Who was Yorkshire mountaineer and "the first modern Lesbian" Anne Lister?

Her diaries have been called ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history’ and she lived what could be considered as close to a modern lesbian lifestyle as possible at a time when scholars and doctors didn’t even think such a thing was possible.

Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in the new BBC drama Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in the new BBC drama Gentleman Jack.

Known to locals in Halifax as ‘Gentleman Jack’ for her habit of dressing all in black, as well as her “masculine appearance”, she was a shrewd businesswoman, a strict landowner, a skilled mountaineer and a world traveller.

She was also the writer of a series of detailed diaries which recorded details of everyday life and work in the 19th century - and also documented a string of love affairs with women in explicit detail in a secret code which would not be revealed until more than a century after her death.

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Already the subject of a BBC drama in 2010, Anne Lister’s story is about to be retold in greater detail than ever before in the BBC drama Gentleman Jack, with actress Suranne Jones playing the title role.

A portrait of Anne Lister hangs in the family home of Shibden Hall

But who was the real Anne Lister?

A diarist

Though she accomplished a great deal in her 49 years, by far Anne Lister’s most valuable work were her diaries.

They began in 1806 as scraps of paper and by her death would stretch to 26 volumes and some five million words.

The amended plaque erected to mark what was the UK's first ever lesbian wedding.

The majority of her entries deal with daily life, her thoughts on the weather, national events, and her business interests.

They also recorded her awareness of what people thought of her: “The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man,” she wrote.

About a sixth of her diary, however, was written in code combining the Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols.

It was in these secret passages that she recorded the most intimate details of her love affairs with women, marking orgasms with an ‘x’, and calling her sexual encounters either ‘kisses’ or ‘grubbling’. One lover regularly allowed Anne to ‘grubble’ her ‘queer’ through her petticoats’.

In 2011, Lister's diaries were added to the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, with a citation saying the "comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature” making them unique.

All of this remained hidden, however, until decades after her death, when her code was eventually broken by one of her descendants, John Lister, and his friend, schoolteacher Arthur Burrell.

Reading by candlelight in the 1890s they used an uncovered scrap of her code to crack the text - and were so shocked by what they found Arthur urged his friend to burn the diaries to avoid a scandal.

Fortunately John could not bring himself to destroy the work, and instead hid the diaries behind Shibden Hall’s wood panelling, where they remained until his death in 1933.

When the hall was transferred to public ownership the diaries were uncovered and gifted to Halifax Library, and Arthur reluctantly shared his copy of the code.

The contents of the ‘secret’ entries remained hidden until 1982, when Helena Whitbread, a 52-year-old teacher researching the books, was given a copy of the code and started to reveal the full story of ‘Gentleman Jack’.

A scholar

Born on April 3, 1791, in Halifax, Anne Lister was the second child and eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister, a British officer in the 10th Regiment of Foot during the early days of the American Revolution, and Rebecca Battle.

The Listers had four sons and two daughters, but only Anne and her younger sister, Marian, survived past 20 years old.

Anne spent her early life at Skelfler House estate at Market Weighton, where she was educated at home by the Reverend George Skelding, the local vicar.

She developed an interest in classical literature, and in a letter to her aunt in 1803 said, "My library is my greatest pleasure... The Grecian History had please me much."

Anne possessed a voracious intelligence, and while she lived in an age when women were barred from universities, she determined to learn everything she could, from Greek, algebra, French and mathematics to geology astronomy and philosophy.

She had a particular passion for human anatomy and science as well as travel and mountaineering.

A businesswoman

Anne was very close to her Uncle James and Aunt Anne and frequently stayed with them at Shibden Hall, near Halifax - the Lister ancestral home.

From 1826 Anne took charge of the 400-acre estate, which she inherited in 1836 following her aunt’s death.

The “reasonable” income from farm tenants allowed her the freedom to pursue her unconventional love life and also to demonstrate her business acumen.

Her financial portfolio included properties in town, shares in the canal and railway industries, mining, and stone quarries.

She also opened and owned a colliery, and she used the income to finance her two passions - the restoration of Shibden Hall and European travel.

Historians have noted that Anne was always attracted to the kind of wealth which would have given her complete freedom in her life, with many of her relationships attributed - in part by Anne herself - to the riches of the women she courted.

She may have been a lover of women, but in many cases she was far from a romantic.

A lesbian

In the 1800s homosexual acts were still illegal in Britain - and sexual relationships between women generally unacknowledged.

