Meet the army of code breakers around the world working to transcribe Anne Lister's diaries

They number more than 100 and are based across the globe. Most are women, a handful are academics and for some, English is a second language. But all have one thing in common – a shared intrigue in the Halifax diarist and landowner often described as “the first modern lesbian”.

Back in July, three months after Huddersfield-born Sally Wainwright brought part of Anne Lister’s remarkable story to the screen with Gentleman Jack, the West Yorkshire Archive Service launched a ground-breaking project to provide complete transcriptions of every page of her diaries for the first time.

West Yorkshire Archive Service is running a project to transcribe Anne Lister's diaries.

West Yorkshire Archive Service is running a project to transcribe Anne Lister's diaries.

With her chronicles amassing to an estimated five million words across more than 20 volumes, and many parts written in her own secret code, it is a project of unprecedented scale. It is here the team of volunteers, currently 104-strong come in.

This is where you can walk in the footsteps of Gentleman Jack and see Anne Lister's Halifax today
They are working to document her musings in a format accessible to all, tweeting under #AnneListerCodeBreaker to share snippets of the stories they are uncovering.

Among those taking part is Steph Gallaway, who lives in Nebraska, USA. “Anne had the audacity to be herself, do things she wanted and live the way she wanted to, as authentically as she could at the time. I found that really inspiring,” she says.

“There’s so much of history that overlooks the female perspective, let alone female figures, that her accounts of her own feelings can seem a little radical. Add to that, that it was relationships with women she was desiring and that she was completely at peace with her sexuality it’s amazing to have that documented, especially from that time.”

A portrait of Anne Lister, the Halifax diarist and landowner who has been called Britain's "first modern lesbian".

A portrait of Anne Lister, the Halifax diarist and landowner who has been called Britain's "first modern lesbian".

“There’s something self-assuring, life-affirming even, to be able to relate to someone who’s come before you and lived shared experiences,” she adds.

Fellow transcriber Janneke van der Weijden, a 47-year-old from the Netherlands who identifies as lesbian, agrees. “It’s not that I had a terrible time, but I did struggle with my sexuality for a while,” she says. “To read about Anne Lister’s strength of character, her absolute belief in herself is just life-affirming.

“Besides her sexuality, she is obviously also an example as a woman who moved in a patriarchal society and managed her businesses, her land and her tenants – someone who deserves our admiration.”

Like Janneke, Alison Kirchgasser, who lives Massachusetts, USA, also feels a connection to Anne from transcribing her entries. “As a lesbian, it is fascinating for me to read about how she navigated life as a lesbian in the 19th century,” she says. “What I find most interesting about being involved is feeling so closely connected to someone who lived so long ago.”

Shibden Hall, which was Anne's home.

Shibden Hall, which was Anne's home.

Anne’s relationships with women were one aspect of her life that she documented in code. Making up a large portion of her diaries, the crypthand includes thoughts, feelings and conversations that she wanted to keep secret.

But it is her normal handwriting that is proving most difficult to decipher, thanks to her early 19th century handwriting and extensive use of abbreviations.

Dorjana Širola, originally from Croatia but now living in Canterbury, explains more. “The code is really easy once you have learned it as it is a pretty straightforward substitution cypher.

"The real challenge is Anne’s plainhand. She routinely abbreviates words and many letters look the same as two or three others. Some of the writing is cramped and smudged where she tries to fit extra lines on the page or writes an afterthought between the lines.

Shirley Jones, Head of Conservation at West Yorkshire Archive Service with a volume of Anne's diary.

Shirley Jones, Head of Conservation at West Yorkshire Archive Service with a volume of Anne's diary.

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“One of the challenges is working out the names of people, locations and things that she mentions which is quite exciting as I research these and build up a picture of what everyone was doing and how they lived.

"I feel I am getting to know Anne by living through her entries with her. She gets more fascinating and complex, exasperating yet relatable by the day. Her world grows alive before your eyes.”

Anne’s diaries are painstakingly detailed, providing a window into her life and documenting everything from the time she woke and went to bed, to the weather and temperature, as well as notes on her bowel movements and social interactions.

At times Joan Burda, a transcriber based in Ohio, USA, feels somewhat uncomfortable delving into such intimate observations. “The entries, especially the coded ones are so very personal,” she says. “They are at times funny, prescient, infuriating and heartbreaking.

"Sometimes I feel I am invading her personal space...I have found myself apologising to her, which sounds odd, but some of the entries are so personal it’s almost like eavesdropping on a confidential conversation.”

Lynn Shouls, a retired lawyer from Kent, says she has become enthralled by Anne’s complex nature. “I have most enjoyed exploring Anne’s character, her experiences, her loves and losses and learning about the life and times in which she lived.

"She looked life straight in the eye and squared up to all that it threw at her. Her wealth of knowledge and lifelong enthusiasm for learning are extraordinary.”

The cultural significance of Anne’s diaries was recognised in 2011 when they were inscribed into the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

But it is with Gentleman Jack that her character has been thrust into the global spotlight, sparking mass interest in her story and a desire to make her words accessible to as big an audience as possible and preserve her legacy.

It is this aim that prompted many of the transcribers to get involved in the project. “She was so modern, ahead of her time, achieving so much, following her passions and going for what she wanted in life,” says one, Colette Fleming, who is moving from Surrey to Hebden Bridge next month.

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“Her story is now helping thousands of gay women around the world to be brave and live their lives truly.”

For Marlene Oliveira, from Portugal, the “most obvious” benefit of transcribing Anne’s diaries, is “seeing a strong, interesting, captivating and independent woman being represented in her own words”.

“Anne’s adventures and her resilience and optimism in the face of hardship have the potential to inspire people for many years to come,” she says.

It is hoped, too, that the project will open up Anne’s diaries for potential research, as Teresa Nixon, a heritage manager at West Yorkshrie Joint Services, explains.

“A number of academics have started using the diaries, some looking at gender studies, but they can be used in all sorts of different ways as they’re a chronicle of that period in time.

“Because she wrote every day virtually and noted everything from the weather to her health and politics, there’s all sorts of ways that the diary can be used. It’s going to be massive as a historical record.”

To find out more, visit wyascatablogue.wordpress.com/exhibitions/anne-lister