Who Was Anne Lister, ‘Gentleman Jack’ of Shibden Hall?

Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) of Shibden Hall, near Halifax, was a remarkable woman; a landowner, business woman, diarist, mountaineer and traveller. Throughout her life she kept diaries which chronicled in a secret code the details of her daily life, including her love affairs with several women, her financial concerns, her industrial activities and her work improving Shibden Hall. Read on to discover the woman behind the legend!

The Life and Loves of Anne Lister

Anne Lister was the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister (1753 – 1836), who served with the British 10th Regiment of Foot in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in the American War of Independence. In August 1788 Jeremy married Rebecca Battle (1770 – 1817) and they settled on her small estate at Market Weighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire. They were regular visitors to Halifax and it was here that Anne Lister was born on 3rd April 1791. The Listers went on to have six children, but only Anne and her younger sister Marian survived to adulthood.

As a child, Anne was a somewhat unruly tomboy, although books were already one of her passions.

“My library is one of my greatest pleasures after a good ramble in the fields.”

– Anne Lister aged 12, to her aunt, 1803

Anne was educated in Ripon and Halifax until 1804, when she was sent to the Manor House School in York (now King’s Manor, part of the University of York). Here Anne discovered her lesbianism, meeting her first love, Eliza Raine (1791 – 1869).

Eliza was the daughter of a wealthy East India Company surgeon. Anne and Eliza shared an attic bedroom at the boarding school, called ‘the Slope’, which made their union an easy one. It was at this time that Anne began keeping diaries. In 1806 Anne’s parents decided to move permanently to Halifax. Anne chose to continue to spend much of her time in York.

In 1810 Anne became friends with Isabella Norcliffe, a day pupil at the school. The two remained friends and occasional lovers throughout the remainder of Anne’s life. Anne’s rejection of her as a life-partner (Anne disapproved of Isabella’s drinking) was a bitter blow to Isabella, who remained single all her life. As Isabella would come very much to regret, she introduced Anne to Mariana Belcombe, who would become the love of Anne’s life.

Anne’s brother, heir to the family estate, died in 1813. Her Uncle James decided that Anne, who had always loved Shibden, should inherit the family home, while her sister Marian inherited the residue of their parent’s estate.

Anne was introduced to Mariana Belcombe in 1814, aged 23. They had a passionate affair, which continued for around five years throughout Mariana’s marriage for money to Charles Lawton in 1816.

“Came upstairs at 11 a.m. Spent my time from. then till 3, writing to M- very affectionately, more so than I remember to have done for long … Wrote the following crypt, ‘I can live upon hope, forget that we grow older, & love you as warmly as ever. Yes, Mary, you cannot doubt the love of one who has waited for you so long & patiently. You can give me all of happiness I care for &, prest to the heart which I believe my own, caressed & treasured there, I will indeed be constant & never, from that moment, feel a wish or thought for any other than my wife. You shall have every smile & every breath of tenderness. “One shall our union & our interests be” & every wish that love inspires & every kiss & every dear feeling of delight shall only make me more securely & entirely yours.’ Then, after hoping to see her in York next winter & at Steph’s before the end of the summer, I further wrote in crypt as follows, ‘I do not like to be too long estranged from you sometimes, for, Mary, there is a nameless tie in that soft intercourse which blends us into one & makes me feel that you are mine. There is no feeling like it. There is no pledge which gives such sweet possession.”

– Thursday 8th February 1821

Anne still dreamed of setting up home together with Mariana, but the possibility grew ever more remote and her loyalty to Mariana waned. Broken-hearted and disgusted, Anne wrote of the marriage as legalised prostitution.

Eliza Raine had expected to live with Anne as an adult, but Anne’s affairs with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Lawton (née Belcombe) caused her such despair and frustration that Eliza became a patient at Clifton Asylum, ironically run by Mariana’s father, Dr Belcombe.

In 1815, aged 24, Anne moved permanently into Shibden Hall to live with her ageing Uncle James and his sister Anne. Realising she was to become the manager of a relatively large and prestigious local estate, Anne began a serious programme of self-education and enlightenment, developing an astute business manner in a male-dominated world.

Anne adopted a strict personal routine, getting up at five o’clock to study Greek, Latin and algebra. She kept to a light diet, took regular exercise by walking everywhere and practiced her flute daily. Later in life she found time to study French, Italian, mineralogy and anatomy.

Throughout her life, Anne was always restless, wanting to improve herself, to be more knowledgeable and wealthier. She longed for a higher social standing, not just the heiress of the old gentry family in a town swelled by nouveau riche mill owners. Hidden in her diary is her embarrassment at some aspects of Shibden Hall: bitterly cold in winter and damp in summer.

