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A Magazine for Sheffield

Edward Carpenter: A legacy of love, literature & liberty

969 1585222003

Edward Carpenter was a forward-thinking poet, philosopher and activist who was born in Sussex, but for many years called Sheffield home. He made a name for himself in Sheffield in the late 19th century and became well known and respected through his writing and activism. Across 40 years, Carpenter wrote about and campaigned on a variety of issues including vegetarianism, anarchism, anti-vivisectionism, philosophy and teetotalism.

Alongside some of his contemporaries, Carpenter also campaigned for many radical causes including women's suffrage, gay rights and trade unionism. Carpenter himself identified as a gay man and, exceptionally for the time, lived openly with his partner George Merrill for over 30 years. During this time, despite the continued persecution of gay men, Carpenter wrote at length about the need for sexual reform and called for a greater understanding and awareness off same sex relationships. Even during the trials of Oscar Wilde, when homosexuality was at its most vilified, Carpenter continued to publish works that advocated for the normalisation of gay relationships.

Against the backdrop of Victorian industrialisation and the empire on which the sun never set, Edward Carpenter was also outspoken in his anti-imperialism and concern for the environment, in particular, the impact that smog and pollution from factories had upon the residents of Sheffield. In an article for the Sheffield Independent, he went so far as to call Sheffield the laughing stock of the civilised world due to the number of people suffering as a result of the pollution. He expressed particular concern for the amount of people dying of pollution-related illnesses and the way in which the smog affected access to sunlight and reduced the air quality of the city.

Later in life he turned his attention to promoting his egalitarian values, becoming a founding member of both the newly-formed Independent Labour Party in 1983 and the Sheffield Socialist Society, founded in 1886. Throughout his later works, he expressed an unwavering belief that the working classes had the potential for self-emancipation, leading him to write increasingly about democracy, social inequality, war and the benefits of socialist politics. Principle 5, a Sheffield-based cooperative resource centre, have recently republished 'Sheffield and Socialism,' part of Carpenter's autobiography, which details the early years of the Sheffield Socialist Society. This will be their first pamphlet as the group seeks to expand their range of accessible learning and information resources.

The Friends of Edward Carpenter are another local group currently raising Carpenter's profile in the city. They are dedicated to establishing a permanent memorial to him in the city centre in recognition of his social and political achievements, as no civic memorial currently exists. The group will be raising money to fund the creation of a sculpture by award-winning artist Maggi Hambling, whose work often pertains to social issues and for whom this would be the third sculpture to commemorate a notable LGBT+ figure, with previous works celebrating the legacies of Oscar Wilde and Benjamin Britten. Hambling's main inspiration will be Carpenter's campaign for universal emancipation with the hope that the sculpture will encourage ongoing conversation about his work. As well as providing a physical memorial, the Friends of Edward Carpenter hope the sculpture will be used as a place of pilgrimage, meditation and celebration for those he continues to inspire.

Kate Flannery, one of the founders of the Friends of Edward Carpenter, commented that "Edward Carpenter saw a future full of hope, equality and a simpler way of life, where we live in a sustainable way. He also fought and campaigned for change and his values still resonate with many people today. We are absolutely delighted that internationally-renowned artist Maggi Hambling will be producing a sculpture to enable us to provide a permanent piece of public art in Sheffield City Centre dedicated to Edward Carpenter, his life and his values."

Learn more

If you would like to find out more about Edward Carpenter, upcoming fundraising events or to donate, go to or you can find the Friends of Edward Carpenter on Facebook and Twitter.

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