This month is the centenary of the birth of Harford Montgomery Hyde, historian, prolific author,
I reprint the following memoir by kind permission of the author, Jeff Dudgeon. [Published in The Belfast Telegraph with three photographs on 14 August 2007]
The life and campaigns of
by Jeffrey Dudgeon
It will be surprising to many, and perhaps distressing to some, that the MP who led the campaign in the House of Commons to effect the 1957 Wolfenden report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was the Ulster Unionist writer and campaigner, Harford Montgomery Hyde. He was to pay a heavy political price for his bravery.
Hyde was the author of nearly fifty books. Although he wrote rapidly he was a thorough and accurate historian. His biographical subjects included Lawrence of Arabia, Roger Casement, Stalin and Edward Carson but it was those works on spying or sexual topics which were most successful, one particularly popular being The Other Love, a history of homosexuality in Britain and Ireland.
The centenary of Hyde’s birth is 14th August while another 2007 anniversary is the quarter-century since
Hyde’s background was upper class
Why did Hyde take up such apparently unpopular causes? And how did an apparently conservative province elect him?
Many wondered if he had gay relationships, but he replied that his feelings “were always distinctly heterosexual.” He certainly knew many gay people, particularly at
As to religion, Hyde wrote, “For a time, I admit I was greatly attracted to the Roman church, especially the ritual, so much more appealing to my aesthetic sense than the dull Protestant services. But already at Queen’s I was beginning to have doubts about all religious beliefs.” In the Commons, he always affirmed rather than take the oath. Indeed this lack of belief enabled Hyde to break from many related conformities.
Hyde’s first employment was with the 7th Marquess of Londonderry whose wife Edith was a famous London political hostess. From 1935-9, he was their librarian, researching and writing on the family, with books such as Londonderry House and its pictures, The Rise of Lord Castlereagh, and The Strange Death of Castlereagh who committed suicide in 1822 when Foreign Secretary.
In 1939, he married Dorothy Crofts, a Cheshire-born actress, later a fashion shop proprietor. The Dublin raconteur and Senator, Oliver St John Gogarty proposed the toast at the London wedding. Lt. Col. Hyde, as he became, had a good war, mostly in intelligence but continued writing. He was attached to Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944, and was later seconded to the Allied Commission for Austria where he ensured the death penalty was abolished.
After the war, he was legal adviser to British Lion Films then run by Sir Alexander Korda, and in 1948 published The Trials of Oscar Wilde, a precursor of three more Wilde books. In 1945 he applied for the South Belfast Unionist candidature and was unfortunate to lose by one vote. In 1950, North Belfast selected him. His maiden speech was on the unenforceability of Northern Ireland maintenance orders in Great Britain, and the consequent problem of border-hopping husbands.
Hyde did involve himself in Northern Ireland affairs at Westminster. In an economy debate in 1957, he managed to break the convention that the province was not discussed and drew attention to Ulster industry’s difficulties including the IRA’s 1956-62 campaign, and the “more than 200 incidents caused by illegal organisations.”
He first raised the question of Roger Casement’s diaries in 1956 when the government declined to depart “from its policy of silence,” and later when it only admitted that certain “confidential documents” of Casement’s existed. In 1959, he was the first researcher to view the diaries when finally released.
In June 1958, Hyde courageously led a campaign to get the Commons to note the Wolfenden report but only managed to say, “This is a most valuable social document” before the Speaker cut him off. In November, when the government conceded a full debate, he made a wide-ranging speech and demanded equality for the homosexual and the prostitute. He quoted a letter from a young man who had been gaoled and after release informed on, losing his new job. He also pointed out “three popular fallacies” exposed by Wolfenden; that “male homosexuality always involves sodomy”; that homosexuals are “necessarily effeminate” and that most relevant court cases “are of practising male homosexuals in private.” The government however ignored the reformers, declared decriminalisation too unpopular, and shelved the report.
