• From Anne’s diary, Friday 10th August 1832 (age 42)

    [The first time that Anne Lister put her thoughts in writing about the possibility of courting Ann Walker, the young heiress who lived at Lidgate in the neighbourhood of Shibden.]

    ‘… Thought I, as I have several times done of late, shall I try & make up to her?’

  • From Anne’s diary, Sunday 5th January 1834 (age 43)

    [After eighteen months of an on-and-off courtship, Anne was unsure about whether or not there could be a permanent relationship between them.]

    ‘…Miss W[alker] talks as if she would be glad to take me – then if I say anything decisive she hesitates to. I tell her it is all her money which is in the way. The fact is, she is as she was before [i.e. indecisive], but determined to get away from the Sutherlands and feels the want of me. But [I need to] take someone with more mind and less money. Steph [Belcombe – i.e. Mariana’s brother] is right: she would be a great pother [sic]. [I] have nothing serious to say to her – she wants better manning than I can manage.’

    [See also Jill Liddington’s Female Fortune. Rivers Oram Press. 1998. p.85.]

Anne’s story

Anne ListerAnne Lister (1791–1840), now known as ‘the first modern lesbian,’ was a wealthy, independent landowner who was renowned in her time for dressing always in black, without bothering to indulge in the feminine frills like the others of her sex. She was the 19th century equivalent of a “butch” lesbian, and she became known to locals as ‘Gentleman Jack.’ Her lesbian lifestyle, however, was one of the best kept secrets of her time.

Helena Whitbread’s incredible discovery of Anne’s life as a “lover of women” …

Shibden Hall

Anne’s family owned Shibden Hall, a sprawling Tudor-style home in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. Anne had no fondness for Halifax. West Yorkshire is tucked into the foothills of the Pennine mountains in the north of England, and is the location of such well-known and beloved stories as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Secret Garden.

Inheriting Shibden Hall allowed Anne to flourish as a businesswoman.

Helena Whitbread at Shibden Hall

Anne’s diaries

Starting at age fifteen, Anne began to write in personal diaries, a practice which she continued throughout many years of her life until her untimely death from an insect sting, at age forty-nine, while travelling in Russia. Her diaries are extremely detailed and total more than four million words. Anne’s earliest diaries include entries documenting her first love, a fellow pupil, Eliza Raine, at the Manor School in York.

The encoded portions of Anne’s diaries document her passionate love affairs with other women. Anne was strikingly free and easy about her sexuality and her numerous romantic encounters. She openly courted young women–many of whom seemed most willing to fall under her spell.

The secret code

One-sixth of Anne’s diaries are written in a code, devised by herself, based on a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet, to which Anne referred as her ‘crypthand.’ As you would guess, the coded portions contained some of the more—ahem—steamy encounters with the women she admired. Anne was convinced that no-one would ever be able to decode her crypthand, and her secret encounters were recorded for her enjoyment alone. She was wrong.

Anne Lister's secret code
Several decades later in the mid 1890s, John Lister, a descendant of the Lister family, discovered the diaries and broke the code. Anne’s lesbian sexuality was discovered … and then quickly re-buried. John was gay himself, and did not want to draw attention to his own sexuality by revealing his discovery of the diaries.

Helena’s discovery

Anne’s diaries once again remained a secret for decades, until the fateful day when Helena Whitbread, who began her university studies at age 45, wandered into the archives at age 51, looking for a research project. She had no way of knowing at that time that she was about to uncover, by carefully decoding each and every one of Anne’s diaries, one of the most fascinating characters of the 19th century, one that has undoubtedly captured the imagination and admiration of today’s modern audience.

Luckily for us, Helena recognised the importance of Anne’s story. She has dedicated years to ensuring this story is respectfully preserved and shared.

Here is Helena telling us in her own words about her long path to discovering and coming to know Anne Lister so well. (Filmed March 2, 2019 at Holy Trinity Church in York, where Anne Lister and Ann Walker took their sacred vows.)