When we were naming the different galleries in our attraction, we wanted to highlight prominent Brighton resident who we felt didn’t get enough recognition. George Montague is just the sort of person we wanted for this, not just because of his status as something of a local legend, but also because he is such an inspiration and his life and activism are important for people to learn about. With that in mind, here is a bit about George’s life and why we think it’s a story more people should hear.

Childhood

What’s so remarkable about George’s story is the way his life began so much like many other people’s at the time and should have continued on that way if it hadn’t been for the appalling homophobic laws in place. Being born in 1923 meant that George was young at a time it was illegal to engage in homosexual activity. As a child, he had lived a simple and happy life in a cottage on the grounds of a grand house where his parents worked. He helped weed the garden for pocket money, joined the Cub Scouts and ate mostly what his father grew in the garden or hunted with his shotgun. He loved singing and music in general but left school at 14 barely literate or numerate. Being good with his hands though, he managed to find work as an apprentice patternmaker and would go on to join the RAF during WWII and work as a drill instructor.

A Dangerous Double Life

After he got back from the war in 1946, he returned to his profession as a patternmaker and ended up starting his own business which proved very successful. Outwardly, he was a respectable hard working man but inwardly was struggling with his desires as a gay man. With the arrests of prominent figures like Alan Turing, Sir John Gielgud and Lord Montagu between 1952 and 1954, George was forcibly reminded that being gay was dangerous and he had to keep any gay relationships as quiet as possible. He discovered cottaging by accident in Slough, bizarrely enough, and began engaging in it regularly. Around this time, he also fell in love with a man for the first time and eventually moved in with him. Later, while in his 30s, he would marry Vera, a woman he knew through work, who he was very fond of. They had 3 children together. While he adored his family and tried to suppress his sexual urges with work, he secretly engaged in cottaging and relationships with men.

Scouting

A huge part of George’s life and something which would eventually break his heart was being a Scout leader. He loved the scouts and managed to bring scouting to sick children in a hospital before going on to found his own scout camp for disabled boys. It was one of the greatest joys of his life to help those children so when his time as a scout leader was so unjustly and brutally cut short, he was devastated.

Arrest and Disgrace

In 1974, George was arrested while cottaging (but not actually doing anything illegal) and charged with gross indecency on the false testimony of the arresting officer. Aged 51 at the time, George was a highly respected member of the community and managed to keep his name out of the newspapers but he did end up with a criminal record. Much worse though was him being dishonourably dismissed from his beloved scouts after he confided in someone he trusted about his conviction but was betrayed. People quickly began gossiping that he could be a paedophile which hurt him terribly as he would never have dreamed of hurting a child and hated how often homosexuality was conflated with paedophilia.

Activism and Being ‘The Oldest Gay in the Village’

After liquidating his business in 1996 and meeting the love of his life, Somchai, in 1997 long after homosexuality had been decriminalised, he began campaigning for men like himself, who had been charged with offenses simply for being gay, to receive pardons and apologies. In 2017, Turing’s Law was passed which posthumously pardoned tens of thousands of gay men who had been charged under homophobic laws. George also received a pardon and an apology from the Home Office which he was delighted with. After his first appearance at Brighton Pride riding a scooter made to look like a boat which didn’t show that he was gay and he’d felt bad about that, he came up with idea to use the Little Britain phrase ‘I’m the only gay in the village’ on a placard to become his slogan and he changed it to ‘I’m the oldest gay in the village’. He has been a fixture at Pride ever since and is always greeted with cheers and smiles as he leads the parade in his mobility vehicle.

George wrote his autobiography ‘The Oldest Gay in the Village’ (available to buy from Amazon) because he wanted people to learn understanding and empathy about homosexuality from hearing his story. He said that love was the most important thing there is and he hopes his story will inspire more tolerance going forward. We agree with him and hope we can play a part in introducing more people to George’s story.