Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 14 - LONDON AND LECTURES | Comment and Feedback

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HAVING many friends in London, and a good many relations, I naturally, during all the years of my sojourn at Millthorpe, have been in the habit of paying fairly frequent visits to the big city. It is good to have one's roots in the country, but it is also necessary to have one's branches in the great towns where one can come into contact with the winds and storms of human life.

A considerable social storm at which I was present was that of the so-called “Bloody Sunday" in November '87. A socialist meeting had been announced for 3 p.m. in Trafalgar Square, to protest against the Irish policy of the Government, and the authorities (for conscience doth make cowards of us all) probably thinking Socialism a much greater ‘terror' than it really was, had vetoed the meeting and drawn a ring: of police, two deep, all round the interior part of the Square. Of course the Socialists had to make an active protest, if only in order to bring the case into court; and three leading members of the S.D.F. - Hyndman, John Burns and Cunninghame Graham - agreed to march up arm-in-arm and force their way if possible into the charmed circle. Somehow Hyndman was lost in the crowd on the way to the battle, but Graham and Burns pushed their way through, challenged the forces of ‘Law and Order,' came to blows, and were duly mauled by the police, arrested, and locked up.

I was in the Square at the time, and like most of the crowd there more as a sightseer than anything else. Indeed, though a large crowd it was of a most good-humored and peaceable kind; but the way in which it was' worked up', provoked and irritated by the authorities, was a caution; and gave me the strongest impression that this was done purposely, with the intention of leading to a collision. If this was not so the only explanation must be that abject fear, on the part of the authorities, was the moving cause. As I say, the crowd was a most good-humored, easy-going, smiling crowd; but presently it was transformed. A regiment of mounted police came cantering up. The order had gone forth that we were to be ‘kept moving.' To keep a crowd moving is I believe a technical term for the process of riding roughshod in all directions, scattering, frightening and batoning the people - the idea no doubt being, to prevent the formation of knots or the consolidation of organized bodies among the crowd. In this case there was really no sign of any organized movement on the part of the people aginst the police, nor had I heard of any plan to that effect, further than the march-up of the three Leaders already mentioned. I was standing - with my friend Robert Muirhead, Cambridge mathematician and Smith's Prizeman, two peaceable enough members of society as may be supposed - on an island-refuge just where the Strand debouches into Trafalgar Square, when we found ourselves violently pushed about by mounted and foot police and told to ‘move on.' Whether Muirhead did not move on fast enough, or what the trouble was was never explained; but the next moment I saw him seized by the collar by a mounted man and dragged along, apparently towards a police station, while a bobby on foot aided in the arrest. I jumped to the rescue and slanged the two constables, for which I got a whack on the cheekbone from a baton (which distressed the more respectable members of my family for some weeks after), but Muirhead was released, and we soon retained our footing on the refuge, from which for some time we watched the police continuing, at considerable risk to life and limb, to circle round and insult the ‘mob.' I mention these little details just to show the kind of thing that happens. Purely as the result of this ill-timed action there were one or two ugly rushes I believe and a few broken heads; but the damage of ‘Bloody Sunday' did not after all amount to much.

The case came into Court afterwards, and Burns and Graham were sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment each for “unlawful assembly." I was asked to give evidence in favour of the defendants, and gladly consented - though I had not much to say, except to testify to the peaceable character of the crowd and the high-handed action of the police. On cross-examination I was asked whether I had not seen any rioting; and when I replied in a very pointed way "Not on the part of the people!" a large smile went round the Court, and I was not plied with any more questions.

