The exterior of Shibden Hall
The exterior of Shibden Hall, Halifax, the home of Anne Lister © Alison Oram
The exterior of Shibden Hall, Halifax, the home of Anne Lister © Alison Oram

Anne Lister and Shibden Hall

Anne Lister (1791-1840) is sometimes described as ‘the first modern lesbian’. A successful woman entrepreneur and landowner, she kept an extensive diary, partly in code, running to four million words.

The diary reveals her many sexual affairs with other women throughout her life. It shows a network of relationships between women of the gentry and aristocracy in early 19th-century Halifax and beyond.

Video: Author Sarah Waters on Anne Lister's diaries

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Her first sexual relationship developed in her teens, when she was boarding at King’s Manor School in York. Here she met Eliza Raine, a girl of colour and the daughter of an East India Company surgeon.  

By her twenties, Anne was involved in a number of sexual affairs, including with the love of her life, Marianna Belcombe. She wrote about their passionate physical relationship in code in her diaries, referring to orgasms as ‘kisses’ or by a cross in the margin.

Sexual identity

Anne Lister explored and expressed her sexual identity in various ways. In 1821, she wrote in her diaries: ‘I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’ (1821) She increasingly adopted dark, masculine-appearing clothes, and ‘gentlemanly’ manners towards women.

Through her extensive self-education, especially in Greek and Roman literature, Anne Lister found earlier models of ‘lesbian’ desire. She sometimes drew on these as a social code with other ‘mannish’ women.

Video: Author Sarah Waters on 19th Century relationships

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Anne was not typical as a woman in acquiring land, income and independence. Her story shows how wealth and class privilege enabled her to live her life, to a certain extent, on her own terms. Her lover Marianna Belcombe had married a much older man for money, and their hopes of living together were never realised.

Anne Lister had a strong sense of attachment to Shibden Hall. It was where she lived, worried about her finances, plotted her seductions, fretted about her social status and eventually lived with a woman partner.

Creating a place to impress

Originally a timber-framed medieval manor house, Shibden Hall had been inhabited by the Lister family from the early 17th century. From 1832 Anne Lister redesigned the house and its immediate surroundings. Her aims were to demonstrate the Lister family’s social standing and also to protect her sexual relationships.

There was no polite contemporary language either to name or directly censure Anne Lister’s relationships. However she needed to maintain social respectability in order to support a same-sex domestic partnership.

Anne initially created an area of parkland within view of the Hall and, following the fashionable Romantic style, she had a wilderness garden built with waterfalls. It was in a picturesque chaumiere (a moss-roofed hut) in these gardens that she wooed Ann Walker, an heiress from a neighbouring estate. 

Charismatic as ever, she persuaded Ann Walker that they would be happy together. In 1834 they conducted various marriage rituals and gradually united their landowning and business interests.  

Anne Lister tidied up the crooked timbers of the old Tudor house by installing a new Victorian mock-Tudor fireplace and panelling in the main room. She removed the Tudor ceiling and adding a gallery, creating the effect of an open medieval manor hall.

Her use of the neo-gothic was echoed in a Norman tower for her library (with modern water closets). It was also reflected in the Lister lions – the family symbol – carved in stone and wood. Anne Lister’s ‘home improvements’ created a comfortable and secluded home for herself and her new partner, Ann Walker.

Anne Lister died in 1840 at the age of 49, as remarkably as she had lived, from a fever caught while travelling with Ann Walker in Russia. Ann Walker brought her body back to Yorkshire, and she is buried in Halifax parish church, now Halifax Minster.