A cemetery in Guildford has been acknowledged as one of the most important LGBTQ+ historical spots in the UK due to its association with a man considered to be England’s father of gay rights.
Historic England’s nationwide list of ‘ 40 places where Queer history happened ‘ has listed The Mount Cemetery in Guildford as one of its entries, as it is the resting place of both Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and partner George Merrill (d. 1928).
Edward Carpenter was something of a polymath – as well as being an important figure in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the UK Labour Party and campaigning for Women’s suffrage, he was seen as an important early figure as far as LGBTQ+ rights, specifically gay rights, are concerned.
Di Stiff, collections archivist at Surrey History Centre, explains: “Edward Carpenter was the founding father of LGBTQ+ rights in England at a time when it was illegal to be a gay man. In living openly with his partner George Merrill he defied Victorian sexual mores at a time when hundreds of men were prosecuted for homosexuality and he boldly tackled the problems of sexual alienation caused by that archaic legislation.
“Many don’t realise that his legacy helped pave the way for the sexual reforms of the later twentieth century. Carpenter and Merrill called Surrey their home for the last years of their lives together and it’s a connection to really be proud of.”
Life and partnership with George Merrill
Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton, and studied at Brighton College, followed by Trinity College in Cambridge.
After leaving university, he went into the church, becoming a C of E curate. But he would later move to Sheffield in 1874 and became a lecturer, writer and enthusiast of radical politics – in later life, he would go on to compose the socialist anthem ‘ England Arise ‘.
It was also clear to him from quite an early age that he was homosexual.
He wrote*: “At the age of eight or nine, and long before distinct sexual feelings declared themselves, I felt a friendly attraction toward my own sex, and this developed after the age of puberty into a passionate sense of love.” (*Extract from Joy Dixon, ‘Edward Carpenter: Sex, Spirit, and Social Reform’ in Other Stories, Matt Smith (ed.), University of Leeds, 2012)
In 1891, he met a working class man (from a very different background to his own) called George Merrill, and the couple formed an unlikely but close romantic relationship, eventually moving in together by 1898.
At a time when relationships like these would have been shunned by society, Edward Carpenter was open about his desire for the acceptance of same-sex relationships – in books he published (1895’s Homogenic Love, 1896’s Love’s Coming of Age and 1908’s The Intermediate Sex), he strongly defended same-sex couples as ‘not only natural’, but ‘inevitable’.
This was all the more significant around the time that Oscar Wilde was on trial for homosexuality in 1895.
These books created a great deal of controversy at the time, with one Sheffield resident reporting Carpenter to the police. At a time over 50 years before homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, such reports were not taken lightly, Derbyshire Police advised they would be keeping a “discreet watch” on Carpenter.
Carpenter moved back down south with Merrill, this time to Guildford in the early 1920s, into a house named Millthorpe on Mountside Road. Mr Carpenter commented that the people of Guildford were ‘charming and friendly’.
Merrill, misnamed as ‘Merritt’ on a 1923 electoral register of the area, passed away in 1928, a time when Carpenter too was getting increasingly frail. After downsizing elsewhere in Guildford, Carpenter himself died the following year.
Today, Edward Carpenter and George Merrill are buried in the same grave at Mount Cemetery in Guildford, the same resting place as author Lewis Carroll.
Historic England explains that their resting place is significant because of their story, not just because they were a same-sex couple, but because of their differences in background, George Merrill a working-class man from the slums of Sheffield, while Edward Carpenter was privately educated, middle-class and born in the south of England.
As part of their description of the site, Historic England writes: “This unlikely match met, fell in love, and lived together from 1898 until their deaths. Their cross-class relationship even influenced D H Lawrence’s 1928 novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.”
This is just one of many reasons why Carpenter is considered such an important pioneer as far as LGBTQ+ acceptance goes.
Carpenter was significant for his political activities even at the time, but his legacy as an LGBTQ+ pioneer has come to light even more so after his death – as a friend of E.M. Forster’s, Forster’s homosexual novel Maurice (c.1913) was only published after they had both died in 1971, but he acknowledged that Carpenter was a huge inspiration behind it.