LGBT History Month is a nationwide programme of events to celebrate the lives and achievements of the LGBT community. It takes place each February, and this year coincides neatly with the launch of the University of Surrey’s LGBT Network and the award to the University of Stonewall Diversity Champion status.
This flurry of activity started us thinking about LGBT figures with links to Guildford. It is 100 years since Alan Turing was born. Alan Turing – a striding statue of whom is a feature of the campus piazza – spent some of his early life in the town, and though he is now celebrated as a great mathematician, a father of computing and a key figure in the victory over fascism in World War II, he is also known for a private life made miserable by the prevailing anti-homosexual attitudes of the society in which he lived. The authorities of the time were willing and able to force him to choose between incarceration for homosexual activity and chemical castration.
A lesser-known name in modern Britain is that of Edward Carpenter, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was one of society’s best-connected left-wing intellectuals. The University of Surrey’s Paul Vlitos has researched Carpenter’s life and work. According to Paul, as well as playing an important role in the creation of the Labour Party and the Fabian Society, writing philosophical works and poetry (heavily influenced by Walt Whitman, whom he would eventually befriend), and corresponding with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Carpenter founded a proto eco-intellectual retreat in a Derbyshire countryside village called Milthorpe, to the southwest of Sheffield.
Here he would take lungbursting walks across the Peaks (in sandals, long before they acquired their status as cliché) and preach vegetarianism, a respect for nature and the need for all fellow travellers on the Left to find common ground and unity. This brought him some opposition from George Orwell, who dismissed Carpenter as a ‘crank’ and, in The Road to Wigan Pier, railed against ‘that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of “progress” like bluebottles to a dead cat’.
Carpenter lived with his partner George Merrill in a relationship that was relatively unhidden, which is more than just a footnote for the lives of gay men in the period when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison. The relationship also defied class hierarchies, Carpenter coming from the upper middle classes of Sussex and Merrill from a working-class area of Sheffield.
In his old age Carpenter found rural isolation and guru status increasingly challenging, and so moved to Guildford for the last few years of his life. He would still take long walks along the Hogsback from his house on Mountside, not far from the site on Stag Hill that would eventually become the University. Grief-stricken after George’s death in 1928, he suffered a stroke and died in 1929. He was buried in the same grave as George at Mount Cemetery, in what must have been an unusual arrangement for the era. You can see the headstone bearing both their names to this day if you take the short walk over to the graveyard (which is also the final resting place of Lewis Carroll).
Both Turing and Carpenter lived in times that members of today’s UK LGBT community would find difficult to endure. But it is worth remembering the struggles required to change attitudes in this country, and that many of these battles are still being fought by LGBT communities around the world.
Enjoy LGBT History Month, and look out for more information about the University’s LGBT Network and our Stonewall Diversity Champion status.
For more information about Alan Turing and Surrey’s LGBT past visit the Alan Turing exhibition, Surrey History Centre, Woking, Feb 5 – March 2, 10-4pm (entry free): http://www.visitsurrey.com/events/alan-turing-a-short-but-brilliant-life-at-the-surrey-history-centre-p928221
For more information about Edward Carpenter, go to http://www.edwardcarpenterforum.org/
To join the University’s LGBT Network email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs of Carpenter’s and Merrill’s grave: copyright Heike Bauer. Reproduced with permission.