I recently went to Halifax to see an art exhibition (post to follow in due course) and took the opportunity to visit Shibden Hall, the ancestral home of the Lister family. The Hall is less than two miles from Halifax town centre, so I jumped into a taxi.
Shibden Hall was built in the early 15th century by William Otes, with the Lister family taking possession at the end of the century and remaining there until 1934. Due to the family’s bankruptcy, the entire estate was sold to Halifax Corporation in 1923 and the grounds turned into a public park, but it was agreed that siblings John and Annie Lister, the last of their line, were allowed to live out their days there.
John Lister (1847 – 1933) was a man of charitable works and progressive ideas. In 1877 he set up an industrial school in Halifax whose purpose was to teach young offenders a trade; the school operated for 55 years. He was also a founder member of the Independent Labour Party and stood as the first Labour candidate for Halifax. He was a clever man and a keen antiquarian who carried out and published research into the Hall and the town. In the 1880s he and a friend discovered a set of diaries at the Hall, part-written in a secret code. The author was the most famous of the Listers.
Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) appears to the 21st century mind a strong successful woman in the male-dominated world of the early 19th century; to her contemporaries, she was an unnatural woman who wanted to live as a man and did not accept her place in the world as allotted by the social conventions of the times.
She inherited a portion of the Shibden estate in 1813 and moved in with her uncle and aunt, James and Anne, becoming sole owner in 1836. Anne Lister proved to be successful in managing her estate, and as a business woman, much to the chagrin of many other landowners and rival business men who employed dirty tricks to try to ruin her. Some of her initiatives, such as the development of a coal mine on her land, provoked antagonism, as did her refusal to marry and thus allow a husband to take charge. Locals mockingly referred to Anne as Gentleman Jack.
Anne Lister wrote 27 volumes of diaries between 1806 and 1840 amounting to over 4,000,000 words which recorded all aspects of her life and work, including some intimate details of her sexual relationships with women. These most private of her thoughts were written in a code, a mixture of ancient Greek, punctuation marks and algebraic symbols. The code was cracked by John Lister over 40 years after Anne’s death, and whilst he published some diary extracts relating to the Hall, he kept hidden the coded sections.
Anne lived openly as a lesbian. From 1832 until her death in 1840 she and her partner, wealthy heiress Ann Walker, lived together at Shibden and travelled extensively around the world, all of which Anne has written about. The Anne Lister diaries were re-discovered in the 1980s when a Halifax Council employee looked through the archived papers that came with the estate, revealing an interesting insight into social attitudes to women and sexuality in the early 19th century.
It was fortuitous that I had changed my original plan which had been to visit Halifax the week before, as the Hall would have been closed for filming. A new BBC drama, Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones and Timothy West, had paused in production just four days earlier but will resume in early September. I guess the cast are enjoying a summer break. I hope Tim West and his wife, Prunella Scales, are enjoying a canal boat holiday. Gentleman Jack will be on TV in 2019. The BBC had left some of their equipment around the Hall and a few items had been moved from their usual places to accommodate filming.
I hope it will be as good as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister from 2010 starring the wonderful Lancashire actress, Maxine Peake.
Shibden was also used for the filming of some of the scenes from To Walk Invisible, another excellent BBC production which depicted the lives of the Bronte sisters.
A few costumes from the programme are on display including those above. The Bronte connections continue: the 1992 version of Wuthering Heights starring Juliet Binoche and Ralph Fiennes was also part filmed at Shibden. The Brontes were contemporaries of Anne Lister and fellow residents of Yorkshire. Famously, the sisters had to invent male names under which their first novels were published due to prevailing dismissive attitudes to women as writers. Although it is thought that the Brontes and Anne Lister would have known of each other by repute, there is no proof they met, and the Bronte sisters are not referred to in the diaries.
I enjoyed looking around the house, gaining a sense of how the Listers lived, and admiring the pretty gardens whilst thinking about women’s lives past and present and how much we now take for granted.