• From Anne’s diary, 9th August 1818 (age 28)

    Mrs Page began talking about my getting married. Told me I had a good figure, good complexion, held myself well & was, she thought, good-tempered. That I should be good-looking if I dressed my hair with bows, as they do now, and with curls, etc. She is a vulgar, good sort of woman, fond of giving her opinions and advice. I took it all well, was amused, led her on & praised her &, I daresay, came off with flying colours.

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. 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.

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.