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13 November 2014

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You are in: South Yorkshire > SY People > Profiles > A man ahead of his time

Edward Carpenter, left wing poet and activist

A man ahead of his time

Edward Carpenter was a socialist poet, left wing activist and gay rights campaigner in the early 20th century. He ran a market garden near Dronfield. Sheffield Archives hold a large collection of his letters from famous names like Siegfried Sassoon.

Edward Carpenter lived from 1844 to 1929 and from his late twenties spent most of his life on the rural outskirts of Sheffield.

He was involved with the Sheffield Socialists and was a prolific campaigner and letter writer. He and ran a communal market garden in Millthorpe near Dronfield with his partner George Merrill.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Sheffield Archives holds a large collection of letters to Carpenter from all sorts of people, including the WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon who wrote to him to thank him for his work on gay rights, 'The Intermediate Sex' (1908), which Sassoon says helped him realise his own homosexuality.

You can find out more about the letters Siegfried Sassoon sent to Edward Carpenter before and during WW1 by following the link below.

Edward Carpenter's political life

Carpenter spent his early life in Brighton, went to university in Cambridge and worked as a curate for the Church of England before coming up north.

Initially he was based in Leeds, involved with a movement to bring higher education to deprived areas of England.

Things didn't work out in Leeds though, so he moved to Chesterfield. He found the town a bit dull after a while, and moved to Sheffield in the mid-1870s.

It was in Sheffield that Carpenter became involved with the working classes and embraced socialism, campaigning politically.

He helped form the Sheffield Socialist Society which met in various places around the city - including a cafe on Fargate and on Blonk Street near the Wicker.

Women's Suffrage letter

Votes for Women

Carpenter remained a political activist until the end of his life. He was a pioneering supporter of many progressive causes including Votes for Women, vegetarianism and sexual reform, many of which are now taken for granted. He objected to capitalism and was a pacifist.

Millthorpe and George Merrill

Carpenter became increasingly attracted to the rural life on the outskirts of Sheffield, and when his father died he was able to buy a house and market garden in Millthorpe near Dronfield.

This was to become a meeting place for socialists and free thinkers, intellectuals, writers and humanitarians.

Several years later on Carpenter's return from a trip to India, he met the working class George Merrill and they lived together in Millthorpe until the late 1890s.

Although the death penalty had been repealed in 1861, homosexuality was still considered abhorrent and was punishable by life imprisonment.

Merrill and Carpenter's cohabiting didn't cause much fuss though, and commentators have said this is probably due to their secluded lifestyle in Millthorpe and Carpenter's general reticence about the subject. Indeed, Carpenter's writings on same sex relationships focused more on the emotional rather than the physical aspects.

In 1908, Carpenter wrote The Intermediate Sex, which became an influential text in gay rights movements later in the century.

Siegfried Sassoon's handwriting

Siegfried Sassoon's handwriting

The WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon read this book not long after its publication, at the age of 24, and it prompted him to write to Carpenter in 1911 and thank him for allowing him to understand his own homosexuality, calling him "the leader and the prophet."

Sheffield Archives holds a collection of the letters sent to Carpenter from Siegfried Sassoon and other well-known and lesser-known names.

There's a letter from The Women's Suffrage League thanking Carpenter for his sympathy and financial support and another letter from 10 Downing Street acknowledging Carpenter's letter to the Prime Minister about the case of Roger Casement, an Irish poet and revolutionary who was executed for treason in 1916 after trying to secure German aid for Irish independence.

Carpenter also corresponded with Walt Whitman, John Ruskin, William Morris and Olive Schreiner among other well-known names, and had a profound influence on the gay writers DH Lawrence and EM Forster, as well as on Siegfried Sassoon.

A Soldier's Declaration by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917

Sassoon and Carpenter continued to write to one another throughout World War 1, and Sassoon sent a copy of his famous open letter denouncing the War, A Soldier's Declaration,' which is also held in Sheffield Archives.

