Edward Carpenter in 1875.

Edward Carpenter (29 August 184428 June 1929) was an English socialist poet, anthologist, early gay activist, and socialist philosopher.

A leading figure in late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party. A poet and writer, he was a close friend of Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore, corresponding with many famous figures such as Annie Besant, Isadora Duncan, Havelock Ellis, Roger Fry, Mahatma Gandhi, James Keir Hardie, J K Kinney, Jack London, George Merrill, E D Morel, William Morris, E R Pease, John Ruskin, and Olive Schreiner. [1].

As a philosopher he is particularly known for his publication of Civilisation, its Cause and Cure in which he proposes that civilisation is a form of disease that human societies pass through. Civilisations, he says, rarely last more than a thousand years before collapsing, and no society has ever passed through civilisation successfully. His 'cure' is a closer association with the land and greater development of our inner nature. Although derived from his experience of Hindu mysticism, and referred to as 'mystical socialism', his thoughts parallel those of several writers in the field of psychology and sociology at the start of the twentieth century, such as Boris Sidis, Sigmund Freud, and Wilfred Trotter who all recognised that society puts ever increasing pressure on the individual that can result in mental and physical illnesses such as neurosis, and the particular nervousness which was then described as neurasthenia.

A strong advocate of sexual freedom, living in a gay community near Sheffield, he had a profound influence on both D H Lawrence and E M Forster.

Early life

Born in Hove, near Brighton, Carpenter was educated at Brighton College. When he was ten, he displayed a flair for piano. During these formative years, he spent his free time horse-riding or walking. This simple life instilled in him a love of nature that would never leave him. His academic talent appeared relatively late in his youth, but was prolific enough to earn him a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Whilst there he began to experiment with his feelings for men. One of the most notable examples of this is his close friendship with Andrew Beck (later Master of Trinity Hall), which, according to Carpenter, had 'a touch of romance'. Beck eventually ended their relationship and denied the attachment, causing Carpenter great emotional heartache. Carpenter's sense of rejection mirrored his general unease with his sexuality, causing him to visit male prostitutes in Paris. After university he joined the Church of England as a curate, "as a convention rather than out of deep Conviction".[1] He was heavily influenced by the minister at his church,Frederick Maurice, who was the leader of the Christian Socialist movement.

In the following years he experienced an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with his life in the church and university and became weary of what he saw as the hypocrisy of Victorian society. He found great solace in reading poetry, later remarking that his discovery of the work of the gay, politically-radical Walt Whitman caused "a profound change" in him. (My Days and Dreams p. 64). Reading Whitman caused Carpenter to reject a life spent in a comfortable clerical post and instead he wished to dedicate himself to life helping the working-class gain the right to education.

Carpenter left the church in 1874 and became a lecturer in astronomy, sun worship, the lives of ancient Greek women and music, moving to Leeds as part of University Extension Movement, which was formed by academics who wished to introduce higher education to deprived areas of England. He hoped to lecture to the working classes, but found that his lectures were attended by middle class people, many of whom showed little active interest in the subjects he taught. Disillusioned, he moved to Chesterfield, but finding the town dull, after a year he based himself in Sheffield. Here he finally came into contact with manual workers, and he began to write poetry. Despite his obvious affinity for labourers, he was invited to become a tutor to the future George V. He politely rejected the post.

In Sheffield, Carpenter became increasingly radical. Influenced by a disciple of Engels, Henry Hyndman, he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1883 and attempted to form a branch in the city. The group instead chose to remain independent, and became the Sheffield Socialist Society. While in the city he worked on a number of projects including highlighting the poor conditions of industrial workers.  In May 1889, Carpenter wrote a piece in Sheffield Independent calling Sheffield the laughingstock of the civilized world and said that the giant thick cloud of smog rising out of Sheffield was like the smoke arising from Judgment Day, and that it was the altar on which the lives of many thousands would be sacrificed. He said that 100,000 adults and children were struggling to find sunlight and air, living miserable lives, unable to breathe and dying of related illnesses. Also while in Sheffield he wrote 'England Arise!, a socialist marching song to promote left-wing politics, rivalling Connell's 'Red Flag' in the British Labour Movement. In 1884, he left the SDF with William Morris to join the Socialist League. This move was in part promoted by the more conventional political aspirations of the SDF, a feeling made obvious by Hyndman, who in 1881 remarked, "I do not want the movement to be a depository of old cranks, humanitarians, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, and anti-vaccinationists, arty-crafties and all the rest of them."