At an early period of my Millthorpe days (about 1885 I think) two young Cambridge men who had only just taken their degrees, Lowes Dickinson and Roger Fry, came down to see me - two gentle, humorous and charming creatures, who have since made their mark in Literature and Art, and whose friendship has remained with me, I am happy to say, all these years. Dickinson as a writer of pure English is I should say far ahead of any of his contemporaries. In contrast with the Meredithian, Henry Jamesian, Chestertonian, and other literary gymnastics of the day, his style flows along, pellucid with pure grace and purpose, saying exactly what is needed, no more and no less. It has the quality of ‘the absolute in style' - which is very different from, though sometimes mistaken for, absence of style. Nothing could be more charming and to the point than his Letters of John Chinaman (or From a Chinese Official) and his Greek View of Life. With regard to the former he told me an amusing, story about W. J. Bryan, candidate more than once for the Presidency of the United States. Being an American Mr. Bryan, perhaps naturally, did not perceive (the English being so perfect) that no Chinaman could possibly have written the book, and being also somewhat shocked at some of the remarks in it about the common infidelities of matrimonial life in England and America, he quite innocently published an article rebutting these charges and explaining that if the author (the supposed Chinese official) had had the advantage of being brought up in an Anglo-Saxon household he would never have made such mistakes! Dickinson had consequently to write to Mr. Bryan, and, breaking his incognito, to inform him that the author had had the said advantage, and really knew what he was talking about!

From 1885 onwards I lectured pretty frequently in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford, and so forth - chiefly at first in connection with the various Socialist societies and groups in those places. The subjects treated of were those which are now so well recognized and understood everywhere that there is no need to insist on them, though at that time they were only beginning to appear on the social horizon - the evils of Competition, Adulteration, Falsification of goods, Waste, the scramble for Dividends, the iron Law of Wages, and so forth. Afterwards the lectures branched out a little more widely into literary and philosophical subjects, and with more general audiences. (Footnote 1)

In 1891, as I have already said, the Humanitarian League was founded. And later on I gave addresses on various occasions in connection with the League's meetings; one at an early date (about '92 or '93) on Vivisection - in conjunction with Edward Maitland; another on the same subject some years later; one in '97 on the Prisons; one in '98 on what might be called “Humane Science"; and one in 1906 on “Simplification of Life," and others. In the last-mentioned lecture I referred to the complexity of life among our well-to-do classes which arises from the fact of their being able to pay servants for doing things for them, and pointed out (supposing the bottom ever fell out of the bucket of modern society, and these people really had to produce their own food, clothing, etc.) how simple their lives would probably become-and how interesting it would be to see them going about barefoot and clothed in flour-sacks, rather than do the hard work of cobbling and tailoring for themselves.

The Morning Leader took the idea up, and brought out a Cartoon illustration of the lecture, showing the London Club men promenading in Hyde Park with only Indian blankets and flour-bags for covering, though still clinging religiously to their old umbrellas and tall hats!


"If Society people had to make their own clothes there would be some curious scenes in the streets, and many would go about attired in simply an Indian blanket" - Mr EDWD CARPENTER at the meeting of the Humanitarian League at Essex Hall.

For the Theosophist societies I spoke occasionally, in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, and elsewhere - weaving in some amount of Indian philosophy (the Upanishads, etc.) with talk on social subjects; also for the Ethical societies in much the same way; and for Charles Rowley's Sunday afternoons at Ancoats, Manchester. In 1905 I took up the question of Small Holdings and the Co-operative Colonization of the Land - a question which had by that time become actual through the Small Holdings Acts of 1892 and 1907, and which will have to be still more seriously considered in the future; and spoke on the subject in Holmesfield and other villages in my neighborhood, as well as in Oxford, Glasgow and other large centres. Joseph Fels was very keen at that time on the subject; and I went with him to view his group of a dozen or so five-acre holdings at Maylands in Essex. Unfortunately the experiment did not turn out a success. He had bought some very heavy clay land at an absurdly low price, £7 an acre, and had spent £20 per acre on it in breaking up and burning the clay and heavily manuring, thus making the real initial cost of the land £27 per acre; and had then planted the ground with fruit-trees and had suitable cottages built on it. Reckoning up the total cost of each holding he offered them at a low rental, some 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. on the capital invested, and took some care besides in the choice of tenants, feeling confident that with proper handling the places would prove remunerative. Unfortunately they did not do so. Probably it had been a mistake to speculate on such extremely poor land as this was to begin with. Anyhow it never yielded the crops expected; and one by one the tenants disheartened abandoned their holdings, and the whole scheme fell to the ground.

