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Queer Archaeology of York- Anne Lister

Anne Lister is known as an English diarist of the 19th century, a queer woman whose extensive diaries following the events of her life inspired the recent series Gentleman Jack. She came from a minor landowning family at Shibden in Halifax, West Yorkshire, and eventually inherited the property, becoming a successful businesswoman.

Picture Credit: University of York

Lister was educated as a teenager at Manor House School in York which occupied part of King’s Manor, today a part of the University of York. Here is where her diaries began in 1806. She developed a secret code with Eliza Raine, her roommate at the school. Her relationship with Eliza was the first of many queer relationships she had – whilst onlookers perceived their ‘romantic friendship’ as normal for young women at the time, her diaries reveal their exploration of sexuality together and the beginning of Lister’s identity as a lover of women. Unfortunately for Eliza, Lister moved on to entertaining other relationships with women whilst Eliza remained loyal. Eliza was eventually committed to a hospital as insane. Lister continued to use the code within the diaries when detailing her romantic endeavours, reverting to an ordinary script when discussing other topics such as business, the weather and national politics – a variety of topics that one may expect to find in a diary.

Picture credit: Yorkshire.com

Lister spent her time travelling throughout Europe, managing her home at Shibden Hall and navigating the politics and society around her. She was resolute in her exclusive interest in women and opted to dress in dark masculine clothing as opposed to traditional feminine attire. She eventually met Ann Walker, a wealthy single neighbour in Halifax. A romance between the two blossomed, and whilst Lister was never legally married, the two ‘blessed’ their ‘marriage’ at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, on Easter 1834. The couple lived together at Shibden Hall until Lister’s death in 1840.

Picture credit: Yorkmix

A commemorative blue plaque was put up at Holy Trinity Church in 2018 reading: 

Gender-nonconforming entrepreneur. Celebrates marital commitment, without legal recognition, to Ann Walker in this church. Easter, 1834.

After public feedback concerning the phrasing of the plaque, York Civic Trust changed the wording in 2019 to more explicitly note Lister’s sexuality and identity:

Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax

Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker

Easter 1834

Whilst these two buildings, a school and a church, could be portrayed as simply buildings fit for purpose, Anne Lister’s story and experience within these buildings shows how personal narratives can be discovered. Lister’s diaries offer a rare insight into the history of these places from her perspective – beyond direct evidence, we can only speculate how many other queer people walked the halls of these places, exploring their identity alongside education and religion. 

Written by Jess Burchett

‘Queer Archaeology of York’ is an article series.

Read more:

Queer Archaeology of York-St Thomas’ Church, Osbaldwick