Money was also a problem. Anne did not buy a new carriage but rather a second hand gig and it was she rather than her maid, who mended her gloves, stockings and stays. Anne’s only extravagances until she fully came into her inheritance in 1836 were her travelling and her books.

According to her diary, Anne was tall, with a boyish figure, and not particularly attractive. Her hair was arranged in tight curls on either side of her face. She chose to wear a black dress trimmed with a neck ruff, stout boots and in her black coat and round hat (rather than a feminine bonnet) she presented an unusual sight around Halifax. Marianna Lawton (née Belcombe) was initially ashamed to be seen in public with Anne, as her appearance was commented on.

“I have almost made up mind always to wear black.”

– 1st June 1817

Anne Lister became an inveterate traveller throughout her adult life. Initially she was confined to touring around Britain, but in 1819 she went to Paris for three weeks with her aunt; an experience which awakened her ambition to see for herself the places which she had so far only encountered in her extensive reading.

Defying the conventions of the early 19th century which decreed that women, if they travelled at all, should only do so if accompanied by a male protector or chaperone; Anne’s expeditions became ever more adventurous, especially during the last twelve years of her life. Her diaries record the excitement and difficulties of travelling abroad in carriages on atrocious roads.

During a protracted stay in Paris from 1824 to 1826, Anne met Maria Barlow, a widow. Anne succeeded in winning Maria’s affections, but her social standing and financial worth did not meet Anne’s aspirations. Anne continued to seek a more suitable life partner who would allow her to climb the social ranks.

In 1826, Anne’s Uncle, James Lister, died and Anne took over the management of Shibden Hall. Ten years later when both her father and her aunt died, Anne Lister, aged 34, became the sole owner of Shibden Hall.

Anne’s entrepreneurial flair, the knowledge she had acquired over the years; and her sharp negotiating skills with male business rivals made her a formidable businesswoman. Anne’s success with both single and married women also makes it clear that she could be a woman of great charm.

Determined to provide a good financial foundation for future developments at Shibden, Anne busied herself with the estate, which was run by a steward whilst Anne was away travelling, although she would return regularly to concentrate on estate management and political affairs.

The estate produced income from its reserves of coal, water, stone and timber. In addition there was an income stream from canal shares, turnpike road trusts, pew rents and rents from the farms and cottages on the estate. Anne used the income from this varied portfolio to finance her two passions; Shibden Hall and European travel.

Mountaineering in the Pyrenees became a challenge to her and in 1830 Anne was the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, an achievement which was crowned in 1838 by the even more difficult feat of completing the first ascent of Mount Vignemale (3,298 metres, 10,820 ft) being not only the first woman, but also the first person, to ever do so.

In 1832 Anne finally met a woman who had the social standing she craved in Ann Walker, a wealthy young woman from Lightcliffe, whose land shared some boundaries with the Shibden Estate. Ann Walker had inherited an estate at Crow Nest and nearby Cliffe Hill. Shy, prone to melancholy illness and with a deep lack of confidence, Ann Walker was the polar opposite of Anne Lister. However, she had good contacts with the established families in Halifax. Anne Lister became a regular visitor and Ann began to see her as a companion with the promise of hope, love and fortune.

Their friendship developed rapidly although Ann Walker, who possessed a strong sense of Christian duty, was often wracked with religious guilt. The two became lovers and Ann was persuaded to come and live at Shibden Hall in 1834. Their relationship was a story of local repute. Having already sworn their love for each other on the Bible in a little thatched summer house on the Shibden Estate, their eventual marriage (without legal recognition) was highly unusual.

Having become sole owner of Shibden Hall and now also able to avail herself of the Walker money, Anne began to carry her dreams towards reality. She employed John Harper, a promising young architect with a new practice in York, to draw up plans for the improvement of Shibden Hall.

Harper’s plans recommended extravagant improvement, ambitious flights of fancy that were beyond Anne’s budget. The plans were adapted and for four years Shibden was given over to builders as a south terrace was constructed providing Shibden with an elevated platform; new timber bay windows replaced the sash ones; the east side was rebuilt creating new kitchens and servant’s quarters; on the west a three storey Gothic tower was constructed; and the crowning achievement of recreating the Housebody.

On 12th May 1836 Anne cleared out the upper rooms prior to the floor being taken out and the Housebody being opened up to the eaves, with a new staircase and gallery installed and decorated in the “Jacobethan” style that was highly popular in the early 19th century. Anne also had cellars and tunnels dug under the building. This was part of a contemporary trend, ensuring that owners would not be disturbed by their servants.

