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Anne Lister: Lesbian Icon or Enemy of the Working Class?

In the historic city of York, tucked away off the busy shopping street of Goodramgate, ...

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19th Century20th CenturyClass & InequalityGender & SexualityResearch & OpinionYork

Anne Lister: Lesbian Icon or Enemy of the Working Class?

In the historic city of York, tucked away off the busy shopping street of Goodramgate, ...

return to all posts

19th Century20th CenturyClass & InequalityGender & SexualityResearch & OpinionYork

In the historic city of York, tucked away off the busy shopping street of Goodramgate, lies Holy Trinity Church. One would be forgiven for walking straight past without noticing, if it weren’t for the rainbow-edged blue plaque calling attention to this site as sacred to LGBTQ histories in the city. This is the plaque commemorating Anne Lister – a Georgian industrialist, diarist and landowner – and her union with Ann Walker when the pair took holy communion together here at Easter in 1834, signalling a symbolic marriage and lifelong commitment to one another. Learn more about Lister’s contraversial legacy and her other partners, like Eliza Raine, on our tour of York.

Church and churchyard
Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate (author’s photo)

Whilst the church may be hidden in plain sight, much like Anne Lister’s sexuality was whilst she was alive, that is certainly not the case for Anne’s legacy as a historical figure and queer icon now. Dubbed by many as the ‘first modern lesbian’ Anne was an extraordinary character, considered larger than life by both her contemporaries and in today’s popular imagination. Her ‘oddities’, quick wit, masculine dress sense and behaviour earned her the – oftentimes pejorative – nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’, which also provided the title for the BBC’s recent dramatisation of Anne’s life.[1]

Born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1781, Anne kept diaries from the age of fifteen until her death in 1840. Her diaries offer a rich historical resource for life in 19th-century Yorkshire, comprising of nearly 5 million words, of which thousands pertaining to her same-sex relationships were written in her own specially devised code. The diaries were originally discovered and decoded in the 1890s by John Lister, a Lister family descendant, who, upon discovering Anne’s lesbian sexuality, reburied the diaries for fear of drawing unwanted attention to his own homosexuality. It wasn’t until historian Helena Whitbread rediscovered the diaries in 1982, decoding every single one and revealing the life of one of England’s most fascinating and eccentric 19th-century characters, that Anne Lister’s life and loves came to light.[2]

They reveal how Anne was self-assured and unashamed of her own identity but also expressed her alienation from the society she lived in:

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs. These feelings haven’t wavered or deviated since childhood. I was born like this. And I act as my God-given nature dictates.” – Monday, 29 January 1821

“I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made unlike anyone I have ever met. I dare to say I am like no one in the whole world.” – Wednesday, 20 August 1823

Commemorating Anne Lister in Popular Memory and Culture Today

With the success of the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, Suranne Jones’ formidable performance and her character’s iconic black top hat (now on display at the UK’s first LGBTQ museum: Queer Britain in London) have firmly cemented Anne Lister in the public imagination as a lesbian icon.

The response to Gentleman Jack has been immense, with many making pilgrimages to Anne Lister’s home at Shibden Hall, her final resting place in Halifax, and the site of her marriage at Holy Trinity Church; the ‘Gentleman Jack effect’ has all but taken over local tourism and reached across the world.[3]

Anne’s legacy provides the most visible ties to LGBTQ histories in the city of York. She was a frequent visitor here, not just to conduct her symbolic marriage to Ann Walker, but to go to school, worship, conduct business, shop, and meet friends and lovers.[4] Location filming for Gentleman Jack also took place on the cobbled streets of York and at Holy Trinity Church itself, and regular Anne Lister walking tours run throughout the city.

Celebrated as a historical queer icon today, Anne was a controversial figure in her own time, and the way we remember and commemorate her is also not without controversy and debate.

The rainbow-edged blue plaque, the first of its kind and commissioned by York Civic Trust, was the topic of much disagreement when unveiled outside Holy Trinity Church in 2018. The wording, which initially described Anne as a ‘Gender-nonconforming entrepreneur’ was strongly criticised by local groups and by a petition on Change.org with over 2,500 signatures for what they understood as an erasure of the word ‘lesbian’ from Anne’s commemoration. The Trust reaffirmed that the plaque was designed with the best of intentions and after further consultation with York LGBT Forum and York LGBT History Month, the wording was changed, commemorating Anne Lister as a ‘Lesbian and Diarist’.[5]

Memorial blue plaque with outer edges in rainbow colour on a brick wall
The current version of the memorial plaque (author’s photo)

The debate amongst historians and the public as to the extent to which modern labels for sexuality and gender identities can be applied to people of the past for whom this terminology did not yet exist is still ongoing.[6] Anne’s status as lesbian icon cements the understanding that the creation of queer history is largely a contemporary effort, born from the longing for community across space and time, a desire to combat isolation and see one’s own identity reflected throughout the past.[7] Gentleman Jack and Anne-Lister-related heritage tourism has become a significant part of this construction of historical identity and search for present day community.

It is a point of interest, however, that the final plaque wording omits Lister’s status as a landowner and industrialist or any reference to her avid support for the Tory party and conservative politics. This is also something Gentleman Jack does not pursue fully until later in the second series, leaning far more on the side of a romance plot in its initial 8 episode run.

