Anne Lister (3 April 1791 – 22 September 1840) was an English landowner, diarist, mountaineer, and traveller from Halifax, West Yorkshire. Throughout her life, she kept diaries that chronicled the details of her daily life, including her lesbian relationships, her financial concerns, her industrial activities, and her work improving Shibden Hall. Her diaries contain more than 4 million words and about a sixth of them — those concerning the intimate details of her romantic and sexual relationships — were written in code.

The code, derived from a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek, was deciphered in the 1930s. Lister is often called “the first modern lesbian” for her clear self-knowledge and openly lesbian lifestyle. Called “Fred” by her lover and “Gentleman Jack” by Halifax residents, she suffered harassment for her sexuality, but recognised her similarity to the Ladies of Llangollen, whom she visited. Anne Lister was the second child and eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister (1753–1836), who as a young man in 1775 served with the British 10th Regiment of Foot in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in the American War of Independence. 

In August 1788, he married Rebecca Battle (1770–1817) of Welton in East Riding, Yorkshire. Their first child, John, was born in 1789, but died the same year. Anne Lister was born in Halifax on 3 April 1791. In 1793, the family moved to an estate named Skelfler House at Market Weighton. Skelfler was where the young Anne Lister spent her earliest years. A second son, Samuel, who was a close friend to Anne, was born in 1793.

The Listers had four sons and two daughters, but only Anne and her younger sister, Marian, survived past 20 years old. Between 1801 and 1805, Lister was educated at home by the Reverend George Skelding, the vicar of Market Weighton, and at the age of seven, she was sent to a school run by a Mrs Hagues and a Mrs Chettle in Agnesgate, Ripon. On her visits to her aunt Anne and uncle James at Shibden Hall, the Misses Mellin gave her lessons. In 1804, Anne Lister was sent to the Manor House School in York (in the King’s Manor buildings), where Anne met her first love, Eliza Raine (1791–1869). Eliza and her sister Jane were the very rich daughters of an East India Company surgeon in Madras, brought to Yorkshire after his death. Anne and Eliza met and shared a bedroom aged 13 at boarding school, but Anne was asked to leave after two years. She rejoined the school after Eliza had left. Eliza expected to live with Anne as an adult, but Anne began affairs with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe, day-pupils at the school. In despair and frustration, Eliza became a patient at Clifton Asylum, run by Mariana’s father Dr Belcombe. While being educated at home Lister developed an interest in classical literature. In a surviving letter to her aunt from 3 February 1803, a young Lister explains “My library is my greatest pleasure… The Grecian History had please me much.”

She inherited Shibden Hall on her aunt’s death in 1836, but took charge of it from 1826, and from it drew a reasonable income (some of it from tenants).  Her wealth allowed her some measure of freedom to live as she pleased. In addition to income from agricultural tenancy, Lister’s financial portfolio included properties in town, shares in the canal and railway industries, mining, and stone quarries. Lister used the income from this varied portfolio to finance her two passions, Shibden Hall and European travel. Lister is described as having a “masculine appearance”; one of her lovers, Marianna Lawton (née Belcombe), was initially ashamed to be seen in public with her because her appearance was commented on. She dressed entirely in black and took part in many activities that were not perceived as the norm for gentlewomen, such as opening and owning a colliery. She was referred to as “Gentleman Jack” in some quarters. Lawton and Lister were lovers for several years, including a period during which Lawton was married and had her husband’s permission. Halifax Minster, where Anne is buried Lister met the wealthy heiress Ann Walker in 1832. The women took communion together on Easter Sunday 1834 in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, and thereafter considered themselves married. The church has been described as “an icon for what is interpreted as the site of the first lesbian marriage to be held in Britain”, and the building now hosts a commemorative blue plaque.

The couple lived together at Shibden Hall until Lister’s death in 1840. Walker’s fortune was used to improve Shibden Hall and the property’s waterfall and lake. Lister renovated Shibden Hall quite significantly to her own design. In 1838, she added a Gothic tower to the main house, to serve as her private library. She also had a tunnel dug under the building which allowed the staff to move about without disturbing her. Lister was the first woman to ascend Monte Perdido in the Aragonese Pyrenees, Spain (1830) and in 1838 she went back to the Pyrenees with Walker and completed the first “official” ascent of the Vignemale (3,298 metres [10,820 ft]). Throughout her life, Lister had a strong Anglican faith.

Anne Lister died on 22 September 1840 aged 49 of a fever at Koutais (now Kutaisi in Georgia) while travelling with Ann Walker. Walker had Lister’s body embalmed and brought back to the UK, where she was buried in the parish church in Halifax, West Yorkshire, on 29 April 1841. Her tombstone was rediscovered in 2010, having been covered by a floor in 1879. In her will, Lister’s estate was left to her paternal cousins, but Ann Walker was given a life interest. After being declared insane, Walker spent some years in the care of Dr. Belcombe, and because of her mental state, was unable to make a valid will. She died in 1854 at her childhood home, Cliff Hill in Lightcliffe, West Yorkshire. More than 40 years after her death, while reporting on a dispute over the ownership of Shibden Hall, the Leeds Times in 1882 stated, “Miss Lister’s masculine singularities of character are still remembered”.

During her life, Anne wrote a four-million-word diary. It began in 1806 as scraps of paper, recording in secret code parcels sent to and from Eliza Raine, and eventually became the 26 Quarto volumes, ending at her death in 1840. In addition to her handwriting being incredibly difficult to decipher, around one-sixth of the diary is encrypted in a simple code Eliza and she had devised, combining the Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols,[13] and it describes in great detail her lesbian identity and affairs, as well as the methods she used for seduction. The diaries also contain her thoughts on the weather, social events, national events, and her business interests. The majority of her diary deals with her daily life, and not merely her sexuality, and provides detailed information on social, political, and economic events of the time. The code used in her diaries was deciphered by the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, John Lister (1847–1933) and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries. Lister did not take this advice, but instead continued to hide Anne Lister’s diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall. 

Source: Wikipedia – Anne Lister



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