Edward Carpenter, the third son of Charles Carpenter (1797–1882) and his wife, Sophia, was born on 29th August, 1844, at 45 Brunswick Square, Brighton, Sussex. The Carpenters were very much a naval family. Both of Edward's grandfathers were naval officers and one of them, Admiral James Carpenter (1760–1845), fought naval battles against revolutionary France in the West Indies. Edward's father, a lieutenant stationed at Trincomalee, retired early, became a barrister.
His biographer, Chushichi Tsuzuki, has pointed out: "Edward had three brothers and six sisters, and he was the seventh child. He attended Brighton College from 1854 to 1863. After his three brothers entered the colonial, army, and naval services respectively, he was left alone with his sisters, most of them unmarried. The Brighton household, in which his mother was a conventional matron, helped to shape his personality; he combined an unconscious revolt against Victorian standards of social ethics with frustration of his sexual desires, which he soon realized were for his own sex."
After studying at Brighton College, Carpenter entered Trinity Hall in 1864. While at the University of Cambridge he won the Burney prize at for his essay The Religious Influence of Art. He was ordained in 1870 and was appointed as curate to Frederick Denison Maurice, the leader of the Christian Socialist movement, who had a profound influence of Carpenter's political opinions.
Soon after Carptenter becoming a curate he joined the Republican Club, that led by Henry Fawcett, the husband of Millicent Fawcett, and the future leader of the NUWSS. It was later claimed that Carpenter despised the socially divisive capitalist system that allowed the ruling classes to live off the labour of the poor. During this time he became a vegetarian and a teetotaller.
By 1880 Carpenter had acknowledged his homosexuality and had moved in with Albert Fearnhough, a scythe riveter from Sheffield. When his father died in 1882 he left his son over £6,000. This enabled Carpenter to purchase a farm in Millthorpe, near Baslow in Derbyshire and to concentrate on his writing. Carpenter joined the Fellowship of the New Life, an organisation founded by Thomas Davidson. Other members included Havelock Ellis, Edith Lees, Edith Nesbit, Frank Podmore, Isabella Ford, Henry Hyde Champion, Hubert Bland, Edward Pease and Henry Stephens Salt. According to another member, Ramsay MacDonald, the group were influenced by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Influenced by the work of John Ruskin, Carpenter began to develop ideas about a utopian future that took the form of a kind of primitive communism. By the 1880s Carpenter had established himself as a poet of democracy and socialism with books like Towards Democracy (1883). Over the next couple of years the book only sold 400 copies.
Havelock Ellis and his wife, Edith Lees Ellis, read Towards Democracy. "I wrote to him to express my appreciation and at the same time told him something of my own difficulties in life. He replied with words of sympathy and encouragement. It was the beginning of a friendship which lasted till his death, some forty-five years later, fortified on his side when he discovered in me a champion of the sexual invert's right to existence and on mine by the fact that my wife admired him almost more than any other man, learning to know him better than I did, and being indeed almost his disciple, so far as she could be the disciple of anyone, though towards the end she seemed to detect some weak points in his, on some sides, rather feminine nature."
In 1883 Carpenter began attended meetings of the Social Democratic Federation and came under the influence of H. M. Hyndman. He later wrote about this conversion:" My ideas had been taking a socialistic shape for many years; but they were lacking in definite outline. That outline as regards the industrial situation was given me by reading Hyndman's England For All." Carpenter, along with fellow members, William Morris, John Burns and H. H. Champion, contributed articles to the party journal, Justice. He also wrote socialist songs and hymns such as England Arise! that were used by the Labour Church movement. In 1883 he published the socialist tract, Modern Money-Lending and the Meaning of Dividends.
Some members of the Social Democratic Federation disapproved of Hyndman's doctorial style and the way he encouraged people to use violence on demonstrations. In December 1884, William Morris, Ernest Belfort Bax, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx left to form a new group called the Socialist League. The following year Carpenter also left the SDF.
In March 1886 Carpenter established the Sheffield Socialist Society. Carpenter wrote that: "Our Sheffield Socialists organised lectures, addresses, pamphlets, with a street-corner propaganda which soon brought us in amusing and exciting incidents in the way of wrangles with the police and the town-crowds. At first an atmosphere of considerable suspicion rested upon the movement. Where there had been only jeers or taunts at first, crowds come to listen with serious and sympathetic men." According to his biographer, intellectuals such as Roger Fry, Charles Robert Ashbee and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson attended meetings which encouraged Carpenter that it was possible to reconcile culture and labour.
