Walking in the footsteps of Edward Carpenter to remember Sheffield’s LGBT activist

When the socialist poet and pioneering gay activist Edward Carpenter gave his first political lecture in Sheffield at the long-demolished Owenite Hall of Science in the city centre, he addressed the audience with a sentiment that has hardly dated more than a century on.

Thursday, 12th September 2019, 07:00 am
Updated Monday, 16th September 2019, 17:50 pm
Dr Alison Twells on Fargate, Sheffield. Picture: Dean Atkins

"There's an amazing quote, which is about the way people were just buying stuff and chucking it away - celebrating the cheapness of everything, but not looking behind and seeing the conditions in which a file for a penny was made," says Dr Alison Twells, professor of social and cultural history at Sheffield Hallam University who is leading a walk dedicated to Carpenter next Sunday.

"It feels very modern. Now you might talk about it in a global sense. He was ahead of his time - but he was also part of a movement."

Known as the ‘gay godfather of the left’, and credited with paving the way for the liberation movement of the 20th century, Carpenter was renowned for many things – he advocated free love, the wearing of sandals, feminism, nudism, vegetarianism, birth control, recycling and railed against air pollution.

Edward Carpenter.

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He mixed and corresponded with pre-eminent writers, socialists and thinkers of his day - Keir Hardie, John Ruskin, E M Forster and Mahatma Ghandi among them - and lived openly with his lover George Merrill on a farm at Millthorpe near Dronfield.

Carpenter, who died in 1929, was born in Brighton 175 years ago but spent much of his life in Sheffield, and he is being honoured in a big way in his adopted home city. At the weekend it was confirmed that a memorial sculpture designed by the leading contemporary artist Maggi Hambling is to be put up in a prominent spot in the middle of Sheffield. Supporters - who believe such a tribute is long overdue - have secured the backing of the council and are now focused on raising around £175,000 to commission the artwork and have it installed.

Alison's walk starts at the site of the Hall of Science, close to where the Devonshire Cat pub is today, and will concentrate on a pair of themes.

"Two of the main things about Carpenter are the way he was an inspiration to the early socialist movement, and his being a pioneer of, I guess, gay liberation, if that's not too anachronistic," she says.

Edward Carpenter, George Merrill, G. Hukin and Charles Sixsmith seated outdoors © Carpenter Collection at Sheffield City Archives

The route will continue to the top of Fargate, in front of the Town Hall, where a tall granite obelisk called the Jubilee Monolith once stood. This was taken down in 1905 and replaced with a monument to Queen Victoria that was itself removed in 1930 and now resides in Endcliffe Park.

"At the monolith they used to have public gatherings, I believe on a Saturday, where various trade unionists and socialists would come to address the public," says Alison. "There are a few accounts of Carpenter participating in those."

The spot has another, less cerebral connection too.

"There used to be an event called the Naked Races, which was basically fit young steelworkers racing down Fargate wearing not much more than plimsolls and a sort of loincloth to protect their modesty. He'd come down and have a look."

The walk will visit '11 or 12' spots, recalling the Wentworth Café on Holly Street - "A socialist meeting place in the 1880s and 90s" - and the Commonwealth Café on Scotland Street where the Sheffield Socialist Society, instigated by Carpenter in 1886, was based. The latter attracted important speakers such as Annie Besant, the birth control campaigner, and anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Alison has been interested in Carpenter 'for a very long time'.

"When I was at university in the 80s I heard about him - and that wasn't here, that was in Sussex. I just picked up bits about him and then Sheila Rowbotham wrote the fabulous definitive biography. I read that and then the Friends of Edward Carpenter approached me about doing a walk. Initially, students were involved in it, and then I took it over to finish it off."

The walk has become a 'really big project', she says. "We're adding to it all the time."

Carpenter's memory has endured largely because he left a substantial archive consisting of thousands of papers, books and pamphlets. His writings included Towards Democracy, which dwelled on freedom and equality, and the socialist marching hymn England Arise.

"More ordinary, working-class people who were part of the same movement wouldn't have left behind all of that documentation," says Alison. "He was moneyed and educated and had access to that world."

Carpenter managed to avoid scandal in the era of Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for 'gross indecency', despite writing about homosexuality and making no secret of his relationship with George Merrill.

"I think one factor as to why he got away with it was because he was so patrician and middle-class, and George was a working-class bloke," says Alison. "In some senses they could look from the outside like George was his housekeeper. I mean, George did look after the house, but it was a partnership. That was one way in which the world might have been able to understand it without having to think about the other stuff."

There was talk, Alison says - letters attacking Carpenter and his lifestyle were written to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. "But that seems to have been the worst that happened."

According to Rowbotham, the true love of Carpenter's life was George Hukin, a razor-grinder whom he met through a political campaign. Their time together ended when Hukin got engaged to be married.

"People weren't defined in terms of a sexual identity in the late 19th century, that was only just coming in," says Alison. "That's one of the reasons why Carpenter was important, because not only did he support the idea of people having a sexual identity, rather than it just being about acts they did, his writings were very much about making sure men who loved other men were represented positively in terms of love, rather than as some sort of abnormality, a psychological anomaly or a neurosis. There are particular words used by European sexologists that were very negative."

The upcoming sculpture, she says, will 'raise Carpenter's profile and that of the issues he represented', as well as making a point about the public figures society should recognise.

"It took all those years to get the Women of Steel commemorated, for example. Finally we're branching out by looking at women and, in this case, a gay man - acknowledging there were people who did good in the world apart from white male politicians or industrialists."

And if Alison were Maggi Hambling, what would she do?

"Well, I'm not a sculptor," she says, smiling. "But I would want something that represented his connections to a wide variety of people - the Labour movement in Britain; Olive Schreiner the anti-imperialist in South Africa; Walt Whitman, who was a great inspiration for him; Charlotte Despard, who was in the Women's Freedom League... something that brings in his global as well as local significance."

The free walk on September 22 starts at 11am and finishes at 1pm. No booking is required, meet outside the Devonshire Cat pub on Wellington Street. Heritage Open Days run from September 13 to 22 with more than 130 events in Sheffield. See www.heritageopendays.org.uk for details.