27 February 2024

Anne Lister: Georgian businesswoman, diarist, traveller, gay

Anne Lister (1791-1840) was born in Halifax Yorks and spent her childhood in her parents’ home. And she was a regular visitor to her aunt’s grand family estate Shibden Hall. 

Portrait of Anne Lister in her customary dark clothes,
by Joshua Horner c1830, Shibden Hall

Lister was not raised to be in busin­ess, but to be a wife. When she was 7 she was sent to school in Ripon. In a society that taught girls to be ladylike, Lister emerged as a fiercely intelligent and strong-willed st­udent. Next she was educ­at­ed at home by the local vicar in 1801, then she was at boarding school. This was where Lister first fell in love with El­iza Raine, the illegitimate daughter of a deceas­ed East India Co surgeon who’d later inherit a fortune. Raine dreamed of making a life with Lister when school ended, but that failed. Lister bec­om­e closer to other girls at school and after just 2 years, she was expelled. It didn’t matter; as an adult Lister was passionate about trav­el, mak­ing many trips abroad.

Shibden Hall was W. Yorkshire manor house near Halifax, built c1420. Later it was bought by the wealthy Savile family, then the Water­house family. When Waterhouse sold Shibden in 1612, it was bought by Lister cousins. In 1614 Samuel Lister lived there, a tailor who, by careful marriages, brought Shibden into Lister ownership.

Lister met her land-owning neighbour Ann Walker when she moved to Shibden Hall in 1815. But it was years before the two women fell in love and exchanged vows in church. 

Holy Trinity Church, York where the couple took communion 
to seal their union,  1834, Wiki

Lister had to set a business education programme for herself in a male-dominated society; that way she could man­age the estate of c400 acres, with reven­ues from agricultural rents. In addition to income from agric­ultural ten­ancy, Lister's finances came from buying and selling pr­operty, shares in the canal and railway in­dustries, mining and stone qu­ar­ries. And she took control of her business interests herself, decid­ing on the investments with or without profess­ion­al advice. Additionally Ann Walk­er’s fortune was very well used by Lister. What an amaz­ing business mind!!

After her aunt's and father's death, Lister had full con­trol of Shib­den in 1836 and used her business income to rec­r­eate the estate. With architect John Harper, her changes included: ter­r­ac­ing of the south lawn, open­ing of the low ceiling house, Nor­man tower, or­namental lake and carr­iage drive to the gatehouse. Ot­h­er planned changes stopped.

Lister’s early diary habit grew into an obsession, calling the diar­ies her private memorial which helped to comfort her. She wrote her jour­n­als in volumes from 1817, and as time passed, she expanded on the de­­tails she wrote in her tiny handwriting. She jotted down notes on a sl­ate and wrote up her journal later that day. She used her own code to re­cord her most pr­ivate feelings, and accounts of the relat­ion­sh­ips with the women in her life. In any case, she was careful about who heard of the diaries.

The two Annes went on their final trip together in 1839, via France, Denmark, Sweden to Russia. Her last diary entry was for Aug 1840 when she was in Georgias Caucasus Moun­tains. 6 weeks later she died in Sept 1840 at 49, from a fever. Her wife Ann Walker br­ought the body back from Georgia, together with at least some of the diaries. From a 1850 list of the Shibden papers, it was clear that there was a bundle listed as Diar­ies and Journals of Mrs Lister, kept behind the panels at Shibden. Ann Walker inherited Shibden.

Following Walker’s death in 1854, John Lister, Anne Lister’s distant relative from Wales moved to Shibden with his family.

after Anne Lister’s death
In 1885 all male homosexual acts became illegal and public op­inion was very hostile, as seen in the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde. The diaries went back into storage and when John Lister died in 1933, his kn­ow­ledge of the coded diaries was lost. Halifax Borough now became own­ers of Shibden, and the Borough Lib­rarian spent 2 years catal­oguing John Lis­ter’s books and letters. Tracking missing diary volum­es, they contacted antiquarian Arth­ur Bur­r­ell who found diary volumes and cr­acked Lister’s code.

Shibden Hall, Calderdale Museums
Anne Lister lived there from 1815 
In 1984 The Guardian wrote The 2 Mill­ion Word Enigma, opening up the diar­ies to a much wider audience. Helena Whitbread came into the West York­shire Archive Service Calder­dale, became intrigued by the diaries and produced two key publications in 1988 and 1992. Muriel Green’s Miss Lis­ter of Shibden Hall (1992) was published concent­rating on let­ters. They were inscribed in the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Regis­ter, making a substantial cultural significance cov­ering all aspects of her life: as landowner, business woman, travel­ler and gay woman.

