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Edward Carpenter: for liberty and love

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Radical historian Sheila Rowbotham spoke to Colin Wilson about her new biography of Edward Carpenter, the pioneering gay socialist writer
Issue 2134
Edward Carpenter in 1875

Edward Carpenter in 1875

One hundred years ago the name of Edward Carpenter, now largely forgotten, was known throughout the left in Britain. Yet Carpenter’s ideals had little in common with what we think of as Victorian values.

He supported trade unions and called for industries to be controlled by workers. But he also argued that socialism must mean a total transformation of society – including changes to personal life and relationships.

Gay himself, Carpenter argued for the liberation of sexuality and the rejection of narrow male and female roles. He attempted to live self-sufficiently, rejecting complex technology in favour of a lifestyle that included simple clothes, vegetarianism and nude sun-bathing.

He travelled to Europe, America and Sri Lanka, where he developed an interest in eastern mysticism. He was a sort of Victorian hippy.

Not that Carpenter was an isolated individual. He was part of an alternative network in the north of England – he lived near Sheffield – which included socialist meeting halls, coffee shops, Sunday schools and choirs.

Now the socialist feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham has revived that forgotten world with her biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love.

In it we encounter activists such as Jack Murphy, a young Sheffield worker who in 1913 bought a copy of The Suffragette from Molly Morris, who was selling papers in the street.

Jack normally bought The New Age, which included articles about trade union militancy, eastern religion and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. But on this occasion he wanted to get chatting to Molly.

Eight years later they were married and heading off to revolutionary Russia. Molly was surprised to hear Jack, now a communist shop steward, reciting poetry – including some of Carpenter’s.

Two socialist organisations existed at the time, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Not only were activists interested in a wide range of ideas, they wanted to apply new thinking to their own lives.

For instance, in the 1890s a socialist tea party in the Colne Valley, Lancashire, saw men instead of women pouring the tea and doing the washing up. I asked Sheila where this culture of radicalism on gender issues had come from.


‘The West Yorkshire ILP had a strong tradition of supporting women’s emancipation, though people have pointed out that other ILP areas were not so good,’ she said.

‘I think this was because working class women worked on a large scale in Lancashire and Yorkshire. There was a history of them working and having an independent life through their earnings.’

Carpenter had arrived in this environment in 1874 at the age of 30, having rejected an upper middle class upbringing and a teaching job at Cambridge University.

Influenced initially by the radical US poet Walt Whitman, Carpenter had come to find the privileged society in which he lived both artificial and spiritually dead.

He moved to the north of England to give lectures for the University Extension Movement, which aimed to give more people access to university level learning – though Carpenter was disappointed to find few workers attended.

Three years later he arrived in Sheffield, where he became a socialist. He lectured at the Hall of Science, a centre for working class radicals and utopians.

From the beginning, Carpenter’s socialism was deeply connected to his feelings about nature and his personal life. He was horrified by the levels of air pollution in the city, went walking in the surrounding countryside and started to live on a farm.

He also began to have sexual ­encounters with workers – ‘railwaymen, porters, clerks, signalmen, ironworkers…’ as he put it in his autobiography. He became involved in the SDF, where he met writer and artist William Morris. Sheila notes that ‘both men’s politics arose from a longing for free and equal human relations’.

Sheffield Socialist Society was independent of both the ILP and SDF, and characterised by a wide range of viewpoints. The organisation’s aims combined a utopian desire to regenerate society with practical demands. These included labour representation in parliament and on school boards, and municipal control of fuel, water and public transport.

Members ranged from wild revolutionaries to ‘hard-headed municipal reformers’ and included socialists of various stripes, anarchists and trade unionists.

Carpenter’s vision of simple socialist living was reflected in Millthorpe, the house he had built in 1883 after inheriting a substantial amount from his father. Here he settled with friends and attempted to live self-sufficiently by market gardening.


The house saw a constant stream of visitors of all kinds. Carpenter felt at home in this varied and contradictory movement. ‘I stick up for Fabians and trade unions just as much as I do for anarchists. We are all travelling along the same road. Why should we be snarling at each other’s heads?’ he later wrote.

While Carpenter was generous and unsectarian to a fault, he was generally unwilling to take up a party position or a decided point of view. Sometimes a virtue, this could become a fault.

The beginning of the First World War, for example, saw socialists across Europe divided. Many sided with their ‘own’ countries and supported the war, while only a few revolutionaries opposed it. For the first 18 months of the conflict, Carpenter was simply unable to decide.

‘He is woolly,’ says Sheila. ‘A lot of his associates expected him to be anti-war. But his family did have this strong navy connection which seems to have affected him. And he did have these ideas – which quite a few liberal people who supported the war had too – that Germany was more militaristic and aggressive, and so the greater evil.’

