A cemetery in Guildford has been recognized as one of the most significant LGBTQ+ historic sites in the country due to its association with a man considered the father of gay rights in England.
National List of Historic England’s 40 Places Where Queer History Happened ‘ listed Mount Cemetery in Guildford as one of its entrances, as it is the final resting place of Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and his partner George Merrill (d. 1928).
Edward Carpenter was something of a polymath – as well as being an important figure in the founding of the Fabian Society and the British Labor Party and campaigning for women’s suffrage, he was considered an important early figure in is about LGBTQ+ rights, especially gay rights. , are concerned.
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Di Stiff, Archivist of Collections at the 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. By living openly with his partner George Merrill, he challenged Victorian sexual mores. at a time when hundreds of men were being prosecuted for homosexuality and he boldly tackled the problems of sexual alienation caused by this archaic legislation.
“Many don’t realize that his legacy helped pave the way for the sexual reforms of the late 20th century. Carpenter and Merrill called Surrey home during the last years of their life together and it’s a connection they can truly be proud.”
Life and partnership with George Merrill
Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton and educated at Brighton College and then at Trinity College, Cambridge.
After leaving university he entered the church, becoming a vicar C of E. But he would later move to Sheffield in 1874 and become a lecturer, writer and enthusiast of radical politics – later in life he would go on to compose the socialist anthem ‘ England rises ‘.
It was also clear to him from an early age that he was gay.
He wrote*: “At the age of eight or nine, and long before distinct sexual feelings arose, I had a friendly attraction to my own sex, which developed after the age of puberty. in a passionate sense of love.” (*Excerpt 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 background very different from his own) named George Merrill, and the couple struck up an unlikely but close romantic relationship, eventually moving in together in 1898.
At a time when such relationships would have been rejected by society, Edward Carpenter was open about his desire to accept homosexual relationships – in the 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 when Oscar Wilde was on trial for homosexuality in 1895.
These books caused much controversy at the time, with a Sheffield resident reporting Carpenter to the police. At a time more than 50 years before homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967 such reports were not taken lightly, Derbyshire Police said they would be watching Carpenter discreetly.
Carpenter returned south with Merrill, this time to Guildford in the early 1920s, to a house named Millthorpe on Mountside Road. Mr Carpenter said the people of Guildford were ‘lovely and friendly’.
Merrill, misnamed “Merritt” on a 1923 electoral roll for the area, died in 1928, at a time when Carpenter too was becoming 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 important because of their history, not just because they were a same-sex couple, but because of their differences in origin, George Merrill a working-class man from the slums of Sheffield, while Edward Carpenter was privately educated, middle class and born in southern 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 DH Lawrence’s 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.
It’s just one of the many reasons why Carpenter is considered such an important trailblazer when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Carpenter was important to his political activities even then, but his legacy as an LGBTQ+ pioneer was revealed even more after his death – as a friend of EM Forster, Forster’s gay novel Maurice (c.1913 ) wasn’t released until after they were both dead in 1971, but he credited Carpenter as a huge inspiration behind it.