LGBTQ+ Voices in history - Anne Lister and Ann Walker
Next in our exploration of LGBTQ+ histories from around the UK, we look at the lives of Anne Lister and Ann Walker, in Yorkshire.
The story of Anne Lister and Ann Walker was recently dramatized in the BBC series ‘Gentleman Jack.’ Lister is often called "the first modern lesbian" for her clear self-knowledge and openly lesbian lifestyle. Locals often referred to her as "Gentleman Jack," hence the name of the BBC series. She suffered considerable harassment for her sexuality.
She was an English landowner and diarist from Halifax, West Yorkshire and lived in Shibden Hall, which she had inherited. Throughout her life, she kept diaries that chronicled the details of her daily life, including her lesbian relationships and the methods she used for seduction (those parts were written in code).
By 1832, Ann Walker, a wealthy heiress, had become an important part of Lister's life. Eventually they took communion together on Easter Sunday 1834 and thereafter considered themselves married, but without legal recognition.
The couple travelled widely together until Lister's death, age 49, in Georgia in 1840. Walker had Lister's body embalmed and shipped, six months by land and sea, back to England so that Lister could be interred in the same church as her beloved aunt and uncle in Halifax. Lister's will gave Walker a life interest in Shibden Hall and its estate.
The code Lister used was finally deciphered by the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall, John Lister (1847–1933) and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries.
Thankfully, John did not take this advice and in 2011 Anne’s diaries were added to the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. The register citation notes that, while a valuable account of the times, it was the
"comprehensive and painfully honest account of lesbian life and reflections on her nature, however, which have made these diaries unique. They have shaped and continue to shape the direction of UK Gender Studies and Women's History."
Ann Walker struggled with mental health issues throughout her life. She was prone to bouts of anxiety and depression. In 1843, three years after the death of Lister, Walker was declared to be of 'unsound mind' and removed from Shibden Hall and treated in York. She returned to Shibden Hall but, after a brief stay, moved back to her family's estate in Lightcliffe, where she lived until her death in 1854, aged 50.
No known portraits of Ann Walker exist, but a few of her letters are held in the West Yorkshire Archives. Walker kept a journal of which one volume was discovered in October 2020 among the Rawson Family Collection (WYC:1525/7/1/5/1). West Yorkshire Archive also hold Anne Lister's diaries.