Heart and sole of Gay Godfather

Edward Carpenter and left George Merrill
Edward Carpenter and left George Merrill
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Edward Carpenter was an inspiring figure in the sexual politics of his time. Stephen McClarence assesses his life

The cardboard box sits on the table, waiting to be opened. Inside are things that people come from all over the world to see. There’s a great sense of anticipation in the Sheffield Archives office.

At the end of a curious afternoon, full of coincidences and playwrights and new discoveries, Cheryl Bailey, Sheffield’s senior archivist, finally lifts the box lid, takes out three small parcels neatly wrapped in tissue paper and unwraps them. They are sandals: two pairs and a single one.

All were reputedly made by one man, and the single sandal – canvas, sturdy and looking vaguely biblical – was worn by him. His name was Edward Carpenter, he thought normal shoes were “leather coffins”, he lived on the outskirts of Sheffield, he has been called a prophet and “the gay godfather of the British Left”, and a group called Friends of Edward Carpenter has just been launched.

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was the radical’s radical, a man of scandals as well as sandals. He was an outspoken cultural and political activist and a pioneer of all that was once “alternative”: free love, free-thinking, gay rights, birth control, recycling. He campaigned for the environment – specifically against air pollution – before anyone had heard of it.

He was admired by Tolstoy, influenced DH Lawrence and, on reaching 80, received a birthday card signed by every member of Ramsay MacDonald’s Cabinet. He was an advocate of – where to start? – socialism, feminism, vegetarianism, trade unionism, teetotalism, anarchism, grow-your-ownism, nude sunbathing (when the weather permitted) and sandals. He made a pair for George Bernard Shaw, but they didn’t fit and made his feet bleed.

He was in the forefront of practically every progressive cause: The Good Life meets Gay Lib meets Women’s Lib meets potentially cold feet. He was an outspoken opponent of – again, where to start? – capitalism, capital punishment, imperialism, vivisection, stag-hunting, hare-coursing, prejudice and violence of all sorts. He was a friend (and possibly lover) of the American poet Walt Whitman and a friend of E M Forster, whom he encouraged to come out, just as he had himself.

For 30 years, he lived in an openly gay relationship at a market-gardening commune in Millthorpe, a village on the edge of rough, tough, industrial Sheffield, at a time when homosexuality was illegal and Oscar Wilde was being imprisoned for it.

Gay Times has described Carpenter’s book The Intermediate Sex as “the foundation stone of gay liberation”. It was so mould-breaking that in 1915, six years after it was published, Scotland Yard suggested it should be withdrawn from circulation (it wasn’t).

“Someone flew in from San Francisco last week just to see our Edward Carpenter Collection; people come for all over to pay homage to the sandals,” says Cheryl Bailey, rewrapping them and replacing them in their box. Spread across the table is a selection of the collection’s 3,000 items, which includes 1,000 books and pamphlets, original manuscripts, and letters to Carpenter from Gandhi, John Ruskin, William Morris, Marie Stopes and Siegfried Sassoon.We’re at Sheffield Archives a couple of days after the launch, just up the hill, of the Friends group, which aims to create and fund a memorial to Carpenter in the centre of a city that pointedly denied him one. There was talk of awarding him the Freedom of Sheffield in 1920, but local worthies were worried about his homosexuality and it came to nothing.

Some 60 people turned out at the launch at the Crucible Theatre in a brief revival of the radicalism that used to be the hallmark of Sheffield politics. As wine (white as well as red) was drunk – you can only follow Carpenter’s teetotal ideals so far – the Friends’ founders sang the praises of their hero and his “life of liberty and love”.

This rakish-looking man with his dapper beard, broad-brimmed hat and cummerbund, has inspired generations of disciples. He abandoned his upper middle class background in Brighton and Cambridge to lecture around Yorkshire in a forerunner of the Workers’ Educational Association. And he challenged all the assumptions of conventional bourgeois life, by forging working-class friendships, and in his relationship with George Merrill, who had grown up in the Sheffield slums and was registered as his manservant.

Writer and broadcaster Sally Goldsmith discovered him in the 1970s when her own feminism and her belief in “living your politics” chimed in with his outlook. “He did all these mad things against Victorian conventionality, living with his lover and being eccentric,” she says. “And you get a sense that he was a kind man, that he cared about people who came his way.”

For Kate Flannery, one of the driving forces of the Friends, “He was a man ahead of his time... He promoted things we take for granted now, but he was probably too radical for some people.”

Those people included George Orwell. As Sheila Rowbotham’s definitive biography of Carpenter points out, Orwell railed against Carpenter’s influence on middle-class socialists, “the sort of eunuch type with a vegetarian smell, who go about spreading sweetness and light... readers of Edward Carpenter or some other pious sodomite”. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he voiced his exasperation at the Left’s tendency to attract every “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”

No such doubts from Bradford-born Baroness Gould of Potternewton, the Friends’ patron. She describes Carpenter as “an advocate of a very special brand of mystic socialism... It must have taken great courage for Carpenter to have lived openly with his lover George Merrill in Millthorpe.”

It did. Back at Sheffield Archives, Cheryl Bailey and I are browsing through a 1909 report of a police surveillance stint outside the Millthorpe cottage, on the lookout for evidence of indecent conduct inside. Nothing incriminating was found.

“Incidentally,” says Cheryl, “I don’t know if you’re interested, but the widow of George Merrill’s great-nephew is over there.”

Barbara Nield, a Sheffielder herself, is researching her Merrill family connection through her late husband, John. “Someone said to me a few years ago: ‘You realise that George Merrill was the gay lover of Edward Carpenter, don’t you?’,” she says. “My husband said: ‘I don’t believe that!’ But it’s true.”

She hadn’t heard of Carpenter at the time; now, armed with notes and dates on bits of paper, she has an astonishing knowledge of his life and of Sheila Rowbotham’s biography. We mention a small detail. “It’s on page 376,” she says.

We’re joined by Rony Robinson, the writer, Radio Sheffield presenter and sandal-wearer whose Edward Carpenter Lives! was the first new play staged at the Crucible, back in 1972. He has had a lifelong fascination with Carpenter. His mother met the great man and he recalls his grandfather sitting at the piano and singing Carpenter’s socialist anthem England Arise!:

“Out of your evil dream of toil and sorrow

Arise, O England, for the day is here!”

Carpenter, he says, was “part of Sheffield but international as well”. But was he a crank, a fanatic? “The last thing he was was a fanatic. He was a teetotaller who sometimes drank. And he was a vegetarian, but he thought it was a good idea occasionally to eat meat, so you didn’t get to be a crank. Since those childhood memories, he’s haunted me for the rest of my life.”

We leaf through Carpenter’s notes, posters for his lectures and for “public teas” in Chesterfield, and the typescript of his planned biography of Merrill.

And we look at letters he received. “We’ve got letters to Carpenter from ordinary people saying ‘What you’re writing validates how I feel’,” says Cheryl. “And we’ve got celebrity letters...” Here’s a batch from Siegfried Sassoon, writing from the front in the First World War: “It is difficult to keep going when all one’s friends are getting killed... My wound was only a bullet graze on the scalp.”

So what sort of a memorial should Edward Carpenter have? A statue, after all, might be too “establishment”. Perhaps, as Barbara Nield suggests, it could be a steel casting of his sandals, on a plinth. A chance to worship at the feet of the master.