First published in the Sheffield Co-operator: October 2017
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. In Sheffield, the occasion was commemorated with a series of events in the last week of February, to coincide with LGBT+ History Month. Hosting academics and writers, film showings, and activity sessions, the weekend culminated with a Full Moon “Tea Dance” hosted by DJ Wendy and the Out Aloud! LGBT choir.
One of the highlights of the weekend was Sally Goldsmith’s lecture – supported by the Friends of Edward Carpenter – on the relationship between famed Victorian writer and political activist Edward Carpenter and locally born razor grinder George Hukin. Carpenter is known to the LGBT+ community as an early advocate for sexual equality: his writings on “homogenic” love and his open espousal of a homosexual identity often put him at odds with the more conventional radical Labour community of the time, but they have helped him achieve lasting fame.
A native of Brighton, and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Carpenter travelled the north for many years as a lecturer, making Sheffield his base. Receiving an inheritance from his late father, he moved to Millthorpe, a farming hamlet not far from Dronfield, in 1883. It was there that he wrote his most famous books, including Towards Democracy, a narrative poem inspired by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Carpenter twice travelled to the United States to visit Whitman, and later published an account of the days they spent together.
Making a career as a market gardener, selling his produce at Chesterfield, Carpenter consciously attempted a “simplification of life” which challenged the industrial triumphalism of the 1870s and 1880s. A vegetarian, he was an advocate for many of the social crusades of the day, from land nationalisation to female suffrage, and was an active member of the Sheffield Socialist Society and the Independent Labour Party.
Appalled by the grinding poverty and sickness of Sheffield residents, in 1887, he and other members of the Socialist Society took over the old debtors’ jail on Scotland Street, opening the downstairs floor as the “Commonwealth Café”, which gave assistance to the local poor and hosted lectures by notable radicals, such as Annie Besant, and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin.
Though never directly involved with the Sheffield Co-operative Party, Carpenter had been inspired by the experimental co-operative agricultural associations he’d encountered on his trips to Europe. He later lectured on the idea of an economic transformation, fuelled by co-operative banks, unions and societies that could generate social forms of wealth. On the liberation wing of the socialist movement, he disliked state intervention, believed that change could only grow out of existing roots, and “voluntary collectivism,” and like Kropotkin, believed that small-holdings encouraged enterprise, attention to detail and all-round skills.
Such was Carpenter’s repute inside and outside the Labour movement that on the eve of his seventieth birthday – and again on his eightieth – he received a letter of congratulations signed by over 200 notable figures, including Ramsey MacDonald, Rabindranath Tagore, and Bernard Shaw, expressing the “feelings of admiration and gratitude” with which they regarded his body of work. Carpenter frequently corresponded with MacDonald, who opened up to him about the stresses of national leadership.
In June 1928, the year before his death at the age of 84, Labour councillors moved to award Carpenter the Freedom of the City of Sheffield, along with the Labour MP Cecil Wilson, Alderman J.G. Graves, and Alderman Henry Stephenson. So often a formality, the application was rejected after councillors from the Citizens’ Party – a Conservative/Liberal coalition – refused to vote on the matter. Though all the Labour councillors voted in favour, a decision was made that the vote had not been quorate. The Citizens’ Party refused to comment on their reasoning for refusing to vote.
Reporting on the matter, the Sheffield Co-operator chastised the Citizens’ Party, stating the likelihood that long after many of the “public” men who had previously received the honour were utterly forgotten, “in perhaps 100 years’ time,” Edward Carpenter would be honoured with a sculptured monument in a prominent Sheffield location. Particular ire was directed at Councillor Irwin Mitchell, who confessed after the vote that he had never heard of Edward Carpenter. “These be thy gods, O Ecclesall!” the Co-operator exclaimed.
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. Both were accomplished men, but it is certain that neither contributed anything of note to the cultural life of Sheffield, as Edward Carpenter had.
Carpenter has been repeatedly rediscovered in the years since his death. In 1972, Rony Robinson, the Radio Sheffield presenter, staged Edward Carpenter Lives! the first new play staged at the Crucible. In 1979, Noel Greig introduced Carpenter to the Gay Liberation Movement in his play “The Dear Love of Comrades,” produced for the Gay Sweatshop. And in 2009, the first full length biography of Carpenter, Sheila Rowbotham’s A Life of Liberty and Love, was published by Verso.
In this celebratory year, almost ninety years since his death, it is time to heed the call of the Sheffield Co-operator and erect a statue worthy of Edward Carpenter in the city centre, and correct a historic injustice by rewarding him posthumously with the Freedom of the City.
This is the task that Friends of Edward Carpenter have chosen to undertake. They can often be found at the Mugen Tea House, located on Scotland Street, just a stone’s throw away from the site of the old Commonwealth Café. Why not join them in remembering Carpenter by singing his well-known hymn “England Arise!”