Anne Lister

An introduction to Anne Lister (1791-1840)

Anne Lister was born on the 3rd April 1791 and was brought up in Skelfler House, Market Weighton. She made frequent visits to her Aunt Anne and Uncle James who lived at Shibden Hall. In 1815 Anne moved in permanently with her Aunt and Uncle, and when her Uncle James died in 1826 Anne started to manage the estate. In 1836 when her Aunt and Father died Anne fully inherited Shibden Hall and Estate.

Anne wrote a detailed diary of her daily life and left behind twenty-six volumes of 7,722 pages, an estimated five million words. The diaries give a great insight into Anne’s life as a landowner, business woman, intrepid traveller, mountaineer and lesbian. Anne was only interested in women and had ‘marriage’ ceremonies with Mariana Lawton and later Ann Walker, who would eventually move in with her at Shibden Hall. It is also clear that Anne was different from society’s expectations of a woman at the time. Anne not only did not wish to marry, but she also did not want to conform. She decided to only wear black, spent a great deal of time studying, managed her own estates and sought business opportunities, travelled widely and even climbed mountains. Anne was an avid walker and climber and undertook the first ascents of Mount Perdu in the Pyrenees in 1830 and Mount Vignemale in France in 1838.

In addition to her diaries, Anne also left behind fourteen volumes of travel notes. The volumes of travel notes cover her overseas trips and travel within the United Kingdom to the Lake District, Scotland and North Wales, including a trip on the newly opened railway from Manchester to Liverpool in 1831. Anne had first travelled to Paris for three weeks with her Aunt in 1819 and over the coming years she made journeys to Switzerland and Italy in 1827, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1829, and lived in France and the Pyrenees from 1829 to 1830. In 1831 she travelled to Holland, visited friends in Hampshire and went to the Isle of Wight and Sussex. After the deaths of her Aunt and Father in 1836 she focussed on managing and improving Shibden Hall and Estate, leaving behind a great number of changes and developments which can still be seen by visitors today.

In 1839 Anne once again had the time and resources to travel. This time Ann travelled with her partner Ann Walker, a neighbouring heiress who had moved in with her at Shibden in 1834. The couple set off in June 1839 on a two-year expedition. Anne and Ann travelled via Dunkerque, Belgium, Germany, Copenhagen, through Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia into Astrakhan (now Georgia). However, Anne Lister tragically died in Koutais, Georgia on 22 September 1840.

Anne Lister portrait

Gentleman Jack

Anne Lister of Shibden Hall is the focus of the BBC drama series Gentleman Jack written and directed by Sally Wainwright for Lookout Point Productions. The BBC & HBO production starred Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker.

The series explores Anne's life and those who lived in the Hall and Estate. The series was partly filmed on location at Shibden during 2018. The first episode aired on BBC One on the 19th May and on HBO on the 22nd April 2019. A second series was then produced, with some filming taking place at Shibden again. The series aired in 2022.

Anne Lister in the media

Anne has featured in a number of TV and radio dramas and documentaries over the years. Mary Cooper wrote a radio play based on Anne Lister called Such Sweet Possession for BBC Radio 4 in 2002, featuring Deborah McAndrew as Anne Lister. In 2009, Anne Lister was the subject of a Woman's Hour programme for BBC Radio 4. In 2010, BBC2 showed a feature length drama based on Anne Lister, written by Jane English called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister featuring Maxine Peake as Anne. The same year the BBC created a documentary about Anne Lister hosted by Sue Perkins.

Shibden Hall featured in Historic England's Pride of Place project in 2016. You can find out more about Anne on their website.

Anne Lister's story was also featured in Channel 4's Britain's Great Gay Buildings in 2017. The programme was hosted by Stephen Fry and Mary Portas visited Shibden Hall to find out more about Anne Lister from Helena Whitbread. Collections Manager Angela Clare was interviewed by David Harper about Anne Lister for an episode of the BBC's Antiques Road Trip, broadcast in January 2019 and appeared in Susan Calman’s Grand Day Out in 2022.

An Introduction to Anne Lister with Helena Whitbread

To capture Anne Lister’s story, the film to the left was recorded in 2016 with Helena Whitbread, commissioned by Calderdale Museums. The film also plays at Shibden Hall for visitors. By 2022 the film had over 700,000 views and Calderdale Museums decided to make a sequel, this time to share the fascinating story of biographer Helena Whitbread. This interview was also recorded at Shibden Hall and then released to coincide with an event with Helena Whitbread at Bankfield Museum on the 3 April 2023.

