Birth: 29th September, 1844
Place of Birth: Brighton, England
Nationality: British
Job Title: Cleric, Writer, Gay Rights Pioneer
Partners: Albert Fearbehough, George Adams, George Merrill
Died: Surrey, 28th June 1929

Are the famous figures we know from history really the people who shaped our world or are they just the ones who marketed themselves the best? A quick look at our past reveals an easy to follow list of character traits that will give you perpetual fame without fail. Being exceptionally cruel or selfish, being stubborn in your ideas, instigating a revolution, ignoring the codes and conventions of your chosen art or simply marrying somebody infamous gives you the key to immortality.

There are, of course, thousands of great people who slip through the net of fame. Sometimes they are overshadowed in their time by another enthralling figure doing exactly the same thing just a few inches closer to the limelight. Others have their ideas lost by somebody else taking the credit. For many, their work just isn’t the type that breeds fame. Of this month’s Gay Great, E M Forster once said; “he will not figure in history”. Was his prediction accurate?

Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton to a naval family. Although the Carpenters were well off, with six sisters and three brothers to share the house with, he was not always top of the list for attention. Two of his brothers went into the armed forces before he had even reached school age whilst his remaining brother chose to take a post in the Indian Civil Service. Starting at Brighton College when he was ten, the youngest Carpenter boy displayed a flare for piano and loved to spend his free time out in the countryside horse riding or walking. This simple life instilled in him a love of nature that would never leave him. Although he had precious little company, his childhood was not a lonely one. For Carpenter, time spent with the birds and the flowers was like an afternoon playing with his best friends.

Carpenter’s aptitude for all things academic started to show halfway through his youth and by the time he was a young man, his abilities were such that he was accepted into Trinity College, Cambridge. It was there, like many gay men through the years, that he began to experiment with his feelings for other men. His ‘close friendships’ started to become more passionate. Although he was cruelly rejected by one of his first ever male lovers, he knew that he would never love a woman. After Cambridge, he decided to hide himself away in the clergy and took a post as a cleric at the aptly named St Edward’s Church in Cambridge. Taking holy orders offered a life of convention and convenience that attracted him. Spiritually, it had always been the world itself and not God that fascinated him. However, the Church was an opportune place for him to have the time to read, learn and think, three of the central characteristics of his life.

Of all the writers he read in his time as a cleric, one stood out above the rest. Carpenter’s copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman was well thumbed within a few days of his acquiring it. Whitman’s poetic style of describing the love of one man for another moved Carpenter to the core. The strong socialist message and trust in democratic ways that Whitman’s poems possessed also inspired him and set him on the path to a different life. Over the next few years, as he read more and more about the socialist ideal, Carpenter came to realise that a pleasant life in a dog collar was not his true calling. In 1873, he left the Church for good.

His first career was that of a travelling lecturer. He joined the University Extension Movement, a group of academics determined to take higher learning to the poorer towns and cities in Britain. He gave lectures in everything from astronomy to sun worship, the lives of ancient Greek women to music. It was a very satisfying life and took the impressionable young man to some of the most depressed areas of England. In 1877, he arrived in Sheffield. There, he came into contact with the working class at an unprecedented level. He lodged with a typical suburban family and soon got stuck into the daily grind of lower class life. For Carpenter, it was here that the world actually existed, where life was at its most real and not just some big game. The daily struggle for existence stimulated him, as did his new love for the father of the family he lodged with; Albert Fearnehough.

In 1881, Carpenter was given the financial helping hand he needed when his parents died within months of each other. His inheritance was enough to buy a small cottage in the countryside which he named Millthorpe. There was also enough land to grow produce to sell or keep for his own use. Fearnehough moved to Millthorpe with Carpenter, along with his wife and children. The family took on a distinctly utopian existence, living off the land and making sandals for extra money. In an age when the archetypal hippie was still decades away from being a commonplace way of life, the vegetarian, spiritual and tree hugging ways of Carpenter made many consider him a bit of an oddball! For a few others, his new way of life was highly attractive and Carpenter soon had a following of friends who would visit Millthorpe to share in the blissful life away from social restraints.

