Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: Visionary stately home owner whose brushes with the law helped pave the way for the legalisation of homosexuality

His great idea was to establish a National Motor Museum and later became chairman of English Heritage and president of the Historic Houses Association

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Edward Montagu was one of Britain's formative figures as the country emerged from the gloom left by the Second World War. Both by his fortunes and his misfortunes, the young heir to the 7,000-acre New Forest estate of Beaulieu in Hampshire in the 1950s alleviated the strictures of an earlier age and helped make the nation a happier and more colourful place.

His great idea was to establish a National Motor Museum with his family's collection of vintage cars and invite the paying public to visit Palace House, his stately home. He would later become chairman of English Heritage and president of the Historic Houses Association, and lead many other bodies.

The Museum, which he intended as a memorial to his father, the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, an early car enthusiast, set off a fashion that allowed the rest of the aristocracy to reinvent itself in like manner: the Marquess of Bath followed suit with the lions of Longleat in Wiltshire in 1966, and the Duke of Bedford established his safari park at Woburn in Bedfordshire in 1970. Thereafter the English country house without at least a children's adventure playground to its name would, by the 20th century's later decades, be the exception.

In 1952, when Montagu opened his museum, he saw little choice but to make it pay, if the great house was to be preserved. With an inherited income of £1,500 a year and the house's maintenance costing, even then, much more, the need for money was paramount. "To any sensible, rational being," he said, "the house was a white elephant. The wise solution was to get rid of it. For me, however – neither entirely sensible nor rational – it was unthinkable."

The collection of 250 vehicles included the 12hp Daimler in which in 1899 Montagu's father, the Conservative MP and peer John Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, encouraged the future King Edward VII to drive, and the Museum, which still thrives today, would later boast Donald Campbell's world land speed record-breaking Bluebird.

In the early 1950s, the crowds of visitors to Beaulieu, who at home were still enduring the war's legacy of continuing rationing, could revel in a glimpse of opulence, the pre-war grandeur of Britain's upper classes transformed into a very modern destination for family days out.

The rising classes of lesser means but broadening horizons could now also examine the first models sculpted for one of the most celebrated bonnet ornaments of motoring's first age: the Winged Lady on many a ducal or princely Rolls Royce. These were said to have been inspired by the 2nd Lord Montagu's mistress, a passion he had long kept secret.

For the 3rd Lord, however, secret passion of another sort was to be the source of his life's greatest anguish. Edward, who had inherited the title at the age of two after his father's death in an accident in 1929, and who had taken over the running of the estate in 1951 on reaching the age of 25, was to fall foul of lingering old-fashioned attitudes hardened by fear of chaos after the upheaval of the war.

The Old Etonian, who completed his education at New College, Oxford, was accused of "conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons" and, with two other men, put on trial. This was the same charge faced by Oscar Wilde in 1895. No less than in Victorian days, homosexuality in the early 1950s was both forbidden by law and outlawed by a British establishment determined to restore, as it believed, a morality shaken by world conflict. Montagu always denied the charge, and in later life would still break down in tears at the mention of what became known, from the headlines in the newspapers of the day, as "The Montagu trials".

Yet the sensations of 1953 and 1954, at the end of which he served eight months of a 12-month prison sentence, proved to be the first glimmer of a gentler time. Onlookers, instead of jeering, applauded the young lord and his co-accused, and the notorious eight-day trial of Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers, and the Daily Mail's diplomatic correspondent Peter Wildeblood, was instrumental in prompting the deliberations of the 1957 Wolfenden Report that recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults. Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers were each sentenced to 18 months' jail. Homosexuality was eventually decriminalised in 1967.

Montagu was first accused of acts involving a 14-year old boy scout, for which he stood trial in December 1953 at Hampshire Assizes, and was acquitted. But on 9 January 1954 he was again arrested, and the trial with Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers followed at Winchester Assizes in March that year.

All the charges sprang from his having allowed Wildeblood and others the use of a beach hut on his land in August 1953. They centred on alleged events at a party in the hut at which Montagu was present. His return of a lost camera to a party of boy scouts camping on his land soon afterwards triggered an investigation that would later be regarded as a witch-hunt. The tortuous tale was recorded in 2007 in the Channel 4 documentary A Very British Sex Scandal, in which Montagu spoke publicly about the events for the first time.

The trials caused the break-off of his engagement to an American actress, Anne Gage: "She had no alternative. A very lovely girl," he said. He later described himself as bisexual, and it was not until 1959 that he married. His wife was Belinda Crossley, and they had a son, Ralph, and a daughter, Mary. They divorced in 1974, and the same year he married Fiona Herbert, with whom he had a third child, Jonathan.

Montagu was "a useful member of the House of Lords", his counsel said at the trial, and he spoke frequently on tourism, motoring and environmental matters. His maiden speech on 20 January 1948 referred to his own experience as a soldier in the Grenadier Guards in British Mandate Palestine. He was later one of the few hereditary peers elected to stay on in the Lords after reform in 1999. His wife Fiona and his children survive him.

Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, landowner: born London 20 October 1926; married 1959 Elizabeth Belinda de Bathe Crossley (divorced 1974; one daughter, one son), 1974 Fiona Herbert (one son); died Beaulieu, Hampshire 31 August 2015.