all.”

But he and the other two defendants were found guilty of various offences after what Lord Montagu later described as a biased summing up by the judge, Mr Justice Ormerod.

The peer was sentenced to 12 months in prison and his two co-defendants were both handed 18-month terms.

The reaction of the crowd waiting outside the court reflected public opinion. Reynolds and McNally were booed and jeered whereas Lord Montagu was greeted with cries of “good luck” and “keep smiling”.

Recalling the events many years later he wrote: “At the time it was a sensation and attracted more publicity than any event in my life.

“For a while it made my name a household word not only in Britain but throughout much of the rest of the world. It was a wretched business and caused me great distress.”

He was released after eight months and returned to Beaulieu, where he began the long and difficult task of rebuilding his life.

“I decided to treat my prosecution, the subsequent witch-hunt and the prison sentence that followed it as past history. It was a searing episode that taught me much about my fellow human beings and showed me who my real friends were.”

The fall-out from the Montagu case had a direct influence on the British legal system.

In 1957 a Government committee recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private be legalised. The proposals became law ten years later.

“It was never my intention to become a martyr for the 'gay' cause any more than Oscar Wilde went to gaol to become a homosexual icon.

“Nevertheless there are increasing signs that the Montagu case is beginning to take its place in homosexual lore.

“It is now widely accepted that the public reaction to our imprisonment was the single most important factor in the change of the law.”