Having always a good many friends among the Railway-men I was not unfrequently asked to speak at their clubs and branch meetings. On one occasion in November 1907, in conjunction with George Barnes, C. T. Cramp, Pete Curran and Victor Grayson, I addressed an A.S.R.S. meeting of over three thousand in the Sheffield Corn-Exchange. George Barnes always strikes me as a fine, solid and sensible man; Charlie Cramp the same; and indeed the railway-men generally - perhaps from their close and constant contact with the flow of humanity - have a discernment and reasonableness of outlook which is quite peculiar. Victor Grayson, the course of whose political career was so brief and so meteoric, was a most humorous creature. His fund of anecdotes was inexhaustible, and rarely could a supper party of which he was a member get to bed before three in the morning. On the platform for detailed or constructive argument he was no good, but for criticism of the enemy he was inimitable - the shafts of his wit played like lightning round him, and with his big mouth and flexible upper lip he seemed to be simply browsing off his opponents and eating them up. His disappearance from public life has been quite a loss.

In some ways these large audiences are easier to speak to than small ones. Consciousness of personalities - either one's own or of members of the audience - disappears; the great broad human interests come forward; finesse and detailed argument are of little account; the reverberation of emotion is great, and that carries the speaker on; but of course much depends on conditions. To hold a large audience in the open air is difficult work, but it is good practice. Concatenation and logical continuity are of no great importance, but every word must be distinct, every phrase must tell, every point be made clear and attractive, else the congregation will evaporate even while you talk to it, and condense again round the nearest coster's barrow.

In a closed room or hall you have your hearers more at command. They cannot easily escape, and you may become dull without knowing it! But here again much depends on circumstances. I find a room (of the common type) with level floor and high raised platform at one end rather trying. It is difficult to get at an audience so much below you, and as the voice tends to rise the more distant listeners seem unreachable. Worse still is a flat room where you stand on the floor without any platform; for then you cannot see your flock, and you lose all command over it. Personally I like an amphitheatre lecture-hall with rising tiers of seats one behind the other; or best of all an ordinary theatre with pit and galleries, so that from the stage one is nearly on a level with the great bulk of those present. I have spoken (on The Larger Socialism or cognate subjects) to audiences of two thousand or more at various theatres – the 'Grand,' Manchester (November 1908 and November 1909), the 'Prince's,' Blackburn (October 1910), the 'Metropole,' Glasgow (November 1910), and others, and with a satisfactory sense in general of being able to reach my hearers.

On November 11, 1910, I gave an address to the Literary and Philosophical Society at Greenock on State-Interference with Industry, which was repeated afterwards at Cambridge, Oxford, and elsewhere. The subject was much to the fore at that time, and from opposite points of view, owing to prevalent strikes and lock-outs. The Clyde shipping strike was on, and there was a good deal of indignation expressed up and down the country at the conduct of the men in the shipyards, who had refused to take up their tools and go to work again, even after their leaders had counselled and urged them to do so. I was as much in the dark as most others about the cause of this strange refusal - until I reached Greenock; and then I soon heard from various quarters, both of men and masters, the real reason. It was not a question of wages or of hours. Those matters had so far been settled satisfactorily. The real grievance was a personal one. The men had been affronted by the overbearing: conduct of the Chairman of the Employers' Association, the insulting manner in which he had behaved to their representatives, and so forth; and they were not going to put up with this without a protest. They wanted to be treated in a gentlemanly way. It was encouraging and refreshing to find that this was so; and the fact that it was so lets a good deal of light into a frequent cause of labour troubles and dissensions. But of course in this case at Greenock, as in so many others, the Press allover the country had got on the wrong tack, and the public never knew the real rights of the matter.