In the grounds Anne made a park, constructed a cascade through a wilderness (Cunnery Wood) and dammed the Red Beck to make an ornamental lake. A carriage drive was built to the new road from Halifax to Leeds and a gatehouse built alongside it. The wood panelling visible at the south front of the Hall today was also restored under Anne’s instruction. Anne took great interest in the improvements, discussing progress with the clerk of works and actively helping to plant trees.

In her business matters, Anne sank two coal-pits of her own in direct competition with the pit owners in Halifax. Money and class had allowed Anne to escape too much trouble up until then, but the moment Anne Lister stopped living like a landed, if eccentric, gentlewoman, and starting living like a man – competing openly for wealth – her sexuality was used against her. She was nicknamed “Gentleman Jack” and on one occasion effigies of herself and her wife were burnt in the town.

Anne Lister and Ann Walker travelled widely together. In 1839 they embarked on their longest journey yet, overland to Russia, little-knowing that this thrilling journey would be their last. When Anne left for Russia, the work at Shibden was continuing. Sadly, Anne didn’t live to see the work completed.

Travelling through Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, the couple took three months to reach St. Petersburg. A further three weeks travelling took them to Moscow as the Russian winter drew in. Still determined, Anne continued southwards down the frozen River Volga, arriving ultimately in the Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. Anne’s journal continues to record her travels until the 11th August 1840. Anne contracted a virulent fever from an insect sting and died about six weeks later on September 22nd 1840, aged 49.

It took six months, by ship and by coach, for Ann Walker to get the embalmed body of her beloved back to Yorkshire, arriving back in Halifax on 24th April 1841. Anne Lister’s family had a vault at the Halifax parish church (now Halifax Minster) where she and her ancestors had worshipped for centuries. Anne’s remains were interred there on 29th April 1841.

Ann Walker returned to Shibden Hall having inherited a lifetime’s interest in the property from Anne Lister’s will, provided that she did not marry. However, Ann’s health and mental state declined as she struggled to maintain the two estates of Shibden and Crow Nest. Matters came to a head in 1843 when she was forcibly removed from her locked room at Shibden Hall by her family and the local constable and consigned to an asylum in York. Ann returned to Cliffe Hill shortly before her death in 1854.

For the next 12 years Shibden was home to several families. Anne’s library was sold by public auction, but the family papers, including her diaries, were stacked away. New owners moved to Shibden in 1855, the descendants of a Thomas Lister, who had emigrated in the 1730s to establish trading links with the American colonies. Thomas’ great grandchild was John Lister, who inherited Shibden Hall in 1867, aged 20. It was John Lister who would discover and first crack the code of, Anne Lister’s diaries.

Anne Lister’s Diaries

During her life, Anne Lister wrote a diary running to over four million words – three times the length of Samuel Pepys’s. The physical appearance of the journals indicates the growing importance they came to play in Anne’s life. The earliest entries, covering the period from Wednesday 11th August 1806 to Thursday 22nd February 1810, were ten loose sheets of paper, forming an unbound journal. In 1816, following a three year gap, Anne appears to have taken up her journal more seriously. Loose sheets are replaced by two thin school exercise books with blue covers.

In mid-March 1817 these blue books were replaced by the first of a succession of sturdy, hard-backed books, twenty-four in all. Between the covers of these books, Anne chronicled her life in minute detail. Some days are recorded in over 2000 words.

The diaries describe quite graphically Anne’s lesbian nature and affairs, as well as the tactics she used for seduction. They 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 lesbianism and provides detailed information on social, political and economic events of the time.

Approximately one sixth of the diaries, Anne’s deepest emotions, her private affairs and relationships with a number of women, are written in code. This clever combination of Greek letters and algebraic symbols, self-invented by Anne from her teenage years onwards, is referred to by Anne as her ‘crypthand’. It is written without wordbreaks or punctuation, but in some respects it is easier to read than Anne’s tiny, crowded handwriting in thick, black ink; full of abbreviations and shorthand.

“I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

– Monday 29th January 1821

Such concealment was necessary. Erotic intensity between women was not taken seriously in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sometimes it was encouraged as a prelude to marriage, and in any case women often shared a bed, so much so that a husband would not think it odd to vacate the marital bed when a special friend arrived on a visit. Touching and kissing were allowed to be a part of women’s shared vocabulary – what was not allowed was any sense of a woman taking a man’s role. To act like a man was taboo for a woman.

Anne Lister did not really think of herself as acting like a man. Simply put, she wanted to be independent, free-thinking, and crucially; to share her life with another woman. Her premeditated desires towards other woman would, and did, get her into trouble. So the last thing she needed was a nosy relative reading her diary.