Increasingly attracted by a life close to nature, Carpenter moved in with tenant farmer Albert Fearnehough and his family in Bradway. It was then that Carpenter began to develop the crux of his Socialist politics. Influenced by John Ruskin, he envisioned a future that took the form of primitive communism, which flatly rejected the industrialism of the Victorian age. In this utopian community he envisaged ‘mutual help and combination will...become spontaneous and instinctive’. When his father Charles Carpenter died in 1882, he left his son a considerable fortune. This enabled Carpenter to quit his lectureship to start a simpler life of market gardening in Millthorpe, Derbyshire. By this time he fully acknowledged his sexual orientation, and this, along with the ending of many of his conventional family ties (his mother died in 1881) and his adoption of a life closer to nature, produced a period of artistic creativity. Carpenter wrote, in a "kind of wooden sentinel box" in his garden, the poems that would become his book of verse, Towards Democracy, which was heavily influenced by Eastern spirituality and Carpenter's long reading of the writings of Walt Whitman.

During 1886, he had a brief relationship with George Hukin, who was employed in the Sheffield razor trade; despite Hukin's subsequent marriage, which caused a rift between them, the men ultimately formed a close and lifelong friendship.

In the 1880s Carpenter developed an intellectual passion for Hindu mysticism and Indian philosophy. During this period, Carpenter received a pair of sandals from a friend in India. "I soon found the joy of wearing them," Carpenter wrote. "And after a little time I set about making them." This was the first successful introduction of sandals to Britain. In 1890 he travelled to Ceylon and India to spend time with the Hindu teacher called Gnani, who he describes his work "Adam's Peak to Elephanta". The experience had a profound effect on his social and political thought. Carpenter began to believe that Socialism should not only concern itself with man's outward economic conditions, but also affect a profound change in human consciousness. In this new stage of society Carpenter argued that mankind would return to a primordial state of simple joy: "The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” Edward Carpenter (1889), Civilisation: its cause and cure. This brand of "Mystical socialism" inspired him to begin a number of campaigns against air pollution, promoting vegetarianism and opposing vivisection.

On his return from India in 1891, he met George Merrill, a working class man also from Sheffield, and the two men struck up a relationship, eventually moving in together in 1898. Merrill had been raised in the slums of Sheffield and had no formal education. Two men of different classes living together as a couple was almost unheard of in England in the 1890s, a fact made all the more extraordinary by the hysteria about alternative sexualities generated by the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895 and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill passed a decade earlier "outlawing all forms of male homosexual contact". But their relationship endured and they remained partners for the rest of their lives. Their relationship not only defied Victorian sexual mores but also the highly stratified British class system. Their partnership, in many ways, reflected Carpenter's cherished conviction that same-sex love had the power to subvert class boundaries. It was his belief that at sometime in the future, gay people would be the cause of radical social change in the social conditions of man. Carpenter remarks in his work "The Intermediate Sex",

File:Day, Fred Holland (1864-1933) - Edward Carpenter.jpg

Photograph by Fred Holland Day

"Eros is a great leveller. Perhaps the true Democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society. It is noticeable how often Uranians of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way, which although not publicly acknowledged have a decided influence on social institutions, customs and political tendencies". p.114-115

(Note: The term "Uranian", referring to a passage from Plato's Symposium, was often used at the time to describe someone who would be termed "gay" nowadays. Carpenter is counted among the Uranians[2] himself.)

Despite their unorthodox living arrangement, Carpenter and Merrill managed to escape scandal and arrest in the hostile social climate due to seclusion afforded to them by Milthorpe and Carpenter's notable literary diplomacy. In his writings Carpenter was keen to downplay the carnal aspects of same-sex partnerships, emphasizing the emotional depth of such relationships.[citation needed] To bolster such a portrayal, Carpenter drew a great deal of inspiration from Plato's idealised view of same-sex love, popular with Victorian gay men, who used Classical allusions to "Greek Love" as a coded language to discuss their sexual orientation. Their remoteness from society allowed Carpenter to indulge in nudism which he believed was a symbol of a life at one with nature. Carpenter also began to cultivate a philosophy which argued for a radical simplification of life, focusing on the need for the open air, rational dress and a healthy diet based on "fruits, nuts, tubers, grains, eggs, etc... and milk in its various forms’.