On October 24, 1908, the Women's Suffrage party held a great demonstration in Manchester, which like others of their functions was a miracle of organization. There were to be ten platforms, and the mere getting together of ten distinct bodies of processionists at their respective starting-stations in the neighborhood of the Town Hall, and marching them off to the appointed time, was no light matter. However it was done; and with Mrs. Despard walking gallantly at the head, supported by Margaret Ashton, Miss Abadam, Dr. Helen Wilson, Isabella Ford, Mrs. Swanwick, Mrs. K. D. Courtney, Mrs. Billington Greig, Councillor James Johnston, Professor Chapman, Canon Hicks and myself, a solid phalanx nearly a mile long, with bands and banners complete, walked all the way to Alexandra Park, three miles out! The immense crowd which came forth to witness the demonstration, and which lined both sides of the road, did not say much; it did not cheer to any great extent, nor did it scoff; it was simply deeply impressed. A large part of it followed on the route and collected round the ten platforms - about a thousand listeners to each. Each platform dealt with a separate subject - mine, in conjunction with Mrs. Greig and Miss Margaret Robertson, took Prison Reform. A comet finally gave the signal for a joint resolution to be proposed in favour of the Suffrage, which was of course carried by acclamation, and the crowd dispersed.

Mrs. Despard's work in the two related causes of Women and Labour has been splendid. Her ardour and indomitable resolution, despite the drawback of advancing years, have been almost miraculous, and I always see her in my mind's eye marching gloriously to some encounter, and resembling the horse (in the words of the book of Job) “who saith among the trumpets Ha! Ha! and sniffeth the battle from afar!" It has been an honour and a pleasure to me to speak on many a platform with Mrs. Despard - in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere. In October 1912 I took the chair for her at a meeting of the Sheffield Ethical Society, when she lectured on the subject of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. It is characteristic of her that this poem was a favorite of hers from earliest girlhood; and in a sustained address that evening she quoted very large portions of it by heart, holding her audience for nearly two hours in rapt accord and attention. Mrs. Despard was, I need hardly say, like Shelley himself, an ardent vegetarian - though Shelley, owing to circumstances and conditions, often probably found it difficult to live quite up to the mark of his wishes in this respect.

In October 1909 I was honoured by being made President of the Vegetarian Congress at Manchester for that year - notwithstanding my own occasional derelictions from the ideal standard - and I found myself in the chair at an interesting meeting supported by well-known pillars of the movement like Professor J. E. Mayor of Cambridge, Dr. E. A. Axon of Manchester, Dr. Lybeck of Helsingfors, and others. The thing that struck me most about the meeting was the extraordinary number of extremely ancient looking patriarchs present with long white hair and beards; and I very nearly disgraced myself in my opening speech by expressing a doubt whether in view of this result Vegetarianism was a thing really to be desired or recommended! Some kind presiding spirit however saved me from this ineptitude, and I reached the end of my discourse safely and without succumbing to the temptation.

A subject on which I have often spoken - though always with the sense of only touching the fringe of it - is that of the connection between Sun worship and Christianity. The existing, books on the subject are quite unsatisfactory, being very limited in their outlook. Some day it will have to be worked out more thoroughly. It is a most interesting subject, but as it involves a good deal of historical and antiquarian information and some technical knowledge of Astronomy besides reference to early sexual rites, it is not a very easy one to put before a general audience. I gave a lecture on it for the Sheffield Ethical Society in December 1908 and for J. R. Campbell's "Progressive League" at the City Temple in November 1909, as well as in other places; but it really would require a series of lectures for anything like adequate presentment. The continuity of Christianity with the religions of the old world and its ordered evolution from them is the idea which we now require to realize. We have had enough of its portrayal as a miraculous and exceptional stage in human development; and now that the world is coming round again to a concrete appreciation of the value and beauty of actual life, and to a sort of neo-Pagan point of view, it is above all important that we should understand the sources from which Christianity sprang in the past, and what germs of a world-religion it may bear within itself for the future, when it shall have cast off the crude and gothic elements of its mediaeval development.

My friend Edward Lewis, himself a writer on The New Paganism, was in 1912 and 1913 minister of the King's Weigh House Church, Duke Street, W., and he and J. R. Campbell not unfrequently interchanged pulpits at that time. Lewis persuaded me to speak at his church; and on two occasions (November 1912 and October 1913) I did so. His congregation, largely trained no doubt and educated by his discourses, was an intelligent and sympathetic one, and though I had some misgivings on my first visit in speaking on so abstruse a subject as “The Nature of the Self" - illustrated as it was by numerous quotations from the Upanishads and from Towards Democracy - I felt no misgiving on the second occasion, when my subject (similarly illustrated) was “Rest." (Footnote 2) These lectures were repeated at the Lyceum (women's) Club, Piccadilly, at Croydon, Eastbourne and elsewhere; and the fact that audiences like these, of a rather popular character, could listen with deep understanding and sympathy to the unfolding of innermost psychological teachings has convinced me that the germs of a new and democratic religion are only waiting among our mass-peoples for the day and the stimulus which will bring them to birth and development.