The word ‘lesbian’ had not even been coined - the earliest use of the term in the context of a sexual relationship between two women is believed to be from 1875, in George Sainsbury’s writing about Baudelaire's poetry where he refers to his "Lesbian studies".

Of course, as Anne’s diaries would eventually reveal, same-sex relationships between women did exist.

And unlike most women at the time, Anne Lister was less afraid than most to be open about her feelings, while still keeping them hidden in code.

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” she wrote.

In 1804, Anne was sent to the Manor House School in York (in the King's Manor buildings), where she met her first love, Eliza Raine, the daughter of a rich East India Company surgeon in Madras who had been brought to Yorkshire after his death.

The two shared a bedroom aged 15 at boarding school, and it was this relationship that inspired Anne to create the code for her diaries so she could record every detail of her experiences.

The two seemed inseparable, but Anne, considered a bad influence, was asked to leave after two years, and only rejoined the school after Eliza had left.

In a tragic turn of events, Eliza had expected to spend the rest of her life with Anne, but her partner had moved on to other women, beginning affairs with pupils Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe.

The rejection would eventually drive Eliza to be committed to an insane asylum - run by Mariana's father Dr Belcombe.

Mariana, or ‘M’ as she is referred to in the diaries, was the love of Anne’s life.

Their passionate affair continued during Mariana’s marriage to Charles Lawton, although Mariana had soured the relationship by telling Anne she was ashamed to be seen in public with her because of her masculine appearance.

Anne’s heart was further broken by Mariana’s infidelity, and their physical relationship had an even more profound effect.

In 1820 Charles contracted a venereal disease, apparently from a servant, and Anne caught the incurable “venereal taint” from Mariana, with which she remained infected all her life.

A bride

While Mariana was the love of her life, the relationship that would secure Anne a truly unique place in British history was with her final partner, Ann Walker.

A shy, wealthy young woman from Lightcliffe, who came to live at Shibden in 1834, she had the wealth and social standing that Anne craved.

Her family had made their fortune in the booming mill industry, and Anne wrote in her diary: “I care not for her – tho’ her money would suit.”

While money may have been her primary objective however, she would later record: “I really did feel rather in love with her in the hut, & as we returned. I shall pay due court for the next few months – & after all, I really think I can make her happy & myself too.”

To be more secure in her position, Anne wanted to marry her lover - something that must have seemed beyond impossible at the time.

And yet at Holy Trinity Church on March 30, 1834, the two women exchanged rings, made vows and took the Communion together.

Although the union was not blessed by a priest, as far as Anne Lister was concerned, they were now married in the eyes of God.

After the marriage, the two women changed their wills to make the other the full beneficiary of their assets for life, and the pair embarked on a honeymoon - three months of travel through France and Switzerland.

Two prominent women living together so openly soon became the talk of outraged locals, and a mocking advert appeared in the Leeds Mercury announcing the marriage of “Captain Tom Lister of Shibden Hall to Miss Ann Walker”.

Anne wrote in her diary: “Probably meant to annoy, but, if so, a failure.”

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 the event.

York's first LGBT history plaque, it was heavily criticised for not mentioning Lister's sexuality and in 2019 was replaced with a plaque reading “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax / Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker / Easter 1834".

A mountaineer

In 1838, while restoration work paid for by Ann’s money was being carried out at Shibden Hall Anne and her partner headed to France via Brussels, before returning to the Pyrenees.

Anne had now set her sights on becoming the first person to officially climb Vignemale, the highest mountain in the range.

She tied up her petticoats and made the ascent wearing nail-studded leather boots.

She was furious when a Russian prince later claimed to have beaten her to the summit and had the ascent named after him - although a mountain pass is known as Collado de Lady Lister.

The pair next travelled to Russia, exploring St Petersburg and Moscow, then headed to the mountainous Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas.

In the summer of 1840 they reached the city of Kutaisi, in a place few westerners had been, On August 11, Anne wrote in her diary: “High hills north, and, within, ridges of wooded hill rising every now and then into little wooded conical summits.”

It was the last entry she would ever make - six weeks later she died from a fever. It would take Ann Walker eight months to bring her embalmed body, and her diaries, across 4500 miles back home to Halifax and the now renovated Shibden Hall.

Sadly for Anne Lister’s ‘wife’, she was not allowed to remain there, with Anne’s relatives and police having her committed to the same asylum that was home to Eliza Raine.

Anne Lister was buried in the parish church in Halifax on April 29, 1841. Her tombstone was covered by a floor in 1879, before being rediscovered in 2010.