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Edward Carpenter, Socialist and Gay Rights campaigner

On Wednesday 27th June, left-wing activists from across Leeds gathered to relaunch the Ford-Maguire society, a radical history group in Leeds named after pioneering left-wing activists in the city, Isabella Ford and Tom Maguire. The subject of the discussion was the time spent in Leeds by their close friend Edward Carpenter, and was presented by Paul Marshall.

Iain Dalton, Leeds North West Socialist Party

Carpenter is most well known these days for his writings opposing discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation, as well as being recently repopularised in a biography by Sheila Rowbotham (see review – http://www.socialismtoday.org/131/carpenter.html). But Carpenter was much more than this, he was a member of first the Social Democratic Federation, then the Socialist League and Independent Labour Party. He was also took an active interest in issues like environmentalism, prison conditions and psychology amongst others.

Carpenter came to Leeds after becoming dillusioned of life as a fellow at Cambridge University and the contradictions of his sexuality with being a curate in a local church there. He early took up the offer of participating in the University Extension Movement to run seminars in northern towns, in his case teaching astronomy.

During his second year in Leeds he lived in Far Headingley, and socialised with others in the area. His friends included Charles Oates, uncle of the Captain Oates of Scott’s Antarctic expediation fame, Isabella Ford who was involved in organising unions and the Independent Labour Party in Leeds as well as the rest of her family.

But even after he left Leeds he maintained connections with the city, not only visiting his friends, but making new ones, such as Alf Mattison and Tom Maguire, with whom he corresponded with during the Leeds Gas Workers Dispute of 1890. Carpenter also spoke at various events in Leeds, from giving lectures on Mysticism at the prestigious Leeds Arts Club, to speaking to meetings of the Leeds Labour Church and also addressing a 20,000 strong May Day demonstration in 1897 on Woodhouse Moor.

Carpenter is a somewhat difficult person for Marxists to assess. One the one hand he undoubtedly contributed to the development of independent political representation and socialists ideas, not only through the generous donations he made to socialist journals and various groups, but also through sustaining the morale of those like Tom Maguire who engaged in the difficult task of trying to break the trade unions in Leeds from the Liberal party.

On the other his individualist and mystic side, limited his contributions to the development of the workers movement itself in the more hands on way those like Maguire and Ford were able to. However, in some ways this meant he paid far more attention to issues such as air pollution and sexuality that he was among the first socialists to take up.

The Ford-Maguire society will be attempting to host discussion a couple of times a year. The next proposed event is a day school on the Luddites. More info about the past activities of the Ford-Maguire Society (and an archive on local radical history) see http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/roger/FMS/

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