See Gent­leman Jack, Anne’s life in Halifax, BBC/HBO TV.
See the Shibden Hall Ex­hib­­ition (Mar-Ap 2024).
Or read Anne Lister’s Diaries, by Manchester U.P, 2023


jabblog said...

I'm surprised she was able to be so open about her relationship. The church frowned upon anything less than so-called normal.

Hels said...


Anne Lister certainly defied most the social conventions limiting Georgian women. But her diaries, where she recorded the blessing of her marriage to Ann Walker at Holy Trinity Church Goodramgate York, were private.

Smithsonian Magazine reported that Anne Lister and Ann Walker exchanged rings, and took communion together in church, but their union was not legally recognised.

York Civic Trust said that the women attended the Easter Sunday service in church in 1834. Anne said Thomas stood for the sacrament. Receiving communion side by side was interpreted by the two women as a blessing of their union.

BBC News said...

A rainbow plaque honouring a woman described as the first modern lesbian was unveiled in York.
The unveiling at Holy Trinity Church commemorated Anne Lister's "marital commitment" to Ann Walker in 1834. The blue plaque with rainbow edging was the city's first LGBT history plaque and came following a funding campaign.

BBC News,
24 July 2018

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I came across the BBC tv series in 2019 - and was bewitched ... the music is beguiling ... while the story is so interesting. I'd come across her diaries in an exhibition 'Dear Diary' I went to at Kings College, Inigo Rooms at Somerset House back in 2017 ... amazing diaries on show (I posted about it). She was an interesting woman in her time ... thanks for letting others know about her. Cheers Hilary

Hels said...


many thanks for the reference and for a copy of the Holy Trinity Church plaque. I note the words "celebrated marital commitment, without legal recognition" on the plaque.

Was there unity in the Church for the plaque to be created and hung on the wall? If it was a controversial decision, it must have taken a very very long time after Lister's death in 1840 to reach a shared decision.

Hels said...

Oh Hilary

if only I had seen your references to Anne Lister and her diary written in code. Many many thanks. Readers can pursue the topic in your post:

Celebration of Diaries - an Exhibition, published in 2017.

Anonymous said...

Oh! I did not realise Gentleman Jack was based in a true story. Even more reason for me to see it. I'd love to know more about this fascinating set of events and this very interesting woman

Hels said...


here is the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:
It's 1832 in West Yorkshire, the cradle of the evolving Industrial Revolution where landowner Anne Lister is determined to save her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, even if it means bucking society's expectations. "Gentleman Jack" examines Lister's relationships with her family, servants, tenants and industrial rivals, and would-be wife. The most intimate details in her diaries are revealed for the series (2019).

Thanks for the reference. I must see Gentleman Jack too!

DUTA said...

I greatly admire women in business and landownership!
Pity Anne Lister died untimely (at 49)! Her Shibden Hall looks impressive!
Her private diaries and her marital relationship with Ann Waker, are deinitely an interesting topic!

Student of History said...

The best part of Anne's diaries were the volumes that covered trips all around the UK, and then those that went to France, Switzerland, Italy, Holland and Belgium. But I think the coolest trip was 2 years across Northern Europe to Russia. Money was readily available, it seems.

Katerinas Blog said...

Thanks for bringing us an interesting life story! In fact, such an interesting life full of races, travels and action!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, What a sensible person Anne Lister was! She knew what kind of a partner suited her, and (withing the confines of her world) showed her community her commitment and the value of that relationship. Similarly, she had managerial ability and used it to prosecute the other aspects of her life, ending up with a uniquely charming home and good business arrangements.
p.s. I just watched a Zoom presentation on the British artist Prunella Clough, especially her industrial paintings, and was fascinated by her life, ideas and artwork.

Andrew said...

It amazes me to learn of people who really go against the system and do so very successfully. Lister sounds to be an admirable woman.

My name is Erika. said...

She really was a woman ahead of her time, wasn't she?

roentare said...

Woman like her has been a harbinger and front runner.

Hels said...


If you admire women succeeding in business and land management, you would have been very impressed with Anne Lister back in late Georgian times!! Anne was one of a large sibling group, but when her mother died young, her father had to send the youngster away to school. Yet education was largely a positive experience for Anne, and it meshed well with her skills and ambitions. She was successful in buying and selling pr­operty, canals, railways and mining. And she took full control of Shib­den, using her business income to rec­r­eate the estate.