Edward Carpenter was also a member of the Fabian Society and in 1889 it published his Civilization: its Cause and Cure. In the book he argued that capitalism was a social and moral disease and condemned the industrial pollution that was taking place in Sheffield and other British towns and cities. He joined Peter Kropotkin in a study of small industries and defended anarchism in the courts. Carpenter also joined the Humanitarian League, an organisation created by Henry Salt. Carpenter took part in its campaigns against vivisection, the abolition of corporal and capital punishment, for prison reform and for the abolition of cruel sports.
In 1893 Carpenter joined with Keir Hardie, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Philip Snowden, and Ramsay Macdonald to form the Independent Labour Party. It was decided that the main objective of the party would be "to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange".
Carpenter believed that homosexuality was innate and should not be classed as a sin. A strong advocate of sexual freedom, Carpenter wrote several pamphlets on the subject including Sex Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894), Women and her Place in a Free Society (1894), Marriage in a Free Society (1894) and Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1895).
In 1897 Havelock Ellis published Sexual Inversion, the first of his six volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex. The book was first serious study of homosexuality published in Britain. It was based partly as a result of his awareness of the homosexuality of his wife and friends such as Edward Carpenter. Ellis admitted in his autobiography: "Homosexuality was an aspect of sex which up to a few years before had interested me less than any, and I had known very little about it. But during those few years I had become interested in it. Partly I had found that some of my most highly esteemed friends were more or less homosexual (like Edward Carpenter, not to mention Edith)."
Phyllis Grosskurth has argued: "Sexual Inversion was an unprecedented book. Never before had homosexuality been treated so soberly, so comprehensively, so sympathetically. To read it today is to read the voice of common sense and compassion; to read it then was, for the great majority, to be affronted by a deliberate incitement to vice of the most degrading kind.... That such sexual proclivity is not determined by suggestion, accident, or historical conditioning is apparent, he argues, from the fact that it is widespread among animals and that there is abundant evidence of its prevalence among various nations at all periods of history."
As one biographer, Jeffrey Weeks, pointed out: "Ellis's aim was to demonstrate that homosexuality (or inversion, his preferred term) was not a product of peculiar national vices, or periods of social decay, but a common and recurrent part of human sexuality, a quirk of nature, a congenital anomaly." This idea was repugnant to most people and the book was attacked by most reviewers. The birth-control campaigner, Marie Stopes, described reading it as "like breathing a bag of soot; it made me feel choked and dirty for three months."
George Merrill moved in with Carpenter at his home in Baslow. As his biographer, Chushichi Tsuzuki has pointed out: "After the Fearnehoughs left Millthorpe in March 1893, George Merrill, the son of an engine driver and a product of the Sheffield slums, became Carpenter's sole companion. George Oates of Leeds, his Cambridge friend with whom he had maintained an intimate friendship, died (unmarried) in 1902 and left £3000 to Carpenter."
After the House of Commons passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act that made all homosexual acts illegal, Carpenter had to abandon his campaign for sexual tolerance. In 1908 Carpenter returned to this theme with his book Intermediate Sex. Although the book created a great deal of hostility it had a strong influence on literary figures such as Siegfried Sassoon, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster.
Carpenter supported women's suffrage and worked closely with Charlotte Despard and the Women's Freedom League. Carpenter was a pacifist and opposed both the Boer War and the First World War. He played an active role in the No Conscription Fellowship and wrote important anti-war pamphlets such as Healing of Nations (1915) and Never Again! (1916). His autobiography, My Days and Dreams, also appeared in 1916. His friend, Fenner Brockway, described him during this period: "his head and features were of extraordinary beauty; his face a chiselled statue, clear-cut and of perfect outline; his eye bright and kindly".
In 1922 Carpenter and George Merrill moved south and settled in Guildford. After the death of Merrill in January 1928 he moved into a bungalow with Edward Inigan from Wigan. Edward Carpenter had a stroke and died on 28th June 1929 of uraemia. He was buried in the same grave as Merrill at Guildford Cemetery.