The diaries went into the attic at Shibden, and remained there until John Lister (1847–1933), the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, found them and began to crack her ‘crypthand’. The code was deciphered by John and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell, sometime between 1887 and 1892. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Arthur advised John to burn all the diaries. John Lister was gay himself, and 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 hid Anne’s diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall.

In 1933 Shibden Hall and its surrounding parkland were given to the Halifax Corporation and Anne’s diaries were once again rediscovered, hidden in a compartment on Shiben Hall’s first floor. In the 1980s historian Helena Whitbread set about translating them. When a paperback collection of the diaries was published in 2010, the author Emma Donoghue wrote that “the Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history. They change everything.”

In 2011 the diaries received the accolade of being placed on the United Kingdom Memory of the World Register for Documentary Heritage of UK significance. 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.”

“Got here, the King’s Head, New Hotel, Llangollen, patronized by Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, in 44 hours … Beautiful drive from Chester to Wrexham. It was market day & the town seemed very busy. Beautiful drive, also, from Wrexham here but I was perhaps disappointed with the first couple of miles of the vale of Llangollen.The hills naked of wood & the white limestone quarries on our left certainly not picturesque.”

– Saturday 13th July 1822

The other famous lesbians of the period, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, had eloped together from Ireland, but lived in a haze of female virtue and deep friendship. Society could overlook their sexual commitment to each other. Anne Lister was far more flamboyant – an obviously sexual creature supporting the idea of votes for women, taking on men on at their own game and enjoying life.

Although Anne Lister did not live long enough to enjoy the long-term prosperity which she had anticipated from all her ventures, there is no doubt that she left a greatly improved estate. She was a woman exercising conscious choice, controlling her cash and her body. At a time when women had to marry, or be looked after by a male relative, and when all their property on marriage passed to their husband, Anne Lister not only dodged the traps of being female, she set up a liaison with another woman that enhanced her own wealth and left both of them free to live as they wished.

Gentleman Jack HBO/BBC ONE Drama

Anne Lister’s story is being brought to our screens in the BBC production ‘Gentleman Jack’, starring Suranne Jones and written by Sally Wainwright. Gentleman Jack is a Lookout Point production for the BBC, co-produced with HBO.

Joining BAFTA award winner Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster, Save Me) as the remarkable Anne Lister is Sophie Rundle (Bodyguard, Peaky Blinders) as Ann Walker.

Gemma Whelan (The Moorside, Game Of Thrones) plays Anne Lister’s sister Marian, with Timothy West (Last Tango In Halifax, Bleak House) as their father Jeremy Lister, and Gemma Jones (God’s Own County, Bridget Jones’s Diary) as Aunt Anne Lister.

Stephanie Cole (Waiting For God, Still Open All Hours) plays Ann Walker’s Aunt. Peter Davison (Liar, Doctor Who) and Amelia Bullmore (Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey) play William and Eliza Priestley, Ann Walker’s cousin and his wife. Christopher Rawson, businessman and fierce rival to Anne Lister, is played by Vincent Franklin (Cucumber, Happy Valley), whilst his brother and business partner Jeremiah is played by Shaun Dooley (Gunpowder, Broadchurch).

Casting also includes Joe Armstrong (Darkest Hour, Britannia, Happy Valley) as Samuel Washington, Jodhi May (Genius, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard) as Vere Hobart, Rosie Cavaliero (Hold The Sunset, Unforgotten) as Elizabeth Cordingley, Thomas Howes (Downton Abbey, United) as John Booth, Lydia Leonard (Apple Tree Yard, Life In Squares) as Marianna Lawton, Jessica Baglow (Waterloo Road) as Rachael Hemingway, and newcomers Albane Courtois as Eugénie Pierre and Ben Hunter as Joseph Booth.

Sally Wainwright descibes the part of Anne Lister as “an epic challenge that will require all the boldness, subtelty, energy and humour I know only Suranne will bring to it.”

Series One of Gentleman Jack aired on BBC One from Sunday 19th May 2019. The filming of Series two has had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shibden Hall will re-open to visitors from 3rd August but you must book your tickets in advance online via their website. Tickets will be available in half hourly time slots and will go on sale a week in advance from the 27th July . New tickets will then be released every Monday for the following week.

There are frequent buses every 15 minutes or better from Monday to Saturday passing Shibden Hall, between Halifax and Bradford, Halifax and Todmorden/Burnley and Halifax and Brighouse. with other regular and less frequent services throughout the week. Up to date timetables are available from West Yorkshire METRO.


Shibden Hall Halifax a Visitor’s Guide, Published 2010 by Calderdale Council.

Helena Whitbread https://www.annelister.co.uk/

Jeanette Winteron https://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/about-anne-lister/

Lightcliffe & District Local History Society https://www.lightcliffehistory.org.uk/

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Lister