Halifax heiress Anne Lister is about to become a household name thanks to a new TV drama. Sophie McCandlish goes in search of this historical Yorkshire-born trailblazer.
The name Anne Lister may be famous in her hometown of Halifax, but the extraordinary owner of Shibden Hall, the house she used to live in, is set to become a household name as the star of an eight-part TV drama.
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Gentleman Jack is penned by the award-winning Halifax screenwriter, Sally Wainwright, who came across Anne’s story many years ago, and premiered on HBO in the US in April and hits our screens this month.
It takes its title from the nickname given to Anne by the people of Halifax, offering a telling insight into how they saw the woman later dubbed the ‘first modern lesbian’.
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Born in 1791, Anne is a well-known figure in West Yorkshire, and the reason we know so much about her is because of her astonishing collection of diaries. Started in 1806 during her days at Manor School in York, Anne’s diaries, which at the end ran to five million words, chronicled her life in minute detail and included intimate details of her love life written in a secret code.
The diaries, which were added to the Unesco Memory of the World Programme in 2011, were found hidden behind a panel in Shibden Hall when it passed into the ownership of Halifax Corporation in 1933, and cracking the code gave historians an insight into woman who not only knew her own sexuality but saw no reason to hide it.
She had her first lesbian relationship at 15 and went on to have several relationships with women before living with Ann Walker, a neighbouring heiress whom she ‘married’. A devout Christian, Anne Lister took communion in York with Ann, which in her eyes joined them in holy matrimony. A rainbow-edged blue plaque was recently placed on the church in York to commemorate the event.
Shibden Hall was home to the Lister family for more than 300 years but its history dates back to around 1420. It stands in the Shibden Valley just outside Halifax town centre and is still in council ownership. It is open to visitors and inside is still the family home Anne would recognise.
“Everything was left in the house when it was passed over to the Corporation,” says Angela Clare, collections manager at Shibden Hall.
“The furniture and the original paintings, letters, deeds, documents and her diaries, were all here. As well as the diaries documenting her day to day life, we also have her travel notes from the incredible journeys she took to Europe.”
The house came into council ownership after the death of John Lister, a descendent of Anne’s named heirs, who suffered a crushing financial blow in his later years. His good friend and Halifax councillor, AS McCrea stepped in to help, buying 90 acres of parkland from the estate which he then presented back to the people of Halifax as a public park. The park was opened in 1926 by the then-Prince of Wales – whom John mistook for a newspaper reporter.
McCrea also bought the reversion of Shibden Hall which allowed John and his sister Anne to stay there until their deaths. It was John who initially cracked the code in Anne’s diaries but was so shocked he hid them behind a wooden panel, and they were not re-discovered until the 1980s.
Anne herself only inherited Shibden Hall due to the untimely death of her brother and it is a measure of her personality that despite his dislike of leaving property to the female line, James Lister named her as his heir before he died in 1826.
“This shows the strength of Anne’s character,” says Angela. “Her uncle left her a third of the estate along with her aunt and her father when there was no need to. He thinks she is the stronger character and can run the estate well.”
Anne, knew Shibden well, having spent a lot of time there during her childhood and took over management of the estate before becoming sole owner ten years later when both her father and aunt died.
Museum manager Richard McFarlane says she would have been an unmissable figure around Halifax as she dressed in black, wore stout boots and a round hat as she strode about the business of the estate. It was this, along with her ambitious business plans and strong entrepreneurial streak – she opened her own coal mine and a casino – which earned her the rather unflattering moniker.
But as Richard points out Anne would have struggled to be taken seriously if she turned up at a coal mine wearing conventional female attire.
Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones plays Anne in the new drama, much of which was shot at Shibden Hall. Closed to the public for filming for several months last year, Richard says it had been a real experience for everyone involved.
“The actors said how great it was to film in the actual building where they lived and it was great for us to be able to share the story. It was quite surreal as well, we would catch a glimpse of the actors walking past a window or on the terrace, just as Anne or her family would have done and it was like a glimpse into the past. We really enjoyed it.”
When Anne inherited Shibden Hall she set out to make it a grand ancestral home, an ambition helped by her ‘wife’ Ann Walker’s money. She constructed the park and ornamental lake and the terrace with its Paisley shawl design garden. Anne and her architect John Harper also decided on a three-storey gothic tower which would become her library but Anne never saw her plans completed.
An avid traveller, as her finances improved so her expeditions became increasingly adventurous. She began to spend more time on the continent and took on new challenges. Anne was the first woman to conquer Monte Perdido, the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees, and she completed the first official ascent of Vignemale, the highest of the French Pyrenean summits – although the path was named for the man who climbed it after her.
But in 1840 Anne died during their longest and most ambitious expedition to Russia. She had persuaded Ann Walker to travel with her overland to Russia. They arrived in Moscow as the Russian winter drew in and a determined Anne continued south to the Caucasus mountains and Tiflis, Georgia where she contracted a fever and died on September 22, 1840. Ann was then left with the daunting task of bringing her partner’s body back home for burial.
Arriving back in Halifax seven months later, Anne Lister was interred at Halifax Parish in April 1841.
Ann Walker’s life took a tragic path after her return to Shibden Hall. Anne Lister had left her a lifetime’s interest in the hall on the proviso she did not marry, but Ann’s family had her forcibly removed to an asylum in York while her brother-in-law moved into her former home.
Visitors to Shibden Hall can get a real sense of Anne Lister, and both Richard and Angela say they are looking forward to Gentleman Jack bringing both Anne and Shibden to a wider audience.
“We are excited and apprehensive but delighted because Shibden Hall is a wonderful place and Anne was the most fascinating character. It is amazing to think that here we are actually walking in her footsteps.”
Shibden Hall is open from March to October and the museum has produced a new book – Anne Lister of Shibden Hall – which is available at the hall. For more details go to museums.calderdale.gov.uk
Gentleman Jack is being aired on the BBC on May 19. 200 people turned up for an exclusive premiere screening of the first episode at the Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax last week. The event was attended by cast members and around 10,000 fans applied for tickets in a public ballot.