Reviving the forgotten work of Edward Carpenter, Sheffield’s ‘gay godfather of the left’

In the Victorian era, Edward Carpenter set up a commune on a farm outside Sheffield and began living openly with his male lover – shocking the repressed society of the day.

Carpenter endured hostility yet pressed ahead as a radical and LGBT advocate, writing a prose poem called Towards Democracy that dwelled on themes of freedom and equality.

Edward Carpenter and George Merrill

Edward Carpenter and George Merrill

But, as the 175th anniversary of his birth approaches next year, Carpenter’s fans are dismayed at what they see as a lack of attention given to his work. 

“Although periodic efforts have been made to remember Edward Carpenter, his writing has been largely forgotten,” said Christopher Olewicz of Millthorpe Press, a new publishing co-operative founded by enthusiasts that has launched a crowdfunding campaign to reprint Towards Democracy.

Even in Sheffield, Olewicz said, it is not possible to walk into a bookshop and buy a copy of Carpenter’s most famous work. “However, one can easily purchase a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the poem that inspired Carpenter to write Towards Democracy.”

To say Carpenter was ahead of his time would be putting it mildly. Hailed as the ‘gay godfather of the British Left’, he advocated free love, feminism, nudism, vegetarianism, birth control, recycling and railed against air pollution, as well as being openly gay at a time when Oscar Wilde was being jailed for ‘gross indecency with men’. Police kept Carpenter’s home under surveillance, looking for evidence to prosecute him.

Victorian gay rights pioneer, Edward Carpenter.

Victorian gay rights pioneer, Edward Carpenter.

His book The Intermediate Sex was described by Gay Times as ‘the foundation stone of gay liberation’; in 1915, Scotland Yard suggested, unsuccessfully, that it should be withdrawn from circulation.

Millthorpe Press aims to raise £4,000 to publish a high-quality hardback version of Towards Democracy's original 1883 edition, to ‘help reclaim’ Carpenter’s legacy.

Born in Brighton in 1844, Carpenter moved to Sheffield in 1882, wrote dozens of books and lectured around the country, using his smallholding at Millthorpe near Holmesfield as a base.

He and his friends had a vision of a ‘new life’ where men and women would have different roles; he tried to live out this ideal himself, living at the commune with a man called George Merrill. Some were fiercely opposed – an Irishman living in nearby Dronfield began a personal campaign against Carpenter’s ‘evil way’ through the letters page of the Sheffield Telegraph, and claimed his actions would bring 'the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah’ to the city. The resulting gossip cost him his seat on the local parish council.

One of 500 copies printed, this first edition copy of Towards Democracy is owned by Sheffield University.

One of 500 copies printed, this first edition copy of Towards Democracy is owned by Sheffield University.

Carpenter, who habitually wore sandals, also wrote on subjects as diverse as India, smoke abatement and prisons. He was a founding member of the Sheffield Socialist Society.

Typesetting for the new book is largely complete, but Millthorpe needs tmoney to produce the copies and launch the press. It is hoped the title will be printed by Northend Creative Print Solutions, based in Sheffield since 1889.

So far more than £1,000 has been pledged towards the total, and Millthorpe wants to reissue more of Carpenter's publications. Those being considered include Carpenter’s 1916 autobiography My Days and Dreams, Chants of Labour, his 1888 collection of songs, and hymns including ‘England Arise!’

In addition, Olewicz is campaigning to correct ‘an historic injustice’ by awarding Carpenter posthumously with the freedom of Sheffield. An effort made by the Labour group on Sheffield Council to grant him the honour was blocked by Conservatives and Liberals in 1928, a year before his death.

“The elitist attitude of some councillors of the day in regards to titles was confirmed two years later, when Richard Bennett, the Prime Minister of Canada, and James Scullin, the Prime Minister of Australia were awarded the Freedom of the City for services to the Empire,” said Olewicz. “Both never visited Sheffield.”

Visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/millthorpepress/reprinting-edward-carpenters-towards-democracy for more information.