Social and political reformer, poet, founding father of gay rights in England, and resident of Guildford
Edward Carpenter was a leading cultural, political and social reformer in late 19th and early 20th-century Britain. He was instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party and campaigned for Women’s suffrage. He was an advocate of free love, recycling, nudism and prison reform, and was also at the epicentre of contemporary literature, acquainted with Robert Graves, Oscar Wilde, E M Forster, and Isadora Duncan to name just a few. He advocated the ‘Simplification of Life’ and put his beliefs into practice. Tolstoy called him ‘A worthy heir of Carlyle and Ruskin’. Openly gay, Carpenter boldy tackled the problems of sexual alienation and emerged as the founding father of gay rights in England.
Politics and same-sex love
Carpenter was born in Brighton and educated at Brighton College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He became a Church of England curate after leaving university, but left the church in 1874 and moved to Sheffield where he began to lecture, write and become involved in radical politics (he was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party in 1893). In later life, Carpenter was active in pacifism and the trade union movement, and penned the socialist hymn England Arise.
Carpenter realised from an early age that he was attracted to men:
“At the age of eight or nine, and long
before distinct sexual feelings
declared themselves, I felt a friendly
attraction toward my own sex, and
this developed after the age of
puberty into a passionate sense of
(Extract from Joy Dixon, ‘Edward Carpenter: Sex, Spirit, and Social Reform’ in Other Stories, Matt Smith (ed.), University of Leeds, 2012).
By the 1880s, Carpenter had fully acknowledged his sexual orientation and in 1891 he met George Merrill, a working class Sheffield man. The two men struck up a deep relationship, eventually moving in together in 1898. They lived openly and remained partners for the rest of their lives, a remarkable achievement that defied Victorian sexual mores and the British class system, at a time when hundreds of men were prosecuted for homosexuality.
This rare photograph of Carpenter and Merrill taken at their home ‘Millthorpe’ in Sheffield, recently came to light in the John Rylands Library collections. When Carpenter and Merrill moved to Guildford, they called their house ‘Millthorpe’ after their beloved first home.
Influenced by the American humanist poet Walt Whitman, Carpenter saw desire (or ‘love’) as being the core of all personal, social, and evolutionary change. ‘Love’ was the driving force behind all change, making way for new possibilities.
Carpenter courageously published Homogenic Love (1895), Love’s Coming of Age (1896) and The Intermediate Sex (1908) in defence of homosexuality and advocating greater tolerance of same-sex love, at the time of the Oscar Wilde trials and their aftermath. The Intermediate Sex was one of the foundations of subsequent campaigns against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Same-sex love was, according to Carpenter, ‘not only natural, but needful and inevitable.’
When The Intermediate Sex was published in 1908, it excited the loathing of Mr D O’Brien, a rubber stamp maker from Sheffield. O’Brien heckled Carpenter at socialist meetings and challenged him to debate the principles of same-sex love. When his efforts had no effect O’Brien complained to the Home Secretary and Scotland Yard. Sheffield Police were duly contacted and O’Brien supplied the local Derbyshire Constabulary with a copy of Homogenic Love, along with names and addresses of several people supposedly willing to testify to the sexual practices of Carpenter’s partner, George Merrill. The Investigation elicited nothing against either Merrill or Carpenter. Although no fresh evidence emerged, Derbyshire Police advised they would be keeping a “discreet watch” on Carpenter, a stark reminder of the risks that gay men faced up until 1967.
O’Brien also failed to get Carpenter’s books banned by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who not wanting to encourage notoriety, deemed them only worthy of “the silence of the waste paper basket”.
(Full article in A D Harvey, ‘A discreet watch: Edward Carpenter’, Gay Times, July 1992, based on papers held at The National Archives HO144/1043/183473).
Life with friends in Guildford
Carpenter and Merrill had been looking to relocate south from Sheffield for some time. Carpenter had previously visited Guildford to see his friend, the artist Roger Fry and Fry had painted Carpenter’s portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery). On one visit Carpenter was unhappy with the way Roger’s son, Julian, treated his mother, Vanessa Bell, commenting that she should reprimand the boy! Roger Fry moved from Guildford in 1919 before Carpenter and Merrill moved there but with the all-important countryside for Carpenter’s health walks Guildford seemed a natural choice; especially as many of Carpenter’s other friends were nearby: E M Forster in Abinger, Gilbert Beith in Gomshall and Harold Picton near Godalming. Importantly, Guildford also had its own Trades Council as well as an Independent Labour Party branch.
