I was living in Sheffield and connected with the university, so it seemed natural that I explore the life of this remarkable man who had taught philosophy in the extramural department. It also gave me an excuse to wander around Millthorpe village in a pleasant region of Derbyshire during the summer of 1995 and interview and chat with the people I met there.
Rich Millthorpe farm land
Edward Carpenter moved from the industrial and polluted Sheffield to the peace and quiet of Millthorpe in 1883. He had received a generous sum of money when his father died which allowed him to purchase a plot of land and have a cottage built. The historic remoteness of this village in the north Derbyshire Cauldwell Valley did not prevent many well-known people including: H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw from beating a path to his then remote door. Carpenter, relatively unknown today, was a man with ideas well before his time.
Anyone visiting Millthorpe can see why he chose to live there. The area suffered little from the ravages of the civil war and remained unspoiled by the moiling and toiling of the industrial ‘revolution’. Carpenter loved the peace and quiet of the countryside and often walked the footpaths around Millthorpe and Holmesfield. Even today the area is little affected by creeping suburbanisation.
Single track road out of Millthorpe
To the east, the valley rises to Eweford bridge, a scenic area with single-track lanes flanked by mature trees of ash and oak with the occasional willow bordering the brook. The view across the meadows from the hamlet of Unthank is refreshing. Running alongside the brook, a footpath from Unthank passes behind Carpenter’s cottage and back to Millthorpe.
As elsewhere at the time, the village clustered around a water-powered corn-mill in the valley which, here, runs from the high gritstone moorland in the west toward Chesterfield in the east. Water from a dam higher up the valley, below Smeekley woods, fed a pond near Carpenter’s garden and was subsequently channelled through a rustic, wooden viaduct to the top of the fifteen feet diameter overshot wheel. Regrettably, the mill with its large wooden gears and mechanism was allowed to fall into ruin after the 2nd World War and was demolished sometime in the 1960s. A private garage now occupies the site but the marks made by the wheel can still be seen on a surviving wall.
Millthorpe mill-wheel marks on a private garage
The present owner reported that after sinking into the garden some years ago she had the area excavated and a brick-lined chamber and arch was revealed where the wheel had been situated. A rose bed now covers the site.
Carpenter’s cottage, on the western edge of Millthorpe, was built at the side of a rough track. In 1995, the road was still known by some of the older inhabitants as ‘The New road’. The only metalled road then ran from Barlow in the east turning to Holmesfield on the north ridge near the entrance to Tanyard Farm.
Tanyard farm house and barns
Tanyard farm stands close to the present cross-roads in the centre of Millthorpe and was then owned by Mr Kay. Before being a farm it was the local leather tannery and the tanning vats are now buried under the car-park opposite the ‘The Royal Oak’ public house. It was at this farm that a barn was converted to a classroom where Carpenter gave lectures and, in 1913, produced his own play, both the players and audience comprising of the village people.
The Royal Oak public house on the main road through Millthorpe
Carpenter was born in Brighton in 1844, graduated at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1868 and was ordained into the Church in 1867. However, feeling constricted by this environment, he left and settled in Sheffield, teaching extra-mural classes for the developing University of Sheffield. His students were working class men and probably some women. This work produced some income while he developed his interests in philosophy, society and religion. He became one of the great thinkers of the day and somewhat of a ‘guru’ for the many famous people who visited him.
At the time that Carpenter arrived in Millthorpe education was becoming more accessible to the common people and writers and philosophers were taking an interest in the social behaviour of modern man (and woman).
He wrote numerous books, some published privately, and his major subjects were philosophy, religion and sociology. Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman where his favourite writers and he visited Whitman several times in America. He wrote a book, Days with Walt Whitman in which he describes Whitman in 1877 as, ‘...dragging somewhat his paralysed leg - at first sight an old man with a long, almost white beard and a shaggy head and neck.’
Millthorpe farm land
Some of his works are written as poems. Towards Democracy, written in 1949, was inspired by and imitates the theme of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but although Carpenter’s ideas were far-reaching and influential, his style was somewhat difficult. In his most popular book, Civilization: Its Cause and Cure, he discusses the blank artificiality of modern life and, like Thoreau, called for a return to a more natural, less complex lifestyle - all this over 60 years ago before television, the information super-highway, the ubiquitous car and the increasingly corrupt and corrupting influence of politicians supporting the new order politics of BIG money and BIG egos, without a mote of compassion for the majority of we little people who support them.
Carpenter was, like both Thoreau and Whitman, influenced by reading eastern philosophy - mainly the Bhagavad Gita, well before it became de rigueur in the sixties. As Carpenter also knew Annie Besant it is quite possible that she was an influence on his reading matter.
Not all of Carpenter’s writings were well received. His books on human sexual relations - male and female homogenic relations - a highly taboo subject at the time (the trial of Oscar Wilde was happening around this time) had to be published privately. Not every so-called intelligent intellectual was sympathetic. George Bernard Shaw, a regular visitor to Carpenter’s cottage, wrote in a private letter to one of his friends, ‘Drop it as you would a verminous garment’.
Carpenter was, as well as a reformer, an idealist who emphasized, ‘human love and affection as the organic cement which binds society together’ and although famous, people sought him out to discuss his views, he still followed the simple life at Millthorpe. He developed friendships with the villagers and even chatted with the local vicar and caused no offence, so he was quite able to live a normal life for himself and his partner in Millthorpe - far from the madding crowd.
Carpenter’s Cottage (now a private house)
He grew vegetables in his garden between the house and the brook to supply most of his needs as a vegetarian and made his own sandals in his workshop, causing some amusement in the village as he wore them even during bad weather. Little was wasted in his move towards self-sufficiency.
A favourite long coat, which he wore constantly until it became tattered, was the source of more amusement among his friends. He said that when it finally fell to pieces it would go on his compost heap and when well rotted down he would spread it on his vegetable garden and it would eventually feed him. In effect, he would become the man who had eaten his coat.
His prodigious philosophical writings and love of the simple, outdoor life early this century greatly influenced not only other great and well-known thinkers and writers but also inspired the formation of the Youth Hostelling Association and the Cycling Tourist Club. D H Lawrence was influenced by Carpenter’s writing - especially in his writing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. E M Forster was also influenced by Carpenter in his writing of Maurice. Many people were influenced by Carpenter; he was a catalyst freeing people from the chains of their own making in a somewhat repressive society.
After becoming ill, Carpenter returned to Guildford taking George Merril with him. Merril died in 1928 and Carpenter in 1929. They are buried in the same grave.
Memorial services for Edward Carpenter were held for many years at Millthorpe - ‘in the open air if the weather was good and if not in Mr Kay's barn at Tanyard Farm’.
The skeleton of this article was on my website for a few years (then became lost during a major style change) and forgotten until someone mentioned Carpenter recently. I found the original text plus copious notes and references - I remembered spending days in the local libraries. I also found the digitalized images and thought it worth the time to reinstate it with a few contemporary additions. Someone might find it interesting or useful? Carpenter was a thoughtful and intelligent man.
I thank (belatedly now) Geoff Sadler (1943 - 2005), writer and chief librarian at Chesterfield library, for his generous help. Geoff was also in the local writer's group and he encouraged me to read many well-hidden reference books about Millthorpe and Carpenter, even finding the books and bringing them to me. He was kind and considerate.
The images were taken on 35mm film in 1995 and these scanned to digital by the author.