Although Anne loved Shibden, ‘the little spot where my ancestors had lived for centuries’, she had no fondness for Halifax, dismissing it as merely “our market and post town”. In her journals, written two centuries ago, Anne Lister’s depiction of Halifax resembles a cross between Cranford and a Jane Austen novel.
Wielding her pen in the seclusion of Shibden Hall she gives us a rare and intimate glimpse into the lives and homes of the emergent middle-class of the town yet, in the Georgian era, Halifax was a town of stark contrasts. It was also a town in transition – from a cottage industry to the mechanised factory system of production.
In 1815 the population numbered around 9,000. By the early 1820s it had risen to 12,000. Oil-lamps were the only form of lighting and that only in the main streets in the centre of the town. The labouring classes dwelt in mean little houses in narrow twisting streets at the bottom of the town, with the constant threat of the debtor’s prison in Gaol-lane, or the prison in Dungeon Street for other misdemeanours, hanging over them.
Menial crimes, such as blasphemy or brawling in the streets, were punished by public whippings or being placed in the stocks. Unsurprisingly, radicalism flourished within the ranks of this class of men, but poverty, insufficient organisation and the effects of repressive legislation kept Halifax radicalism reasonably contained.
At the other extreme, commercially and socially, the town was run by a handful of men who had risen up on the crest of the Industrial Revolution. Using the wealth they had made from the lucrative woollen trade, they had built their Georgian mansions on the peripheries of the town. Place-names in Halifax indicate the way in which the town was influenced by these ‘new men’ – Rawson Street, Waterhouse Street, Swires Road, Prescott Street and Edwards Road all bear witness to the influential families who combined to run the town’s affairs in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was amongst these families that Anne Lister formed her social life, the depiction of which is so well-documented in her journals.