Carpenter had become deeply devoted to the artist Ted Earle and he asked Earle’s uncle, Frank Chapman, to buy a ‘new highly varnished villa’ at 23 Mountside Road, Guildford. This he did for £1500 in July 1922 and Carpenter and Merrill duly moved south. The house was christened ‘Millthorpe’ after their beloved Sheffield home and Carpenter declared the people of Guildford charming and friendly.
The electoral register for St Nicolas Ward, Guildford, shows Edward Carpenter and George Merrill (wrongly entered as ‘Merritt’), residing at Millthorpe, Mountside Road, in 1923. Carpenter is listed as having both a residential and occupational qualification to vote.
Carpenter, E M Forster and Maurice
Surrey author E M Forster was a close friend of Edward Carpenter; indeed Carpenter was instrumental in helping Forster acknowledge his own sexuality. It was as a direct result of a visit to Carpenter and Merrill, c.1914, that Forster began writing his homosexual novel Maurice, which was only published after his death in 1971.
As a fellow pacifist, Forster worked for the Red Cross as a ‘searcher’ during the First World War. Stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, he wrote regularly to Carpenter, regaling him with tales of the free, openly gay life there, and his own encounters. In 1915, Forster had begun an affair with a young Egyptian, Mohammed el Adl, confiding to his friend Florence Barger:
‘I have plunged into an anxious but very beautiful affair…if you pass life by it’s jolly well going to pass you by in the future. If you’re frightened it’s all right – there’s no harm; fear is an emotion. But by some trick of the nerves I happen not to be frightened’.
Florence sent a photograph of Mohammed to Carpenter, who followed their every move with vicarious delight:
‘…what a pleasure to see a real face after the milk and water mongrelly things ones sees here! It was literal refreshment to me. Those eyes – I know so well what they mean, and I think you do too, now! And that very charming mouth!’
Their relationship ended after three years and Carpenter was on hand as a natural source of emotional support for Forster. Carpenter and Forster remained life-long friends and following Carpenter’s death in 1929, Forster was instrumental in the collation of Gilbert Beith’s volume of recollections, Edward Carpenter: An Appreciation (Allen and Unwin, 1931).
Carpenter’s last years
Carpenter’s health deteriorated. Ted Earle created his painting studio at ‘Millthorpe’, whilst friends Charlie Roughton and Tom Nicholson helped maintain the property. In 1924, Carpenter sold the bungalow to them for £100 but continued living there. Nicholson sold the property in 1933.
In 1926, local newspaper Guildford & District Outlook, ran two features on Edward Carpenter as a notable local resident. One gives a brief biography, whist the other includes the verses to Carpenter’s song England Arise!, cited as the favourite hymn of Arthur Bourchier, actor and theatre producer. (Click on the image to see a larger copy.)
In January 1928 Merrill died. Carpenter was devastated; he sold the house and lodged for a short time, with his companion and carer Ted Inigan, at 17 Woodland Avenue, just a short walk from Mountside. They then moved to a bungalow called ‘Inglenook’ in Josephs Road, Guildford.
By this time Carpenter was himself frail; he had a stroke and died on 28 June 1929. He is buried in the same grave as Merrill at the Mount Cemetery, Guildford. ‘Inglenook’ was auctioned on 3 July 1929 by Carpenter’s niece, Ida Hyett, and no longer exists. Reports of Carpenter’s death and funeral can be found in the Surrey Advertiser & County Times newspaper 29 June & 6 July 1929.
The last section of Sheila Rowbotham’s book Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2009) is dedicated to Carpenter’s years in Guildford. The Edward Carpenter Forum also dedicate a page to Carpenter’s Guildford homes.
The Guildford & District Trades Council had investigated a site for a trade hall since 1919 and Carpenter’s death in 1929 prompted the idea of naming the hall in his memory. Appeal leaflets were sent to trades councils and union branches throughout the country and at a meeting of the Council on 28 July 1929, comrades Godfrey and Bailey suggested that inquiry be made regarding the cost of producing stamps bearing a photograph of Carpenter, to be sold in aid of the Memorial Hall. In an appeal leaflet the stamps are referred to as a means of raising funds along with autographed photographs and publications.
Donations came in and with the funds received the Council bought cottages at 1-4 Strudwick Passage and 51-52 Chertsey Street, as an investment. A suitable site for the hall was found in Chertsey Street, Guildford. However, the surviving records imply that a lack of large scale financial support made it impossible to start the work. The cottages were sold to the Office of Works in January 1935 and the major part of the Memorial Hall fund was loaned to the Guildford Labour Party for the purchase of a headquarters building.
