Ever since the first series of Gentleman Jack aired in 2019 we’d been planning to visit Shibden Hall, near Halifax in West Yorkshire, where the BBC / HBO television drama was filmed. With Covid restrictions eased we finally made it there earlier this month, in search of the ghost of Anne Lister. We were not disappointed.
Anne Lister (1791-1840), referred to contemptuously by her contemporaries as Gentleman Jack, inherited Shibden Hall in 1826. By the time of her death in 1840 she had left an indelible mark on it, and on LGBTQ history in the UK.
Her diaries, written between 1806 and 1840, are now reckoned to amount to more than five million words, spread across 7,722 pages. They – together with numerous letters, account books and other papers – are a goldmine for historians and writers seeking a better understanding of life in early nineteenth century Yorkshire.
The diaries show Anne Lister to be a complex, unconventional woman who refused to be bound by society’s expectations of a wealthy young lady. She dressed like a man and wore only black, managed her estate tenaciously, and carved out a place for herself in the male-dominated coalmining industry that flourished around Halifax, her local town.
Around one sixth of the diary entries are recorded in a baffling code devised by Lister herself. Employing a combination of symbols, numbers and Greek letters, she called it her crypt-hand. The secret text shows her to have been a self-confident lesbian who was determined to defy the social conventions of the day in order to live life and pursue relationships according to her own instincts and needs.
I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved of them in turn, my heart revolts from any love other than theirs.Anne Lister’s Diary, 19th January 1821
Shibden Hall dates from 1420. It began as a timber-framed manor house, and first came into the possession of the Lister family in the early 17th century. The Hall’s current appearance owes much to Anne Lister, who set about redesigning and adding to it in the mid-1830s.
Under Lister’s direction a new three-storey Gothic tower, complete with library and modern water closets, was added to the west side of the original Hall. She also added an eastern wing including dressing rooms, a new kitchen and accommodation for staff. In Shibden’s central hall (the “Housebody”) she set out to impress by removing the Tudor ceiling and adding a gallery, a new staircase, a Victorian mock-Tudor fireplace and wooden panelling, all to re-create the effect of a medieval manor hall.
Taken as a whole the changes were intended to make Shibden a grander, more imposing building which would better demonstrate the Lister family’s wealth and status. In doing so Anne Lister projected an image of comfortable social respectability, while simultaneously creating a secluded space where she could pursue her sexual liaisons away from scrutiny by the repressive, male-dominated society in which she moved.
She had a series of female lovers, and one of them – Ann Walker (1803-1854) – would eventually become her live-in partner at the Hall. The couple secretly exchanged rings and took holy communion together at a local parish church on 10 February 1834. Although their union had no legal status, they considered themselves to be married.
Oh women, women! I am always taken up with some girl or other.Anne Lister’s Diary, 18th June 1824
Ann Walker was not the true love of Anne Lister’s life – that title would have gone to Marianna Belcombe, who broke Lister’s heart when she married a wealthy male landowner (“The time, the manner, of her marriage,” Lister wrote in 1823, “Oh, how it broke the magic of my faith forever.”) However, some years later, Ann Walker – the wealthy heiress of a neighbouring estate – offered her the chance of a new beginning in a stable relationship, with the added bonus of access to the large fortune she had inherited.
Anne Lister’s ambitious renovations and extensions to Shibden Hall would have been largely unachievable were it not for her wife’s inheritance. In that sense, the Shibden Hall that we see today is – albeit by default – almost as much Ann Walker’s doing as it is Anne Lister’s.
To be honest, while being an interesting and enjoyable place to visit, Shibden Hall itself is far from exceptional. England boasts dozens of other buildings on a similar scale and of a similar vintage. Taken as a whole the Hall lacks architectural coherence, and presents instead as a messy hotchpotch of architectural styles and borrowed motifs. What makes Shibden Hall truly fascinating, however, is the story of the extraordinary woman who lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century.
To learn more about Anne Lister I thoroughly recommend watching Gentleman Jack if you haven’t already done so. Series 2, much delayed by the combined impact of Covid and the pregnancy of a key member of the cast, is nearing completion (a week’s filming at Shibden is scheduled later this month), and when it is broadcast, re-runs of the highly acclaimed first series can be confidently predicted.
If this post has aroused your curiosity about Anne Lister, Calderdale Council – which now runs Shibden Hall as a museum and visitor attraction – has published an informative video about her on YouTube. Presented by Helena Walker, who successfully decoded Lister’s secret diaries in the 1980s, it provides many more tantalising insights into Lister’s life both before and after her move to Shibden Hall in 1826, as well as her death in 1840 following an insect bite she received near Tbilisi at the foot of the Caucasian mountains.
And finally, I’d like to share a link to the Gentleman Jack theme tune. Regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy folk music, and this song, written and performed by Belinda O’Hooley and her wife Heidi Tidow, is just the sort of thing I like. The folk duo wrote it to honour and celebrate the life of Anne Lister. Some time later the writer of the television series heard them perform it at a gig and decided it would perfectly complement her drama. The rest, as they say, is history. The YouTube video includes the song’s lyrics, making it possible to appreciate just how well Belinda and Heidi captured Anne Lister’s story. Enjoy!