Anne Lister (3 April 1791 – 22 September 1840) was an English landowner and diarist from Halifax, West Yorkshire. Throughout her life, she kept diaries that chronicled the details of her daily life, including her lesbian relationships, her financial concerns, her industrial activities, and her work improving Shibden Hall. Her diaries contain 7,720 pages and more than 5 million words and about a sixth of them – those concerning the intimate details of her romantic and sexual relationships – were written in code. The code, derived from a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek, was deciphered in the 1930s. Lister is often called "the first modern lesbian" for her clear self-knowledge and openly lesbian lifestyle. Called "Fred" by her lover and "Gentleman Jack" by Halifax residents, she suffered harassment for her sexuality, but recognised her similarity to the Ladies of Llangollen, whom she visited.
Anne Lister, around 1830, portrait by Joshua Horner
|Died||22 September 1840 (aged 49)|
|Resting place||St John the Baptist Church Halifax Minster|
(1834–1840; Lister's death)
Anne Lister was the second child and eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister (1753–1836) who, as a young man in 1775, served with the British 10th Regiment of Foot in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in the American War of Independence. In August 1788, he married Rebecca Battle (1770–1817) of Welton in East Riding, Yorkshire. Their first child, John, was born in 1789 but died the same year. Anne Lister was born in Halifax on 3 April 1791. In 1793, the family moved to an estate named Skelfler House at Market Weighton. Skelfler was where young Anne spent her earliest years. A second son, Samuel, who was close to Anne, was born in 1793. The Listers had four sons and two daughters, but only Anne and her younger sister, Marian, survived past 20 years old.
Between 1801 and 1805, Lister was educated at home by the Reverend George Skelding, the vicar of Market Weighton, and at the age of seven, she was sent to a school run by a Mrs. Hagues and a Mrs. Chettle in Agnesgate, Ripon. On her visits to her aunt Anne and uncle James at Shibden Hall, the Misses Mellin gave her lessons. In 1804, Anne Lister was sent to the Manor House School in York (in the King's Manor buildings), where Anne met her first love, Eliza Raine (1793–1860). Eliza and her sister Jane were the very rich daughters of an East India Company surgeon in Madras, brought to Yorkshire after his death. Anne and Eliza met and shared a bedroom aged 13 at boarding school, but Anne was asked to leave after two years. She rejoined the school after Eliza had left. Eliza expected to live with Anne as an adult, but Anne began affairs with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe, day-pupils at the school. In despair and frustration, Eliza became a patient at Clifton Asylum, run by Mariana's father, Dr Belcombe. While being educated at home Lister developed an interest in classical literature. In a surviving letter to her aunt from 3 February 1803, a young Lister explains "My library is my greatest pleasure... The Grecian History had pleased me much."
She inherited Shibden Hall on her aunt's death in 1836, but took charge of it from 1826, and from it drew a reasonable income (some of it from tenants). Her wealth allowed her some measure of freedom to live as she pleased.
In addition to income from the agricultural tenancy, Lister's financial portfolio included properties in town, shares in the canal and railway industries, mining, and stone quarries. Lister used the income from this varied portfolio to finance her two passions, Shibden Hall and European travel.
Lister is described as having a "masculine appearance"; one of her lovers, Marianna Lawton (née Belcombe), was initially ashamed to be seen in public with her because her appearance was commented on. She dressed entirely in black and took part in many activities that were not perceived as the norm for women of the time, such as opening and owning a colliery. She was referred to as "Gentleman Jack" in some quarters. Lawton and Lister were lovers for several years, including a period during which Lawton was married and to which her husband became resigned.
Although Lister had met her on various occasions in the 1820s, Ann Walker, who by 1832 had become a wealthy heiress, took on a much more substantial role in Lister's life. Eventually the women took communion together on Easter Sunday (30 March) 1834 in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, and thereafter considered themselves married, but without legal recognition. The church has been described as "an icon for what is interpreted as the site of the first lesbian marriage to be held in Britain", and the building now hosts a commemorative blue plaque. The couple lived together at Shibden Hall until Lister's death in 1840.
Walker's fortune was used to improve Shibden Hall and the property's waterfall and lake. Lister renovated Shibden Hall quite significantly to her own design. In 1838, she added a Gothic tower to the main house, to serve as her private library. She also had a tunnel dug under the building which allowed the staff to move about without disturbing her.
Lister greatly enjoyed travel, although her biographer Angela Steidele suggests her trips in later life were also a way to "evade the self realisation that she had failed at everything she set her hand to". She made her first trip to continental Europe in 1819, when she was 28 years old. She travelled with her 54-year-old aunt, also called Anne Lister, on a two-month trip to France.
In 1824 she returned to Paris and stayed until the following year. In 1826 she was back in Paris with her Aunt Anne, where she resumed an affair from her earlier visit to the city with a widow named Maria Barlow. In 1827, she set out from Paris with both Maria Barlow and her Aunt Anne on a tour of northern Italy and Switzerland. Only in 1828 did she return to Shibden Hall.
She left for the continent once more in 1829. With Paris as her base, she visited Belgium and Germany before heading south to the Pyrenees. Here she did hiking as well as crossed the border into Spain. Whilst there she demonstrated both her strong adventurous streak and considerable physical fitness by ascending Monte Perdido (11,007 feet; 3,355 m), the third highest peak in the Pyrenees.