It was in the early days at Millthorpe that Carpenter started to attempt some writing himself. His chosen medium to begin with was poetry and in 1883, his long poem Towards Democracy was published, marking him out as a great writer. His work as a socialist was also taking off. Not wishing to be restricted by the narrow doctrine the Labour party offered, he chose to join the newly formed Social Democratic Federation, a group of highly notable thinkers who based their ideals on the writing of Karl Marx. When William Morris famously left the organisation and joined the Socialist League in 1884, Carpenter followed. Despite the change of organisation, his ideals of ownership for everybody and power to the workers still stuck fast.

Life at Millthorpe took a dramatic change when Fearnehough and his wife decided to leave. Carpenter fell in love again with a married man called George Adams, who lived at Millthorpe for a while with his wife. But during a train journey in 1891, a chance meeting formed a relationship that would last until his death. George Merrill was a working class man, a flirt, a loud-mouth who loved a drink and had strong morals. Edward was smitten and when Adams left Millthorpe, he was soon replaced by Merrill. With Carpenter’s writing career in full flow, the two lived openly as a couple on the smallholding, an extremely brave act considering the time in which they lived.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for his homosexuality. Oscar Wilde was the Robbie Williams of his day, a figure so famous that he was often mobbed when in public by adoring fans. Now, he sat in chains, condemned to hard labour every day for two years because he loved another man. In the same year, just before the trial started, Carpenter published a pamphlet on what he termed ‘homogenic love’. It was the first ever piece of published writing in the UK that dared to suggest loving somebody of the same sex was acceptable. Naturally, the work soon faded into the background as a huge black veil fell over homosexuality. In the fifty years after the trial of Oscar Wilde, homosexuality was more taboo than ever before. Carpenter’s ideas and works began to gather dust.

Merrill and Carpenter managed to escape scandal and arrest themselves for many reasons, most of all living their life so distant from society. Carpenter went on to write a lot more on the subject of homosexuality, his words either self-published or laying unread in personal notebooks at Millthorpe. In one work, he suggested that ‘Intermediates’ (another Carpenter word for homosexuals) should join together and begin to fight for a fair deal. He explained how being gay would one day be considered just another way of life as valid as any other.

For some reason, Merrill and Carpenter decided to move away from their beloved Millthorpe. Nobody knows why the couple chose to move away from the utopia they had worked so hard to create. Maybe they were blackmailed into leaving. Maybe their health was becoming too much to cope with so far from any sort of community. For whatever reason, the couple lived together in their new home in Gilford, Essex until 1928 when Merrill suddenly died. Carpenter was a broken man. Within months, he suffered a stroke and was paralysed. Just over a year later, he too was dead.

In the sixty years silence which followed the Oscar Wilde trials, gay men all across the country secretly obtained copies of Carpenter’s works. For them, his words were like those of a saviour, giving them a huge feeling of calm in a world where their very lives were often at risk due to their sexuality. As time moved on, his followers remained a select few. One of the few was Harry Hay. He was so inspired by the work of Carpenter and his prophecy of the coming together of homosexuals to fight for their rights that he decided to put the words into action. His formation of the Mattachine Society started the gay rights ball rolling in America. Here in the UK, Carpenter’s words were endlessly quoted by gay rights activists as they sought to change the world and make it a fairer place for gay men and women.

Many figures from history have died without knowing how their words and actions will affect the world. Van Gogh found it hard to sell a painting in his lifetime, yet now just one sale would have set him up for life. Henry VIII was so busy getting his own way that he didn’t realise his actions would still be causing global tension even today. But for Carpenter, the situation is oddly reversed. He hoped that his words would inspire and that one day the gay people of the world would fight for – and obtain – the justice they sorely deserved. The world is still generally unaware of his greatness. He hoped that he would help change the world; meanwhile the world is blissfully unaware that he has done exactly that.

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