Surrey History Centre holds the papers of Guildford & District Trades and Labour Council, including this appeal leaflet for the Edward Carpenter Memorial Hall, c.1930 (SHC ref 1364/4/2/3).
“Although well-to-do by birth, no poet has more completely and definitely identified himself with the movement of the workers, either as regards the spirit of his work or the deliberately chosen condition of his daily life. He preferred to live with and write of the common people.”
Extract from an appeal leaflet from the Guildford & District Trades Council, for the Edward Carpenter Memorial Hall, c.1930. (SHC ref.1364)
Edward Carpenter and Queer up North
The Queer up North Festival has been running in Manchester since 1992, embracing all areas of LGBT arts, culture and history. John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester recently chose to take part in the festival, choosing to focus on Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). Read more about the Edward Carpenter archive collection at John Rylands University Library in Baker, Fran , ‘Queering the collections: Edward Carpenter and Queer up North’, ARC, 2008 in the Surrey History Centre Library collection.
Carpenter is an LGBT history icon.
Sources for researching Edward Carpenter held at Surrey History Centre
- Edward Carpenter, My days and dreams: being autobiographical notes (Allen & Unwin, 1916)
- Guildford Outlook, articles on Edward Carpenter, from 1926; Surrey Advertiser, 23 Sep 1961 and 18 Apr 1964
- Gilbert Beith, Edward Carpenter: in appreciation, Allen and Unwin, 1931
- Sheffield City Libraries, A bibliography of Edward Carpenter, Sheffield City Libraries, 1949
- Edward Hartley, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), Sheffield City Libraries, 1979
- Ron Burgess, Edward Carpenter: lecture notes (1983)
- Tony Brown (ed). Edward Carpenter and late Victorian radicalism, Frank Cass, 1990
- Harvey, A D – A discreet watch: Edward Carpenter, article from Gay Times, July 1992
- Baker, Fran – Queering the collections: Edward Carpenter and Queer up North, ARC, 2008
- Rowbotham, Sheila – Edward Carpenter: a life of liberty and love, Verso, 2009
- Tsuzuki, Chushichi, Edward Carpenter 1844-1929: prophet of human fellowship, Cambridge University Press, 2008
Electoral registers for Guildford (SHC ref CC802/37/5 and CC802/46/2).
Papers of the Guildford Trades and Labour Council, 1908-1955, including correspondence relating to the proposed Edward Carpenter Memorial Hall, and the sale of ‘Inglenook’, 1929 (SHC ref 1364).
Sources held elsewhere
Sheffield Archives and Local Studies hold the Carpenter Collection containing hundreds of letters, sermons, notebooks, lectures, books, pamphlets, memoirs, photographs – and patterns for sandals with individual famous feet marked out on tissue paper! https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/archives-and-local-studies/collections/edward-carpenter-collection.html. Their online catalogue includes a comprehensive bibliography and list of sources held elsewhere.
British Library, Carpenter correspondence and papers, 1885-1930 (Add MSS 70536, 70556), www.bl.uk
John Rylands Library, miscellaneous letters, papers and autobiographical notes (MS 1171) http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/
Cambridge University, King’s College Archive Centre, letters to C R Ashbee and correspondence with E M Forster, 1916-1918, http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/
Liverpool University, Special Collections and Archives, letters to John and Katharine Bruce Glasier, 1887-1920, https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/library/sca/
London School of Economics Library, Archives Division, Edward Carpenter, correspondence, 1885-1912 http://archives.lse.ac.uk/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Persons&id=PA807
Bolton Archives & Local Studies, The Whitman Collection (ZWN), http://www.boltonmuseums.org.uk/archives
Library of Congress, USA, Walt Whitman’s papers, https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/whitman/
To learn more about Millthorpe, see the Historic England Pride of Place online resource https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/
The Edward Carpenter Archive is a web-based archive of Carpenter’s published works http://www.edwardcarpenter.net
The Friends of Edward Carpenter celebrate his life and hold Carpenter themed events, particularly for LGBT History Month http://www.friendsofedwardcarpenter.co.uk/biography.htm
Edward Carpenter Forum is dedicated to the exploration of the life and legacy of Carpenter and his circle http://www.edwardcarpenterforum.org.
Solving the mystery of Carpenter’s homes in Guildford can be found at http://www.edwardcarpenterforum.org/index.php/ecf-originals/photo-essays/photo-essays/55-carpenters-guildford5
Edward Carpenter Community of Gay Men provides opportunities for gay men to express their identity http://www.edwardcarpentercommunity.org.uk