Returning to Shibden Hall in 1831, she found life with her father Jeremy and sister Marian so uncomfortable that she almost immediately left again, visiting the Netherlands for a short trip with a friend, Mariana Lawton. All in all, between 1826 and 1832, she only spent a few weeks at Shibden Hall, with travels around Britain and Europe allowing her to avoid her family at home.
In 1834 she again visited France and Switzerland, this time for her honeymoon with Ann Walker. Returning with Ann in 1838, she again headed south to the Pyrenees and completed the first "official" ascent of the Vignemale (10,820 feet; 3,298 m), the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. This required a 10-hour hike to reach the top, and another 7 to descend.
Her last and greatest trip began in 1839. Leaving Shibden Hall in June with Ann Walker and two servants, they travelled in their own carriage through France, Denmark, Sweden and Russia, arriving in St Petersburg in September and in Moscow in October. With a reluctant Ann Walker in tow, she left Moscow in February 1840 in a new Russian carriage and very warm clothing. They travelled south, along the frozen Volga river, to the Caucasus. Few West Europeans had visited this area, let alone West European women, in part because of unrest amongst the local population against the Tsarist regime. At times they needed a military escort. The two women were a source of great curiosity to the people they visited. As Anne noted in her diary, "The people coming in to look at us as if we were some strange animals such as they had not seen the like before".
Anne Lister died on 22 September 1840 aged 49 of a fever at Koutais (now Kutaisi in Georgia) while travelling with Ann Walker. Walker had Lister's body embalmed and brought back to the UK, where she was buried in the parish church in Halifax, West Yorkshire, on 29 April 1841. Her tombstone was rediscovered in 2010, having been covered by a floor in 1879.
In her will, Lister's estate was left to her paternal cousins, but Ann Walker was given a life interest. After being declared insane, Walker spent some years in the care of Dr. Belcombe, and because of her mental state, was unable to make a valid will. She died in 1854 at her childhood home, Cliff Hill in Lightcliffe, West Yorkshire.
More than 40 years after her death, while reporting on a dispute over the ownership of Shibden Hall, the Leeds Times in 1882 stated, "Miss Lister's masculine singularities of character are still remembered".
During her life, Anne wrote a four-million-word diary. It began in 1806 as scraps of paper, recording in secret code parcels sent to and from Eliza Raine, and eventually became the 26 Quarto volumes, ending at her death in 1840. In addition to her handwriting being incredibly difficult to decipher, around one-sixth of the diary is encrypted in a simple code Eliza and she had devised, combining the Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols, and it describes in great detail her lesbian identity and affairs, as well as the methods she used for seduction. The diaries also contain her thoughts on the weather, social events, national events, and her business interests. The majority of her diary deals with her daily life, and not merely her sexuality, and provides detailed information on social, political, and economic events of the time.
The code used in her diaries was deciphered by the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, John Lister (1847–1933) and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries. Lister did not take this advice, but instead continued to hide Anne Lister's diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall.
In 2011, Lister's diaries were added to the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. The register citation notes that, while a valuable account of the times, it was the "comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature, however, which have made these diaries unique. They have shaped and continue to shape the direction of UK Gender Studies and Women's History."
Lister's diaries have been described as part of a "trilogy of early 19th century diaries" by local women, covering the same period from different perspectives, along with those of Caroline Walker from 1812 to 1830, and Elizabeth Wadsworth from 1817 to 1829.
Helena Whitbread published some of the diaries in two volumes (1988 and 1992). Their graphic nature meant at first they were believed by some to be a hoax, but documentary evidence has since established their authenticity. A biography by the academic Jill Liddington appeared in 1994. In 2014, a conference held at Shibden Hall focused on Lister's life along with gender and sexuality in the 19th century.
A biography by Angela Steidele in the German language was published in 2017, and published in English in 2018.
Work by Dorothy Thompson and Patricia Hughes in the late 1980s resulted in discovery of the first juvenile Lister diaries and decoding of the other two Lister codes. Hughes self-published Anne Lister's Secret Diary for 1817 (2006) and The Early Life of Miss Anne Lister and the Curious Tale of Miss Eliza Raine (2010), both of which make extensive use of other materials in the Lister archives including letters, diaries, and ancillary documents.
On 31 May 2010, BBC Two broadcast a production based on Lister's life, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, starring Maxine Peake as Lister. Revealing Anne Lister, a documentary featuring Sue Perkins, was broadcast on the same night on BBC Two.
In spring 2019 a BBC-HBO historical TV drama series, Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones as Lister, depicts her life as "the first modern lesbian". Penguin Books published a companion volume by the series' senior consultant, Anne Choma, which includes newly transcribed and decoded entries from Lister's diaries. The drama's end credits acknowledge that it was "inspired by the books Female Fortune and Nature’s Domain” by Jill Liddington, who also acted as consultant and whose own website summarises Lister's extraordinary life as "dazzling worldly achievements plus unbuttoned lesbian affairs". O'Hooley & Tidow's "Gentleman Jack" serves as the series' primary theme music.
In 2018, a blue plaque with rainbow edging and wording "Gender-nonconforming entrepreneur. Celebrated marital commitment, without legal recognition, to Ann Walker in this church. Easter, 1834" was unveiled at Holy Trinity Church in York to honour her; it was York's first LGBT history plaque. The wording was criticised for not mentioning Lister's sexuality, and in 2019, it was replaced with a similar plaque with the wording "Anne Lister 1791–1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax / Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker / Easter 1834".
- Lister (surname), list of people named Lister or Lyster
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- The West Yorkshire Archive Service – Holds the Anne Lister Diaries at the Calderdale office