New exhibition explores history of 600-year-old Shibden Hall - not just the home of Anne Lister

Anne Lister’s story isn’t the only one that looms large in a new exhibition exploring the life and times of Shibden Hall, as Yvette Huddleston finds out.

As with many significant anniversaries that were due to take place in 2020, the celebration of the 600th birthday of Shibden Hall in Halifax had to be put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, finally, the celebrations can begin and they were launched earlier this month with the opening of Shibden600, a year-long exhibition at Bankfield Museum celebrating the Hall and its many inhabitants over the past six centuries.

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The most well-known occupant of Shibden Hall is of course Anne Lister. Thanks to writer and director Sally Wainwright’s excellent BBC drama series Gentleman Jack there can now be very few people who haven’t heard of the 19th century lesbian landowner, businesswoman, diarist and intrepid traveller, portrayed by Suranne Jones in the series which first aired in 2019.

Curator Eli Dawson with a chair owned by Anne Lister on display at the Shibden 600 exhibition. Picture: Tony JohnsonCurator Eli Dawson with a chair owned by Anne Lister on display at the Shibden 600 exhibition. Picture: Tony Johnson
Curator Eli Dawson with a chair owned by Anne Lister on display at the Shibden 600 exhibition. Picture: Tony Johnson

A co-production with the US TV network HBO, its popularity – some 4.7 million viewers tuned in to the final episode of its eight-part run – certainly put Shibden on the map, not only nationally but internationally too, and visitor numbers soared. Location filming for the second series – due to be broadcast sometime later this year – took place at the Hall last October.

“We have been so pleased that Gentleman Jack happened because it means that we can continue as a museum, it is very hard to get funding,” says Angela Clare, collections manager at Calderdale Museums. “There has been a huge focus on Anne Lister, which is amazing and very welcome, but we have a 600-year-old historic site that has countless stories and we wanted to share some of those too.”

Anne Lister, who was born in 1791, was actually brought up in Skelfler House in Market Weighton. She was very fond of her aunt Anne and uncle James who lived at Shibden Hall and she visited them often, eventually moving in with them permanently in 1815.

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After her uncle died in 1826, she took over the management of the estate, later inheriting it upon the death of her aunt and father in 1836. She lived there with her partner Ann Walker, a neighbouring heiress, with whom she had exchanged marriage vows in a private ceremony in Holy Trinity Church in York earlier that year.

People have a look around the exhibition.People have a look around the exhibition.
People have a look around the exhibition.

However, as Clare points out, the Hall has many other narratives within its walls. There were several occupants prior to the Lister family who moved in during the 17th century and other residents after Anne’s death in 1840.

“The very first record of the Hall that we know of is in the West Yorkshire archives and is dated 1420/21 so we have established that there was something there as a building at that time,” says Clare. “It was called ‘Sheepdean’ which means ‘valley of the sheep’.

"We have some wonderful paintings of when the hall was first built and many watercolours and sketches as it changed over the years. We have reframed every drawing and painting we have of Shibden and they are all on display in the exhibition.”

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The Hall was first home to the Oates family who it is thought were involved in the cloth trade; in 1504 it was inherited by Joan Savile who with her husband Robert made some renovations to the building including commissioning a painted window featuring the Savile coat of arms.

A portrait of Shibden Hall's most famous resident Anne Lister.A portrait of Shibden Hall's most famous resident Anne Lister.
A portrait of Shibden Hall's most famous resident Anne Lister.

Then in 1522 the estate was settled onto their daughter Sibil who was married to Robert Waterhouse and the couple moved into the Hall after the death of her father. Various other owners followed before the Listers arrived in 1615 with Shibden remaining in the Lister family for more than 300 years until it passed into public ownership and became a museum in the early 20th century.

Anne certainly left her mark on the building and the landscape around it during her occupancy. “She had a huge impact on the Hall and the estate in terms of its redevelopment – it was Anne who really made it look as it does today,” says curator Eli Dawson.

“She added to the building and made many changes, so we have architectural plans she had drawn up on display, as well as some of her personal letters, diaries and belongings. We also have some very exciting, never before seen portraits of key figures from Anne’s life going exclusively on show.”

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Other members of the Lister family also feature in the exhibition, including Anne’s father Jeremy Lister. “He was quite a prominent figure in his own right,” says Dawson. “He was an officer who served with the 10th Regiment of Foot during the American War of Independence.”

Lister saw action at some of the key battles including Lexington and Concord where he was injured in the elbow by a musket ball. “He wrote a number of letters back to Shibden while he was away and they are considered to be some of the best primary sources about that period. They also feature in the exhibition.”

Another part of the Hall’s story is the many times it has been used as a location in films and television over the years including the 1992 big screen adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Mike Leigh’s 2018 movie Peterloo and two other Sally Wainwright projects – the popular late life romance series Last Tango in Halifax and her 2016 drama about the Brontës To Walk Invisible.

“We have old scrapbooks on display of when Shibden has been used as a film or TV location and images of all the more recent filming that has taken place,” says Clare. There are also some items from the most recent shoot of Gentleman Jack and two further exhibitions are planned later in the year connected with the series – fashions from the 1840s and costumes from the second series, which will be made available to the museum after the last episode has aired.

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After Anne’s death, the Hall passed to Ann Walker as Anne had wished. “It was written into her will that Ann would inherit Shibden,” says Clare. “It took some years of seeing solicitors and a lot of money trying to get that will drawn up; it was very unusual to leave everything to someone who wasn’t related to her and who was female.”

After Ann Walker’s death, the Hall reverted to the Lister family – a distant cousin John Lister, a founder member of the Halifax Labour Union and the Independent Labour Party, lived there with his sister.

It was John who first cracked the code of Anne’s diaries – in addition to her regular journals, she wrote in code about her love affairs with women. “John and his friend Arthur Burrell deciphered the diaries in the late 1800s but when they worked out what she was writing about they decided not to mention her again; thankfully though John did keep the diaries,” says Clare.

“It is widely assumed that he was gay and this was when male homosexuality was illegal and deemed to be a sin, so John and Arthur swore each other to secrecy and Anne was put back in the closet. It wasn’t until 1988 when Helena Whitbread ‘outed’ her.”

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Local historian and writer Whitbread, who painstakingly decoded the diaries, is one of a number of writers, including Sally Wainwright, and scholars who were invited to contribute their thoughts about Shibden Hall and share their passion for it for the exhibition.

There was also a call-out for submissions from the wider public. “We have had a huge response,” says Dawson. “We have heard from people locally and from all over the world and we have had a wide range of submissions including paintings, poems, photographs and memories which are all on display. One of the things we really wanted to show in the exhibition was what Shibden means to people.”

■ The Shibden600 exhibition is at Bankfield Museum, Halifax until December 24, 2022. Entry is free.

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