Plaque at the Goodramgate entrance to Holy Trinity Church churchyard, YO1 7LF
Often referred to as ‘the first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister defied the social conventions of the Victorian age. She inherited the family estate in Halifax, running it as a successful business and lived there openly with a female partner. Anne’s diaries record the ‘blessing’ of their ‘marriage’ at Holy Trinity Church in York.
Wealthy mill owners and cloth merchants, the Listers were one of the most prominent families in Halifax. They had acquired Shibden Hall in the 17th century and it was here, on 3 April 1791, that Anne Lister was born. Her father was Jeremy Lister, an army officer who had fought in the American War of Independence (1765-83) which ended with the loss of the British colonies and the establishment of the United States of America. In August 1788, Captain Lister married Rebecca Battle from North Cave in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Using an inheritance which Rebecca received on her father’s death, Jeremy Lister purchased an estate near Market Weighton and, in 1793, the family moved there to Skelfler House. Over the next few years, the couple had four sons and two daughters. Tragically, three of their sons died at early ages and the fourth son, Samuel, died in 1813 in a drowning accident whilst serving in the army. It was as a result of Samuel’s death that Anne Lister would eventually inherit the 400-acre Shibden Hall estate, in 1826, on the death of her uncle. Being unhappy at home, she had taken up residence there with her uncle James and his sister, Anne, both unmarried, in 1815 and she became involved in running the estate at an early age.
It was unusual for young Victorian ladies to receive a formal education. Initially, Anne was educated at home; first by the Revd Samuel White, later vicar of Halifax, then by the Revd George Skelding, vicar of Market Weighton, studying Greek, Latin, French, mathematics, geometry, history and English literature. As an indication of her intelligence and independence, at the age of only seven, Anne was sent to school in Ripon and, in 1804, she moved on to the Manor House School in York which occupied part of King’s Manor.
Love at King’s Manor
At Manor House School, Anne was considered to be a “tomboy”. Her sexual orientation towards women was not questioned in her younger years as it was considered normal for girls to have “crushes” and romantic friendships at that age. However, Anne’s interactions with her female counterparts became ever more flirtatious and sexual and whenever the opportunities arose she would not hesitate to seize them.
Her first intense relationship was with Eliza Raine, daughter of William Raine, a surgeon in the service of the East India Company. Eliza and Anne shared a bedroom at the school and it was at this time that Anne started her diaries as a record of the exchange of letters, gifts and visits between the two young lovers. Eliza also kept a journal and together they invented a secret code in which to record their affairs, allowing them to develop an intimacy similar to that of a married couple; indeed, Eliza referred to Anne as ‘my husband’.
So much is known about Anne Lister’s life due to the survival of a remarkable series of diaries which extend to 27 volumes. At first the diary entries were sporadic but they became more prolific and wide-ranging in the 1830s. By the time of her death in 1840, they contained around four million words. Miraculously the diaries survived, particularly unusual in an age when homosexuality was illegal. John Lister, the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, discovered the diaries in the late 19th century. Between 1887 and 1892, with the help of his friend Arthur Burrell, he began to decipher the code: a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet. Realising the sensational nature of the contents, Burrell suggested that the diaries should be burned. John Lister was gay himself but, not being as bold as his ancestor Anne, did not want to draw attention to his own sexuality by revealing his discovery of the diaries. Thankfully however, he did not take Arthur’s advice and, instead, returned the diaries to their hiding place behind the panelling. In 1895, the attitude to gay men in Britain was to worsen with the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde, so the diaries remained hidden. It would be almost a century later, in the 1980s, that the code would be once again broken and the true nature of the contents exposed.
John Lister continued making improvements to Shibden Hall and managed the estate into the 20th century but he did not have Anne’s business acumen. In 1923 he was declared bankrupt and the estate was acquired by Halifax Corporation. The grounds became a public park and the hall opened as a museum in 1934. Anne’s diaries were rediscovered and, in a more enlightened age, the remarkable entries and letters began to be published. They were so frank however that, at first, they were thought to be a hoax.
Anne’s diaries record details of her daily life in meticulous detail: her rigorous programme of study, the weather, the purchase of clothing and everyday items, days out at the races and accounts of petty disagreements between the provincial gentry. However, she also chronicles, in her private code, a series of intense and overlapping lesbian relationships. The coded sections, which occupy around one-sixth of the diaries, document her most personal thoughts and experiences usually about love or sex, even recording the act of sex itself. It is this combination of the orderliness and the ordinariness of her daily life with her most intimate romantic and sexual feelings which make the diaries so unique.