Sheila is clear that at times Carpenter was downright wrong. ‘Carpenter had this wide vision of socialism, but he’s not to be taken as some kind of ideal model,’ she says.

‘He spoke on one occasion in favour of immigration controls, and there are scattered references through his writings which are pretty antisemitic. That was quite common, but there were people at the time who criticised it.’


One of the most fascinating and inspiring aspects of Carpenter’s life was his sexuality. He was 42 when he fell in love with George Hukin, a 26 year old razor grinder. Their relationship is recorded in letters.

Hukin wrote to Carpenter that ‘I don’t think I ever felt so happy in my life.’ Carpenter wrote to a friend that Hukin was ‘too good almost to be true’. For several months they wrote loving letters to each other and slept together – but then things went wrong.

Carpenter was gay in the modern sense, loving and desiring only men. But Hukin was not. In fact, historical studies show that many working class men in this period identified as neither gay nor straight – categories which were only just beginning to be defined.

After ten months of their relationship, as they lay in bed together, Hukin plucked up the courage to tell Carpenter that he was in love with a woman called Fannie and had got engaged to her. Carpenter was devastated.

Hukin did his best not to hurt anyone, writing to Carpenter that ‘you really must come and live with us when we do marry. You will, won’t you Ted? We shall all be so happy then…’ But this was hardly a practical solution, and the relationship ended.

Four years later in 1891 Carpenter met George Merrill, the working class man who was to be his partner for the next 37 years – though their relationship wasn’t monogamous. They lived openly together at Millthorpe, a courageous act in the decade that saw Oscar Wilde sent to prison for homosexuality.

Carpenter wrote a series of pamphlets in the 1890s about women, marriage and sexuality, published by the Labour Press in Manchester. He circulated privately a fourth pamphlet, Homogenic Love, that opposed attacks on homosexuality.

Later in that decade Carpenter also wrote Love’s Coming of Age, which argued in favour of sex education. He celebrated the growing assertiveness of the ‘new woman’ – middle class women achieving equality by going to university and working in jobs such as teaching and medicine.

‘He talks about the incomprehension that often arises between men and women in sexual relationships,’ Sheila told me. ‘He’s very funny about that, about upper middle class men who get in a complete mess when they fall in love because they’ve been taught never to express emotion.’

I asked Sheila about the extent to which Carpenter had risked disgrace and prison by writing about homosexuality and living openly as a gay man.

‘His friend Lowes Dickenson said he didn’t know how Carpenter had managed to get away with it. But he covered himself in a way by writing about sex generally – he could be seen as somebody who was just raising these issues.

‘Because Homogenic Love couldn’t be printed for public circulation, he got known as a theorist of modern relationships in general. He was always a little cautious. He never said that people should get off with everybody and have a wild time – he was always very ‘proper’ in the way he put things.’


Carpenter campaigned as openly as possible for gay rights, helping to found the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology in 1914. This organisation gave personal advice to large numbers of men, including the novelist EM Forster and poet Siegfried Sassoon. While openly respectable, he always ran the risk of jail.

Carpenter was 70 when the First World War began in 1914. His sandals and rural living were beginning to look old-fashioned – and his vision didn’t quite relate to the post-war world of Labour governments and the Communist Party.

He had little to say, for example, in response to the Russian Revolution of 1917, though he continued to support trade union struggles such as Britain’s 1926 general strike.

The last years of Carpenter’s life saw him admired throughout the left. On his 80th birthday in 1924 he received greetings from the first Labour Party cabinet, the TUC and dozens of other organisations. He died in 1929, aged 85.

He was remembered, Sheila explains, in two ways. ‘First, through the local labour movement, who were the people who knew him. When socialist historians Dorothy and Edward Thompson went to Halifax in the late 1940s, working class people they met there had books by Carpenter on their shelves.

‘Gay men also remembered him. A whole generation read his books and he’d helped so many people. He was a kind of networking political therapist.’

A hundred years on from Carpenter’s heyday his mistakes and eccentricities are easy to mock, but they are the least important thing about him. Far more significant is his determination to live according to his principles.

He left behind a privileged life to grow his own vegetables and darn his own socks, lived with George Merrell though they risked prison, and inspired thousands of workers with his vision of socialism.

For Carpenter, in Sheila’s words, ‘socialism wasn’t just about external inequality, it was also about how people interact in their everyday relationships’. In that vision socialism is about the workplace and economic power – but also about a new life of love, fellowship and harmony with nature. It is a vision that can still inspire us today.

Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso, price £24.99. It is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 »

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