It is also perhaps due to this seclusion that allowed Milthorpe to become a focal-point for socialists, humanitarians, intellectuals and writers, from Britain and abroad. Carpenter included among his friends the scholar, author, naturalist, and founder of the Humanitarian League, Henry S. Salt, and his wife, Catherine; the critic, essayist and sexologist, Havelock Ellis, and his wife, Edith; actor and producer Ben Iden Payne; Labour activists, John Bruce and Katharine Glasier; writer and scholar, John Addington Symonds and the writer and feminist, Olive Schreiner. E. M. Forster was also close friends with the couple, who on a visit to Milthorpe in 1912 was inspired to write his gay-themed novel, "Maurice". He records in his diary that, Merrill,

"...touched my backside - gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people's. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. He made a profound impression on me and touched a creative spring".

It can clearly be seen that the relationship between Carpenter and Merrill was the template for the relationship between Maurice and Alec, the gamekeeper in Forster's novel. Carpenter was also a significant influence on the author D. H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley's Lover can be seen as a heterosexualised Maurice. Carpenter was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with a number of gay men on questions relating to "homogenic type". One such man was Siegfried Sassoon, who came across Carpenter's work at Cambridge, which had a profound on his attiude towards his own sexuality, giving him both answers and personal peace of mind.

The 1890s saw Carpenter produce his finest political writing in a concerted effort to campaign against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. He strongly believed that same-sex attraction was a natural orientation for people of a third sex. His 1908 book on the subject, The Intermediate Sex, would become a foundational text of the LGBT movements of the 20th century. It can only speculated why Carpenter felt compelled to embark on such an unpopular and even dangerous subject in such hostile times, but one theory is that Carpenter's moral courage was ignited by the death of gay scholar and middle-class radical John Addington Symonds. In the 1880s Symonds had composed a number of works in defence of same-sex orientation, which were distributed among a small group of people, including Carpenter. On Symonds' death in 1893, Carpenter perhaps saw the political mantle passing to him and within a couple of years made his first attempt to write on the subject. While engaged in this campaign Carpenter developed a keen interest in progressive education, especially providing information to young people on the topic of sexual education, and was a good friend of John Haden Badley, the social reformer and educationalist and would regularly visit Bedales School when his nephew Alfred Francis Blakeney Carpenter was a student there.

Sexual education for Carpenter also meant forwarding a clear analysis of the ways in which sex and gender were used to oppress women, contained in Carpenter's radical work "Love's Coming-of-Age". In it he argued that a just and equal society must promote the sexual and economic freedom of women. The main crux of his analysis centred on the negative effects of the institution of marriage. He regarded marriage in England as both enforced celibacy and a form of prostitution. He did not believe women would truly be free until a socialist society was established. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, however, this led him to conclude that all oppressed workers should support women's emancipation, rather than to subordinate women's rights to male worker's rights. He remarked

"...there is no solution except the freedom of woman - which means, of course, the freedom of the masses of the people, men and women, and the ceasing altogether of economic slavery. There is no solution which will not include the redemption of the terms free women and free love to their true and rightful significance. Let every woman whose heart bleeds for the sufferings of her sex, hasten to declare herself and to constitute herself, as far as she possibly can, a free woman"

Political Activism in His Later Life

The last twenty years of Carpenter's life were filled with a continued political radicalism, marked by his persistent involvement in progressive issues, including environmental protection, animal rights, sexual freedom, the Women's movement and vegetarianism. He wrote on the awfulness of the capitalist system, against the landed aristocracy and for his vision of socialism – a new era of democracy, comradeship, cooperation and sexual freedom. He supported Fred Charles of the Walsall Anarchists in 1892. The following year he became a founder member of the Independent Labour Party with, among others, George Bernard Shaw. A true radical in his own life-time, many of Carpenter's beliefs, were rejected and even ridiculed, by those on the Left. The attitude of many socialist contemporaries can be seen from George Orwell's later attack, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), on "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer [and] sex maniac" in the Socialist movement. Carpenter was unperturbed by hostility of this kind.

