Who was Anne Lister? High society lesbian and owner of Shibden Hall who kept diaries about her sexual adventures

ANNE Lister enjoyed a string of scandalous same-sex affairs before the term lesbian was even coined.

The saucy tales of Britain’s “first modern lesbian” are to be told in Gentleman Jack, a BBC series starring Suranne Jones.

Anne Lister was a 18th century landowner who is known as the “first modern lesbian”

Who is Anne Lister?

The wealthy Yorkshire landowner was born in 1791 and was the eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister and Rebecca Battle.

Upon her aunt’s death in 1836, she inherited the family estate, Shibden Hall, from which she drew a reasonable income.

This allowed her some measure of freedom to live as she pleased.

She was known to friends as Gentleman Jack for her love of ‘male’ pursuits such as shooting, riding and dressing in black.

With a soldier dad who had fought in the American War of Independence, Lister was attracted to women of similar social standing.

Upon her aunt’s death in 1836, she inherited the family estate, Shibden Hall, from which she drew a reasonable income

Was she married?

Lister never married but instead enjoyed a number of same-sex affairs.

Her first object of desire, as a 13-year-old, was her boarding school roommate and “girl of colour” Eliza Raine.

At 21, she dated older heiress Isabella Norcliffe — or Tib — but Lister often complained that her girlfriend’s love of booze meant their only bedroom activity involved Tib’s snoring.

Through Isabella, Lister later met Mariana Belcome, a doctor’s daughter.

But in 1816, Mariana — or “M” — broke her heart and married landowner Charles Lawton, a move Lister bitterly compared to legalised prostitution.

The pair carried on behind Charles’s back for five years, ending it only when they became the subject of local gossip.

In 1832, Lister fell for Ann Walker, another heiress — and their love forms the story of Wainwright’s drama.

Lister and Walker got engaged in 1834 and attended Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, to take communion as a couple.

Just six years later, travelling together in the now former Soviet republic of Georgia, Lister suffered a fatal insect bite aged 49.

Her body was embalmed and brought back for burial in Halifax.

What were in Anne Lister’s diaries?

Lister recorded her adventures in 26 volumes of secret diaries so saucy that her fearful family kept them hidden long after her death.

Lister also encrypted the sexual detail in a mix of Greek and her own codewords — for fear of the law of the time — and only in the 1980s was this ever translated.

To refer to orgasms, she wrote the word kiss, while diary entries had Xs in the margin for how many climaxes she had that day.

Lister’s term for use of sex toys was “saffic regard”.

Lister’s diaries remained undiscovered for another 50 years, until John Lister, the last family member to live at Shibden Hall, and his friend Arthur Burrell decoded them.

Burrell, a Bradford schoolteacher, found the “intimate account of homosexual practices” so disturbing he urged John to burn the books.


Instead, John hid them behind a panel in the medieval manor house — and it wasn’t until the more liberal 1980s that historian Helena Whitbread set about translating them.

According to Whitbread, Lister regarded her union with Walker as a marriage and “wanted to emulate as far as was possible the rituals performed in the heterosexual world, making vows to each other, exchanging rings and taking the sacrament at the altar together”.

Gay and lesbian activists have hailed them as the first same-sex couple to receive a Church of England blessing, nearly 200 years before gay marriage became legal in England and Wales.

Lister’s life has been brought to TV before
Maxine Peake played her in The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister on BBC Two in 2010

What is Gentleman Jack about?

The eight-part BBC drama has been written and directed by Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright.

Sally said: “Anne Lister is a gift to a dramatist — one of the most exuberant, thrilling, brilliant women in British history.

“Landowner, industrialist, traveller, mountaineer, scholar, would-be brain surgeon and prolific diarist, she returns from years of travel to her ancestral home, Shibden Hall in West Yorkshire, to restore it — and marry Ann Walker. It’s a beautifully rich, complex, surprising love story.”

This is not the first time Lister’s life has been brought to TV. Maxine Peake played her in The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister, on BBC Two in 2010.


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