Digitizing the diaries

In 2018 the diaries and travel notes of Anne Lister were conserved and digitized by Calderdale Museums in conjunction with West Yorkshire Joint Archive Services, who house them, and Townsweb Archiving service, funded by Sally Wainwright from the Wellcome Trust Screenwriters Fellowship.

The conservation and digitization in 2018 were the first stages in trying to make the diaries as accessible as possible. The new scans are available to view through the Calderdale Archives. Digitizing the diaries also aims to help preserve them for the future, as researchers should not need to consult the originals when such high resolutions scans are available, and can be enlarged for easier reading.

Whilst work had been done transcribing certain sections of the diaries by Helena Whitbread, Jill Liddington and Anne Choma, amongst others, the job of fully transcribing, editing and making the diaries searchable is a long process. A large amount of the diaries are in code (with no spacing or punctuation) which also slows the process. West Yorkshire Archives have overseen a project to transcribe all of the diaries, with a team of volunteer ‘Anne Lister codebreakers’, and transcriptions are being added to their catalogue.

You can see examples of the diary pages and transcriptions from Anne Lister's birthday, diary entries on the 3rd April 1818-1840, here: Anne Lister's birthday diary entries.

Hand drawn map of Shibden
Diary extract written in code
cover of one of Anne's diaries
Diary extract written in code

Anne Lister’s Music

Two music books that belonged to Anne Lister are part of Shibden Hall’s collection. These books, signed by Anne and dated 1806 and 1807 offer insights into her musical tastes and accomplishments when she was young.

Calderdale Museums worked in collaboration with Lisa Timbs, pianist and historical interpreter to produce the film shown to the left. Lisa studied the books in depth and shares some of her discoveries and explores what the music tells us about Anne herself. Coming from Anne’s teenage years the music provides a soundtrack that reflects her attitudes and expectations at that time.

Lisa used period costume and her own Regency square piano to reproduce the music that Anne played. The performance brings to life another dimension of Anne Lister and helps us to understand something more of her character.

A musical CD has been produced and is available to purchase from our shops at Shibden Hall or Bankfield Museum priced £10.

Anne Lister at Shibden Hall

At Shibden Hall, items that relate directly to Anne- her travel writing case, music books with signatures, three portraits and her funeral hatchment are all on display. Unfortunately, very few of her possessions have survived and her vast library was sold off after her death. However, the Hall itself and grounds can reveal a great deal about Anne and her time living there and managing the Hall and Estate. Anne made considerable changes to the Hall and grounds which remain today. Lots of the furniture at Shibden was there during Anne's time, as well as the Lister Carriage, which is on display in the barn. Anne's diaries, travel notes and Shibden Hall's archives are all looked after by West Yorkshire Archives.

A blue plaque to commemorate Anne Lister was unveiled at Shibden Hall by the Halifax Civic Trust on the 3rd April 2019. (Anne Lister's birthday). There is also a rainbow-edged blue plaque at Holy Trinity Church in York where Anne Lister and Ann Walker had a 'marriage' ceremony in 1834.

In 2022 a stone monument in celebration of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall (1791-1840) was built by the Women's International Stone Alliance (WISA). 

Find out more

A full resource list is available here.

Key publications available about Anne Lister:

  • Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. (2018) Calderdale Museums. (Available to buy at Shibden Hall and Bankfield Museum, and from our online shop here.)
  • Shibden Hall Guidebook. (2019) Calderdale Museums. (Available to buy at Shibden Hall and Bankfield Museum, and from our online shop here.)
  • Jill Liddington (2023) As Good as a Marriage: The Anne Lister Diaries 1836-38 Manchester University Press.
  • Helena Whitbread (2010) The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. (An updated version of 1988, I Know My Own Heart).
  • Ann Choma (2019) Gentleman Jack, The Real Anne Lister.
  • Jill Liddington (2003) Nature’s Domain: Anne Lister and the Landscape of Desire. Pennine Pens.
  • Jill Liddington (1998) Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority. Rivers Oram.
  • Jill Liddington (1994) Presenting the Past: Anne Lister of Halifax 1791 – 1840. Pennine Pens.
  • Helena Whitbread, Ed. (1992). No Priest But Love: The Journals of Anne Lister from 1824 - 1826. Smith Settle.
  • Helena Whitbread, Ed., (1988). I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791- 1840. Virago, 1988, and New York University Press, 1990.

Key online articles and information about Anne Lister