By 1817, when Lister was 26, she had emotionally and psychologically come to terms with her own sexual orientation. She expressed her feelings about men and women in her diary entry for Monday, 29 January 1821: ‘Burnt Mr Montagu’s farewell verses that no trace of any man’s admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’
Same-sex union in York
Eliza was devoted to her partner but Anne continued to have relationships with other women. Feeling alone and isolated, Eliza was declared insane in 1814 due to the stress of sustaining their illicit relationship. Anne soon moved on to other infatuations, first to Isabella Norcliffe and then Mariana Belcombe. The latter affair continued after Mariana’s marriage in 1816 to Charles Lawton and there were a series of other lesbian relationships before Anne met the woman with whom she would spend the rest of her life. In 1832, Anne started pursuing 29-year-old Ann Walker, heiress to an adjoining estate, and, in 1834, Ann moved into Shibden Hall where the two women lived openly as a couple.
The two women soon became notorious in Halifax but Anne found her acquaintances in York more tolerant. At that time Halifax was a provincial town; York was the centre of Yorkshire society. It was during a visit to friends in York that the two women planned to cement their union. Having previously exchanged rings and made marriage vows, Anne Lister and Ann Walker attended the Easter Sunday service at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York on 30 March 1834. Anne records the event in her diary: ‘At Goodramgate church at 10.35; Miss W- and I and Thomas staid [for] the sacrament… The first time I ever joined Miss W- – in my prayers – I had prayed that our union might be happy – she had not thought of doing as much for me.’ Receiving communion side by side was interpreted by the two women as a blessing of their “marriage”.
Anne’s attraction to Ann Walker may have been financial as well as sexual. Although Anne benefited from income from property and mineral rights on her estate and from canal shares, turnpike road trusts and pew rents, she was unable to fund her ambitious plans for Shibden Hall. With Ann’s inheritance she embarked on an extensive rebuilding programme. Assisted by York architect John Harper, she re-created the original central double-height hall, a scholarly restoration which is unusual for its time. Other original features and decorative schemes were also carefully conserved. More overtly Victorian is the addition of a robust Gothic tower to house Anne’s library and an arcaded loggia also designed by Harper. The grounds were landscaped by William Gray of York in the prevailing Romantic style with a cascade and ornamental lake. She also acquired a lucrative coal mine, competing directly with the male-dominated business community of Halifax. Although her wealth and class gave her some protection, her masculine form of dress and manners and open relationship with Ann were a matter of comment and she gained the nickname of ‘Gentleman Jack’.
The additional wealth from the Walker inheritance also enabled Anne to pursue her other main passion which was for continental travel, indulging in other female conquests along the way. Travel in Europe had only become possible again following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Anne took full advantage of the new freedom; in the 1820s and 1830s she travelled widely, living for three years in Paris with her aunt and visiting Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. As well as taking in the usual historic and cultural sights, she also visited factories, prisons, orphanages, farms and mines. More unusually she became a noted mountain climber. She was the first woman to climb Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees in 1830 and, whilst travelling with Ann Walker, was the first person to ascend Vignemarle, also in the Pyrenees, in 1838.
In 1839, the two women set off for another ambitious tour of Europe, travelling through Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Caucasus and Persia. Anne was seeking adventure, galloping across the frozen Volga and visiting a Tartar harem. Reaching the Black Sea, however, Anne contracted a fever, possibly from an insect bite. She was taken back to Kutaisi, the capital of West Georgia, where she died on 22 September 1840. Ann embalmed the body and returned to England where Anne was laid to rest in the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Halifax, now Halifax Minster.
Anne left Shibden Hall to her paternal cousins but granted a lifetime interest to her partner. However, Ann became insane and was admitted to Clifton Asylum in York run by Dr Belcome, previously physician to The Retreat and the father of Anne Lister’s former lover, Mariana. This was the same asylum that Eliza Raine had been admitted to in 1814; a sad fate for two of Anne Lister’s lovers.
In recent years, the bond between the two women, their union at Holy Trinity Church in York and Anne Lister’s uncompromising lifestyle have become celebrated. The story has also attracted the media. Maxine Peake played Anne Lister in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister broadcast on BBC Two in 2010 and another portrayal of Anne, Gentlemen Jack, written by Sally Wainwright is currently in production. Huddersfield-born Sally Wainwright studied English at the University of York and has written and produced several award-winning television series including Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley.
Anne Lister’s diaries can make for uncomfortable reading – in her many liaisons she can seem calculating, predatory, ruthless, even cruel – but the honesty and candour of her accounts of her sexual feelings are understood by women of today. Her forthright views, her open sexuality and her ability to take on the world of men on its own terms have to be admired.
Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Anne Lister’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
Jill Liddington (ed.), Female Fortune, Land, Gender and Authority, The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings 1833-36 (London, 1998)
Helena Whitbread (ed.), I know my own heart, The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840 (London, 1988)
Helena Whitbread (ed.), No Priest but Love, Excerpts from the diaries of Anne Lister, 1824-1826 (Otley, 1992)
Historian and biographer Helena Whitbread’s website on Anne Lister
Sally Wainwright’s drama about Anne Lister is in production with the BBC as a co-production with HBO.
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