Hels said...


from an era when there was no photography or emailed notes, we are very fortunate to have Lister's travel diaries. Overly detailed, perhaps, but brilliant in their role as historically accurate records.

When spouse and I drove around Europe for months at a time, we slept in the lay-back boot of the car. Safe and warm, but not as elegantly as the two Annes travelled.

Hels said...


I hope you see and enjoy all 16 episodes of "Gent­leman Jack, Anne’s life in Halifax". Its two seasons ran from April 2019 to May 2022 on HBO.

Hels said...


I don't know the British artist Prunella Clough, but I will find her works very easily. Thank you.
Did you mention Clough in this post because she reminded you of Anne Lister in some way?

Hels said...


lots of talented women (in particular) had Lister's ambitions, but lacked meaningful support, opportunities or funds to make their dreams come true. Even though she tragically died in her 40s, Lister still must have had endless energy AND good luck in her life time.

Hels said...


Even two centuries later, I am still stunned and amazed by her business successes, yes.

What a shame that her happy love life didn't come earlier, long before dying in Georgia.

Hels said...


I was always looking for female role models that could guide and support my education and career back from the post-WW2 era. I wonder if Anne Lister was ever talked about often enough so that she might have been a role model for young women.

Margaret D said...

Seems she was an amazing women. I enojoyed reading about here Hels.

Joe said...

Shibden Hall is clearly a literary house these days, thought of in the same way as Brontë Parsonage at Haworth. In 2023 there was even a joint conference: Interpreting Anne Lister and the Brontes.

I wonder if Anne's architect John Harper understood that one day his building would become a literary house? What about the estate becoming a public park and the hall a museum in the interwar years?

Hels said...


a lot of work had been completed on Shibden Hall before the two Annes travelled across Northern Europe and Russia, but more remained to be completed when she returned. That makes sense since Anne Lister never dreamt that she would suffer a vicious insect bite in 1840, and die of a horrid fever soon after. Architect John Harper was in no hurry; he had assumed Anne would live another 20 happy years in Shibden Hall.

So it took a very long time before the estate was completed. In the 1920s Shibden was set in a 32 hectares of park and woodland. The beautifully restored historic grounds offer modernish terraces and fruit gardens, never imagined by Harper.

Hels said...


did you recognise her name in the years gone by? I did many years of British history at university, but I never once her name mentioned. Hard to be a role model for women if she was hidden (because she was clearly gay, I imagine).

bazza said...

The two Gentleman Jack series produced by the BBC were terrific dramas with a strong cast headed by Suranne Jones. They generated a lot of interest in Anne Lister who was largely unknown until the programmes were broadcast. Some people were shocked at the character's behaviour but she was only doing what many businessmen were doing at the time - but she did it better!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Lister and Clough are seemingly worlds apart. It's just that I typed that comment seconds after watching the Clough presentation, and you know so many British artists. Sometimes they put the lectures on Youtube--if they do I'll send you the link. --Jim

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

She was a fasinating woman I have seen the TV Show Gentleman Jack so knew the name but nothing more, thus I found this another very interesting post.

Hels said...


Ahhh where were you when you were most needed? I would have watched the series when it first appeared, believing it was typical late Georgian or Victorian fiction based on gorgeous costumes and magnificent homes. But as it turns out, I am pleased to see the series now, knowing it is based on Anne Lister's real life.

Hels said...

thank you.

Timing is everything! I saw a tv series about famous American dynasties and was particularly moved by the tragic life stories of the Kennedy family. The _very_ next tv programme I saw, although totally unconnected, was about Marilyn Munroe's psychiatrist. This was a man I had never heard of.

Hels said...


our education can and should continue right into older age! The only thing that surprises me is that our new learning can come from a much wider range of unexpected sources :)

Hels said...

To Christopher Moore's History News

Thank you for information of the new anthology of women's diaries, written from 1600 on.

I was very interested in all the exceptional qualities of Anne Lister, the very brave Georgian businesswoman, diarist, traveller and openly gay woman who lived in Yorkshire. She was very ambitious in every area of life and business she tackled, but her diaries were the most interesting of all her projects. Detailed, honest and now published.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde de sexta-feira e bom final de semana. Excelente matéria minha querida amiga. Confesso que nunca ouvi falar. Aproveito para desejar um excelente mês de março.

Hels said...


Thank you for commenting. Everyone has said more or less the same thing as you, even people who have been reading history and literature in English all their lives.