Gentleman Jack: Anne Lister fans descend on Calderdale for 10-day festival to mark diarist's 231st birthday

Anne Lister was a woman who defied her time, but it is the ripples today that are spreading far and wide.

Her story as the first modern lesbian, as a sneak screening of the BBC’s Gentleman Jack premiered in Halifax this week, has hit a nerve with countless thousands worldwide.

Now fans are descending on Calderdale to celebrate her birthday in style. This weekend sees the launch of a 10-day ‘extravaganza’, featuring a huge festival of events to mark what would have been her 231st birthday tomorrow.

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All of the town’s major venues, including the Piece Hall, colossal Dean Clough mill complex and Halifax Minster, will be taking part in the festival.

Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in the BBC series Gentleman Jack filming at Salts Mill in Saltaire. 13th April March 2021 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe Writer

There will also be tours of her home at Shibden Hall and even guided tours of the churchyard where she is buried.

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A diarist, a landowner, scholar and mountaineer, Anne Lister had refused to bow to 19th century convention and lived as an openly gay woman, standing today as a symbol of courage.

Rachel Lappin, Calderdale Council’s senior visitor engagement officer, has been helping with the festival since the start.

BBC series Gentleman Jack filming at Salts Mill in Saltaire. 13th April March 2021 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

She said: “Her story has touched so many people. It’s hit a nerve, especially with women. She lived without fear, she lived her life.

"This is why women, and particularly gay women, have been so affected. If she could do that in the early 1800s, they sure as hell can do it now.

“That is simply remarkable. And this festival is phenomenal – it means so much to people.”


Fashion in Anne Lister's Time at the Bankfield Museum in Halifax. Picture Tony Johnson

The idea for the festival was born back in 2019, when the first series of Gentleman Jack, written by Sally Wainwright and starring Suranne Jones, first aired.

There was an event planned in a book shop, on decoding the diaries. Tickets sold out before they could be advertised, so they moved venue, but it happened again. In the end, only Halifax Minster was big enough.

And in the crowd was a New Yorker called Pat Esgate, the ‘superfan’ behind this week’s festival, who brought tears to all eyes as she spoke of the impact of Anne Lister’s story.

Ms Lappin said she can still feel the hairs rise on the back of her neck when she thinks about that night.

The 400-acre Shibden Hall estate, in Halifax, home to famed diarist Anne Lister.

Since then, Halifax and Calderdale has become synonymous with sharing Anne Lister’s story, driving huge visitor numbers and a growing tourism economy.


The first weekend of festivities, to celebrate her birthday, had been planned for 2020. It had to be cancelled, then rescheduled, three times.

All it has done, laughed Ms Lappin, is give Ms Esgate two more years to plan. What was a weekend is now 10-days of tours and talks and open days, with people flying in from around the world to attend.

She added: “It matters because it’s put Halifax and Calderdale on the map. We are talking about a woman who said ‘I will live as I am’. It gives people courage – and that was what Anne Lister was all about.”

The Anne Lister Birthday Festival runs until April 10, with her home town of Halifax at the centre of more than 100 celebratory events.

Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister in the BBC series Gentleman Jack filming at Salts Mill in Saltaire. 13th April March 2021 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

A major exhibition at the Dean Clough complex is designed to support artists in the post-lockdown period that shows how deeply woven the visual arts are into the North’s social fabric.

Other events taking place include Victorian markets and fashion exhibitions, bell ringing, concerts and interviews with the writer and director of Gentleman Jack Sally Wainwright.

For a full list of events see the Visit Calderdale website.


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