He continued to work in the early part of the 20th century composing works on the "Homogenic question". The publication in 1902 of his groundbreaking Anthology of poems, Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship, was a huge underground success, leading to a more advanced knowledge of homoerotic culture[3]. In April 1914, Carpenter and his friend Laurence Houseman founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. Some of the topics addressed in lecture and publication by the society included: the promotion of the scientific study of sex; a more rational attitude towards sexual conduct and problems and questions connected with sexual psychology (from medical, juridical, and sociological aspects), birth control, abortion, sterilization, venereal diseases, and all aspects of prostitution. At this time, he also lectured to the Independent Labour Party and to the Fellowship of the New Life, from which the Fabian Society later grew.

Carpenter's interests were not confined to what his detractors may have termed fringe political subjects, but included the pressing international issues of the time. His left-wing pacifism led him to become a vocal opponent of the Second Boer War and then World War I. In 1919, he published The Healing of Nations and the Hidden Sources of Their Strife, where he argued passionately that the source of war and discontent in western society was class-monopoly and social inequality. He termed this social injustice "class-disease", where each class acts only in its own interests. To Carpenter's mind, a radical social and economic restructuring needed to take place in order to end social fragmentation. In his later years, he remarked that:

"I can see only one ultimate way out of the morass in which we are engulfed. The present commercial system will have to go, and there will have to be a return to the much simpler systems of co-operation be-longing to a bygone age . . . To that condition, or something very like it, I am convinced we shall have to return if society is to survive. I say this after a long and close observation of life in many phases. . . This is what the miners, I think, in a dim, subconscious way, have already perceived, for they retain in their minds much of the primitive mentality of pre-civilization days".

Carpenter's later years were characterised not only by continued writings on pacifism, but also activity in the trade-union movement. He was a hero to the first generation of Labour politicians. During the short-lived Labour government in 1924, his 80th birthday was marked by a commemorative greeting signed by every member of the Cabinet.

After the First World War he had moved to Guildford, Surrey, with George Merrill.[2] In January 1928, Merrill died suddenly, leaving Carpenter devastated. Carpenter's state of mind is described vividly by the noted political activist G Lowes Dickinson,

"Edward's grief when that occurred was overwhelming. I remember him walking on my arm to the cemetery at Guildford where they had buried George a few days before, and where he himself was to lie a year or so later. It was a day of pouring rain, and we stood beside the grave, while Carpenter ejaculated again and again, 'They have put him away in the cold ground'."

Death and Influence

In May 1928, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke which rendered him almost helpless. He lived another 13 months before he died on Friday June 28, 1929. On December 30, 1910 Carpenter had written:

"I should like these few words to be read over the grave when my body is placed in the earth; for though it is possible I may be present and conscious of what is going on, I shall not be able to communicate..."

Unfortunately the existence of his request was not discovered until several days after his burial. The closing words form the epitaph engraved on his tombstone:

"Do not think too much of the dead husk of your friend, or mourn too much over it, but send your thoughts out towards the real soul or self which has escaped — to reach it. For so, surely you will cast a light of gladness upon his onward journey, and contribute your part towards the building of that kingdom of love which links our earth to heaven."

He was interred in Mount Cemetery at Guildford in Surrey. At the time of his death, Carpenter was largely forgotten, but his books were stocked in many libraries' "restricted to adults" sections and proved inspirational to gay people searching for solace. One such man was the gay rights activist and Communist Harry Hay. He was so inspired by the work of Carpenter and his prophecy of the coming together of gay people to fight for their rights that he decided to put the words into action by founding the Mattachine Society which started advancing gay rights in America. In Britain, Carpenter’s words were frequently quoted by gay rights activists.


  1. Philip Taylor's Biography of Carpenter, Phillip Taylor 1988
  2. Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford p.131
  3. The 1917 New York edition is now available as a free online e-book


  • Edward Carpenter: An Exposition and an Appreciation, Edward Lewis 1915

External links

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