Edward Carpenter (1844 – 1929), though from an upper class naval family, ran away from privilege to throw in his lot with working people. Living for most of his life in and around Sheffield, in his day he was very famous as a freethinking author and campaigner, and as the writer of the socialist song England Arise.
He was born in Brighton in 1844, went to Brighton College and Cambridge where he became a fellow and a curate in the C of E and very nearly a tutor for the Royal family. After rejecting this he came North, at first teaching in the university extension movement (the WEA of its day) in Leeds and Sheffield, then market gardened and agitated from an isolated home at Millthorpe on the Derbyshire edge of Sheffield where he made sandals, wrote poetry and politics, and lived for decades according to his ideas of a simpler, more communal life.
Mainly remembered now as the granddaddy of gay rights campaigning - living openly with his lover and writing bravely about it - he was also an advocate of socialism, anarchism, feminism, vegetarianism, clothes reform and teetotalism. He opposed imperialism, vivisection, war and capital punishment. He travelled widely, writing sympathetically about India and Ceylon. He believed in nude sunbathing, trade unions and the value of having your piano in the kitchen. And of course sandals, which he designed, made and popularised.
He was the friend – and possibly lover - of the famous American poet Walt Whitman, and imitated him in his own long poetry cycle Towards Democracy, the touchstone for many an early socialist. He made sandals for Bernard Shaw, who satirised him in Candida, and helped EM Forster both to come out and write. He lead meetings with William Morris, supported Bert Ward and the Sheffield Clarion ramblers, the suffragettes, and the campaign for clean air.
The signatories to his 70th and 80th birthday cards include almost every important labour and trade union figure of his time. Gay campaigners the world over pay him dues as a courageous man in advance of public opinion - who, at the time of the Oscar Wilde trial, theorised and celebrated gay sexuality.
Sheffield never gave him any civic recognition but there is an extraordinary collection of his lives in the Sheffield Archives. There are hundreds of letters to and from all the important thinkers, reformers and artists of his time. There are sermons, notebooks, lectures, books, pamphlets, memoirs, photographs –and patterns for sandals with individual famous feet marked out on tissue paper.
Sheila Rowbotham’s award winning 2008 Verso biography, A Life of Liberty and Love, has renewed interest in Carpenter and his writing - though, as she says, he seems fated to be continuously rediscovered.