Freedom of The City for Edward Carpenter

CHRISTOPHER OLEWICZ calls on Sheffield to correct “a historic injustice” by erecting a statue to the early ILPer and pioneer of gay rights an awarding him posthumously with the Freedom of the City.

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. After talks by 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.

Edward Carpenter pic

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.

Although 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 reputation inside and outside the Labour movement that on the eve of his 70th birthday – and again on his 80th – 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 JG 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 90 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 Sheffield’s Scotland Street, just a stone’s throw from the site of the old Commonwealth Café. Sheffield residents are welcome to join them in remembering Carpenter by singing his well-known hymn ‘England Arise!’.


A version of this article was originally published in the centenary edition of The Sheffield Co-operator, published this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Co-operative Party.


  1. John Halstead
    1 April 2018

    Christopher’s call should be supported. The leader of Sheffield City Council told the Sheffield Co-operative Party branch in January 2011 that she intended to have a ‘co-operative council’ when control was regained at the May elections.

    The council duly announced itself as a co-operative council in September, but the announcement was hollow. When the Amey PFI deal for Sheffield roads and streets came into force in August 2012, the company swiftly dropped the co-operative that previously had the contract for traffic light maintenance.

    There are a few local councillors now who have been elected as Co-operative and Labour councillors, but the council is far from taking any serious moves towards a local ‘co-operative commonwealth’.

    Labour nationally also fails to take the co-operative tradition seriously. Labour, as a consequence of the experience of the First and Second World Wars, is still wedded to statism – the idea that the bad effects of the operations of capitalism can be removed by state action – and it fails to produce a sufficiently vigorous policy to develop a large social economy of mutuals and co-operatives, despite the evidence that they are generally resilient in the face of such a financial crash as 2007/8.

    Christopher’s talk in Dronfield will perhaps provide an opportunity to discuss these issues.

  2. Harry Barnes
    9 January 2018

    Edward Carpenter lived at Millthorpe in Derbyshire from approximately 1882 until 1922, roughly between the ages of 38 and 78. He died in 1929.

    I am myself a member of the Dronfield and District Branch of the Labour Party in the North East Derbyshire Constituency which covers Millthorpe. We meet in the Contact Club in Dronfield, which is only a ten minute drive away from Carpenter’s former residence. I am, therefore, in communication with Christopher Olewicz, the author of the above article to arrange for him to address one of our local Labour Party Discussion Meetings about Carpenter, including what the contemporary relevances of his work and ideas are.

    In 2008, Shelia Rowbotham produced a biography about Carpenter. I will quote some local snippets.

    Holmesfield Parish Council established in 1894 covers Millthorpe. When Carpenter initially stood for election he was defeated being “accused of working on the Sabbath, advocating the burning of the bible, as well as proposing to raise the rates”. Eventually, however, he made it onto the Parish Council. “Carpenter’s one achievement”, given normal majority opposition to his moves, “was saving the Award Book which recorded the enclosure of the common lands of Holmesfield” (p 175-6). But later he came bottom of the poll in the Parish election of 1910.

    He made a much bigger impact locally via the use he made of his home. Rowbotham compared it to “an adult education summer school which ran for most of the year, in which nature outings, politics, talk, books, music and the extraordinary comingling of people constituted an education in itself”. (p 233). He was also a frequent visitor to the nearby Royal Oak at Millthorpe where he played the piano in the front room.

    But Carpenter seems to have faced a particularly rough time in Dronfield. So our Discussion Meeting will need to make amends for that.

    He “struggles into Dronfield and other places for provisions” (p 235) – perhaps into its old centre in the High Street, next to where Ann and I live. Then worse still “women in Dronfield were threatening to waylay and mob Carpenter” (p286). The following might explain why they adopted such a rough approach.

    Carpenter “was hounded by a member of the right-wing Liberty and Property Defence League, called M.D. O’Brien, who lived at nearby Dronfield. In 1908, O’Brien, who was obsessively hostile to both socialism and homosexuality, had accused Carpenter of ‘vice’ when O’Brien spoke on ‘Socialism and State Interference’ in Sheffield and Chesterfield… O’Brien accused Carpenter and his ‘Homogenic Comrades’ of morbid appetites, naked dancing, corruption of youth, paganism and Socialism.” (p 285).

    It is clearly time to put the other side of the case about Carpenter in Dronfied. For a start he wrote the words and music for the song – “England Arise” which can be found here. Also in spreading socialist values he worked via numerous avenues, including many ILP branches especially in the Yorkshire and Lancashire areas. Our own next Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Meeting will be held on the 125th anniversary of the formation of the ILP in Bradford. It is just the sort of venue for political discussions which Carpenter would have appreciated.

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