Edward Lewis, being vigorous in heart and brain, and a real man, naturally could not continue very long in a profession like “the ministry " which entailed his ascending the pulpit three or four times a week and not only giving 'edifying' counsel to his congregation but confining his own life within a corresponding circle of inanity. Such a career would inevitably have sapped and ruined his manhood; and with true instinct he threw up his five or six hundred a year and retired into the wilderness. The members of his congregation were duly shocked and grieved in their different ways, according to the views they took of his lapse or lapses from holiness; but if, as is likely, the quondam Christian minister should become the missionary and apostle of a new and vital Paganism, the world will be very much the gainer.

The War, now going on [1915] is not only acting already very directly on the industrial life of the nations concerned but is pointing pretty clearly towards a remodelling of our general conception of Industry for the future. It is fairly certain that somehow or other the gloomy and depressing wage-slavery of the present day - so intimately bound up with the Commercial regime - will have to give way; and productive work will have to regain the characters of spontaneity and gladness which surely are of the essence of its nature, and which are the necessary roots of all Art and of all Beauty and Joy in life. With that transformation of industry all life will be transformed, and the neo- Pagan ideal will become a thing possible of realization.

For some years, from 1910 onwards I have spoken on this idea - entitling my lectures “Freedom in Industry," “Beauty in Civic Life " and so forth, and delivering them before various bodies and in various places - as at Caxton Hall, London, for the Humanitarian League; at Crosby Hall, Chelsea, for the University Settlement there; for the Fabian Society at Oxford; for the Arts Club at Leeds; for the Progressive and Town-planning League at Bolton; for the N. U. T. Association at Chesterfield; and for many Adult Schools, I.L.P. Clubs and Ethical and Theosophist societies in different ,parts of the country.

To produce for Use; that production should really take place for the benefit of the Consumer; to concentrate not on Profit to individuals, but on advantage and gain to the Community; to drop in one inspired moment the whole mad sequence of cut-throat Rivalry, insane Waste, disgusting Fraud, and inane Uselessness, which constitute modern Industry; all this would mean such an enormous liberation of Power, such an incalculable increase in general Wealth, that the spectre of poverty would be exorcised for ever, and the numbing anxiety which weighs so heavily now on the lives of millions would be lifted away like an evil cloud. Joy would descend on life, and the ordinary occupations would become free, spontaneous and beautiful.

Our powers of production to-day are so immense that even in the midst of the present frightful War we (on this little island) can spare millions of our best men for fighting, and millions more for the work of providing those fighters with engines of death and destruction, and yet with the residue can calmly and easily keep the nation going. What our powers and our achievement might be if once those eight millions or so - whose work is now only destructive - were turned on to the great positive task of social construction and sensible human emancipation, it really passes imagination to conceive. The age-long world-dream of Paradise Regained would at last be within our reach. We can see that the War is even now forcing the modem peoples to take stock of their boasted Civilization, to reckon up the gains to Humanity which it represents - and the losses; to find out and decide in what direction they are really moving, and in what direction they want to move. If an event so great, so colossal, as this does not shatter the old order of profit-grinding and wage-slavery and wake a new ideal of life in the heart of the nations, one would say there is little hope for the world. But surely It will do so.


Website Editor's notes

  1. Many of the lecture subjects mentioned by Carpenter in this chapter have been recycled into various books and pamphlets on the same topics, and so interested readers can easily gain a feel for the contents of his lectures. See Bibliography, especially the Books and Pamphlets sections for a listing of the topics he wrote on. {Return to main text}
  2. The link between early pagan religion and Christianity is explored by Carpenter in his book Pagan and Christain Creeds: their Origin and Meaning, which has two appendices "On the teaching of the Upanishads (being the Substance of Two Lectures to Popular Audiences)" Rest and The Nature of the Self {Return to main text}

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