As a convinced abolitionist, Hyde was co-sponsor in 1956 of a bill to abolish hanging. It passed in the Commons but was defeated in the Lords. Such liberal views during an IRA campaign were beginning to attract opponents who also made the traditional complaint that he neglected his constituency. The Unionist Party was however broader and more urbane than is often realised. Nonetheless, Dr Ian Paisley, then a member of North Belfast Unionists, recalls proposing a motion to Grand Lodge condemning Hyde for listing King William as a homosexual and working to deselect him.
Challenged in 1959 by Air Marshall Sir George Beamish, an Irish rugby international, Hyde made extensive efforts to be reselected. Addressing his Shankill branch he was questioned for two hours on the death penalty and Wolfenden. Henry Holmes, the Shankill’s Stormont MP defended him saying, “Although he has sponsored one or two unpopular causes I do not believe these are sufficient grounds for discarding him.”
Hyde was noted as a Suez rebel but declared subsequent events proved him right. Backed by favourable editorials in The Belfast Telegraph and the London press, he pleaded “guilty to being the best known of the Ulster MPs.” He went to the January selection meeting with an endorsement letter from Lady Carson (which read suspiciously as if he had written it himself) and won by 77 votes to 72, a result “greeted with prolonged applause”.
Hyde’s enemies however fought on. Although ratification was normally a formality, he unwisely chose not to return from a parliamentary tour of the West Indies “to promote trade and business contacts,” and lost by 171 to 152 votes. His second wife Mary wrote to him in Jamaica: “So that’s that. I’m sorry darling. Perhaps it’s for the best. No more politics. No more Belfast politics. Oh bliss.” The one antagonistic letter he received (from Worthing), stated “Ulster has no time for an advocate for homosexuality” accusing him of “gallivanting in the sunshine.” Unionism’s failure since to send a consistently liberal voice to Westminster remains a dangerous deficiency doing it considerable damage, not least with Labour governments.
Hyde managed to keep his first divorce out of the Belfast newspapers, only telling his constituency association on his remarriage. This apparently passed without comment, as “a fait accompli.” That 1952 dissolution had been alimony-free since Dorothy had taken up with Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale of MI6, a key component in Ian Fleming’s character, James Bond. However Hyde was beset by money problems after his 1966 divorce from Mary Fischer. He married lastly his secretary Rosalind Roberts (Robbie). She had no connection with Northern Ireland but apparently became more outspoken in her Unionist views than Hyde.
After leaving parliament in October 1959, he became Professor of History and Politics at the University of the Punjab in Pakistan for two years, taking the opportunity to research Ulstermen who had worked in India.
Leo Abse, a Welsh (and Jewish) Labour MP, was finally successful in effecting homosexual law reform in July 1967. Hyde later noted dryly, “As usual the Northern Ireland Members, including my successor, went into the No Lobby,” voting against even English homosexuals being emancipated.
Although never ceasing to be a Unionist, Hyde blamed Lord Brookeborough for fossilising Northern Ireland in the 1950s. He supported the Anglo-Irish Agreement despite his concern over the Republic’s claim to jurisdiction not being dropped. None the less, when ambition required it, he had joined both the Orange Order and the Freemasons, saying the one was an essential prerequisite to becoming a Unionist MP and the other an undoubted assistance.
Hyde received some public recognition in 1984 when awarded an honorary degree by Queen’s. On frequent visits to Northern Ireland in later years, Hyde stayed with his sister Diana and occasionally at Mount Stewart. He worked assiduously up to his death on 10 August 1989 survived by his third wife Robbie. He chose a non-religious cremation. “Harford was not a believer,” explained Tim Brinton MP, at the funeral, although, as he confusingly added, “He was an Ulster Protestant.” Northern Ireland, the gay community, and the world generally owe a lot to this determined and courageous Ulsterman. It is important that his considerable contribution be remembered.
Jeffrey Dudgeon was the successful plaintiff in a case against the UK at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. He is the author of Roger Casement: The Black Diaries.