One of Sassoon's pre-war letters held in Sheffield Archives discusses a possible visit to Millthorpe and another letter, written by Sassoon while he was convalescing in hospital during WW1, speaks of his ambitions to move to Sheffield and work alongside the workers. This never came to fruition, but he wrote about it a couple of times to Carpenter.

A more detailed account of the letters from Sassoon to Carpenter can be seen via the link below.

After the end of WW1 Merrill and Carpenter moved to Guildford. Carpenter was devastated when Merrill died, and in the same year he suffered a stroke.

He died months later, in 1929, and although his name somewhat faded out of recognition, he has always remained an influential figure in gay rights and socialism.

Rony Robinson recollects Carpenter

Radio Sheffield writer and broadcaster Rony Robinson has admired Edward Carpenter's works and philosophy for many years. He wrote the following piece about the man.

"There's a funny long cottage opposite the Royal Oak in Millthorpe, in the valley beyond Holmesfield.

Rony Robinson at the mic

Rony Robinson

"Its gate says Carpenter House, and when me and our Geth cycled out there he said it was named after a famous boxer. But it wasn't.

"When I was a student I spent six weeks reading through millions of cardboard boxes of letters and sandals, and tunics and sermons, and tunes and things that belonged to Edward Carpenter (1844-1929).

"He seemed to have lived out there on a commune and been visited by everybody famous and radical for 50 years.

"I wrote a paper on him for Tenmantale, my Oxford college history society, but it didn't impress them over their Madeira - and I have spent the rest of my life even more spooked by him.

"And I'm not the only one. He keeps turning up again. My own mum had met him via wagonette on a Socialist Sunday School outing.

"I wrote a play about a Sheffield man spooked by him, and called it Edward Carpenter Lives! And he sure did. It was the first new play ever at the Crucible, my first play, the only one that ever transferred from Studio to main house. I stopped being a teacher and became a writer because of it.

"Then I wrote two more plays about him and worked on a documentary film which is still available somewhere. Then I wrote a novel about a school revolution and called it The Ted Carp Tradition after him, because the comprehensive in the book was called after him. The New Statesman said it was very funny.

"In my best novel The Beano (The New Statesman said that was very funny too), all about the 1914 seaside outing, my hero Owen reads Carpenter all the beery Scarborough day, before going off to die.

"And then there was this key moment in the courting of me and my partner Sally when we both realised, while rambling near the moors in the foot-and-mouth spring, that we were both into Carpenter. She had heard Sheila Rowbotham do another spooky lecture on him in East London during the second wave of feminism.

"We read Towards Democracy together on a picnic by a sewage farm near Millthorpe and didn't notice. We bed and breakfasted at Carpenter House itself, to celebrate.

"I'd met Sheila Rowbotham herself at Carpenter's grave in the late 1980s, with me representing the Sheffield Labour Movement along with the Reverend Ecclestone, the Red Vicar of Darnall. We mumbled his hymn, England Arise, over the grave where he is buried in Guildford -  just down from Lewis Carroll.

"England arise!
The long, long night is over.
Faint in the East behold the dawn appear!

"Two years ago I saw the most amazing love scene ever re-enacted at a Derbyshire weekend by the Edward Carpenter Community.

"And of course Sheila Rowbotham has written a wonderful new biography, now getting rave reviews (in of course the New Statesman), and picking up more secret fans for this brave, inclusive man who lived among us here for most of his life.

"A signed photo of him is above me as I type this. I can see the path he walked from Dore and Totley to Millthorpe, with his lover George for the first time, and the church where his other lover George is buried. All his lovers were called George - except for Sheila and me and Sally and John the Swan and all his other spookees.

"Oh, one more thing, his birthday is August 29th, like my son Goronwy's. I've written a song about that, to sing every year preferably after some lovely beer at the Royal Oak in Millthorpe."

Rony Robinson

last updated: 12/11/2008 at 11:27
created: 11/11/2008

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