Lister in Business and Politics

Anne’s ability to unabashedly and freely pursue female courtships came crucially from her class status and economic freedom, and the wealth she accrued through inheritance, land, and coal mining. Equally, Anne relied on her class status and resolutely reinforcing the conservative status quo, such as opposing rioting workers and the Reform Bill, as a kind of substitute for patriarchal privilege and protection.[8]

lister_04
Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, c. 1830, Shibden Hall

One particular aspect of her position as a successful industrialist in the mid-19th century was the employment of children in her coalpits. Many children, both girls and boys, worked down mines in and around Halifax, in gruelling and extremely unsafe conditions with little regulation. These appalling conditions came to public light in 1842 through Samuel Scriven’s Royal Commission into Children’s Employment in Mines, shocking British society with its thousands of pages of oral testimonies from children toiling away in the dark, some as young as five years old.

Although Anne had died two years before the report was published, there exist testimonies from the children in her employ in Listerwick colliery, including 14-year-old James Grandage who recounted:

“I come with the rest of the boys at seven o’clock in the morning; I go home at all times at night; I have never been later than eight; I come to work every day… I do not think it is hard work, but I do not like it “none so well;” one reason is, because there is danger, another is, that I like daylight; I would rather work eight hours than twelve.”[9]

The youngest individual to be recorded working in Anne’s Listerwick colliery was 6-year-old John Pickles.[10] Whilst Anne’s words receive international attention, the testimonies of working children toiling underground barely leave a trace in today’s popular memory.

This revelation came at a time of great working class unrest and tumult, especially in Yorkshire. In 1837, following the enactment of the oppressive new Poor Law, 100,000 people from Halifax, Bradford and Huddersfield gathered with banners and flags on Hartshead Moor (just 4 miles from Anne’s home at Shibden Hall) to protest, waving banners which cried ‘The more these cruel tyrants bind us, the more united they will find us’ and ‘Go now ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you’.[11] Chartism, Britain’s first national working-class movement, had a strong presence in Anne’s home town of Halifax. When demands for universal male suffrage and better working conditions reached a peak in 1842 with the national Great Strike and Plug Plot Riots, state violence came to a head in Halifax where at least 6 people were killed by soldiers aiming to quash the strike.[12] Read more about British working class history in our other research-based news articles.

The fact that Anne Lister is now celebrated as a queer icon and lesbian hero means many of her more controversial views, politics, and actions have been softened in the public discourse, if included at all. Indeed Anne was undoubtedly a cruel capitalist; she could be controlling and manipulative and took advantage of people both in business and personal relationships.[13] She actively worked against the working class struggle for political emancipation and better working conditions, and was firmly against women’s suffrage despite herself being deeply involved in local politics, canvassing for the Tory party and only renting to tenants who supported her views.[14]

How should we remember Lister?

There is a propensity to celebrate the queer identities of historical figures whilst side-lining their more controversial or less agreeable personality traits or actions in order to gain historical affirmation both for the existence of a celebrated queer history and for providing positive identifications for those in the present.[15] Certainly, as Lemmey and Miller outline in their recent popular history book Bad Gays, there is a tendency towards even excluding gay people who “do not flatter us, and whom we cannot make into heroes” from queer histories entirely.[16]

It is necessary and valuable to celebrate Anne’s unapologetic lesbian identity for LGBTQ communities living today. Nonetheless, to allow Anne’s sexuality and romances to eclipse her less admirable actions in politics and business at a time of great struggle in British working class history would be a disservice to these histories and to understanding Anne as a contradictory and multi-faceted individual. The recent proliferation of interest in Anne Lister due to Gentleman Jack, its associated tourism and the commemorative rainbow plaque in York beg important questions about the ways we remember and represent divisive figures of the past in our cityscapes, particularly when such individuals are so important to marginalised communities today.

Written by Esme Boore

York is the newest member of the Uncomfortable Cities family. You can book a place on a tour, buy a York tote bag, or find out more today.

References

[1] Helena Whitbread, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840 (New York University Press 1992), p. xxiv.

[2] Jennifer Reed, ‘From Anne Lister to Gentleman Jack to Anne Lister’ in Memory Studies 16:1 (2023), p. 158

[3] See for example Janet Lea, The Gentleman Jack Effect: Lessons in Breaking Rules and Living Out Loud (Laurel House Press 2021); Sarah Wingrove, ‘Queer Pilgrimage: Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack, and Locating Community’ in Journal of Lesbian Studies 26:4 (2022), pp. 449-57; Jade Hammond, ‘The Gentleman Jack effect: visitors to Anne Lister’s home treble’. The Guardian (22 July 2019).

[4] Jill Liddington, Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority, The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833-36 (Rivers Oram Press 2010), pp. 15-16.

[5] Helen Pidd and Patrick Greenfield, ‘Plaque for ‘first modern lesbian’ to be reworded after complaints’, The Guardian (3 September 2018).

[6] Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller, Bad Gays: A Homosexual History (Verso Books 2022), p.5.

[7] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press 2009), pp. 36-7.

[8] Susan Lanser, ‘Tory Lesbians: Economies of Intimacy and the Status of Desire’ inJohn C. Beynon and Carolina Gonda, eds, Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century, (Routledge 2016), p. 186.

[9] Samuel Scriven, Children’s Employment Commission: Appendix to the First Report of Commissioners, Mines: Part I: Reports and Evidence from Sub-Commissioners, Industrial Revolution Children’s Employment, Volume 8. (Irish University Press 1968). Accessed via: Jane Roberts, ‘Anne Lister’s Pit Children’ in Past To Present Genealogy (26 August 2019).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Catherine Howe, Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis (Breviary Stuff Publications 2014).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Liddington, Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority, p. 242.

[14] Ibid., p. 172.

[15] Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, p. 33-4.

[16] Lemmey and Miller, Bad Gays: A Homosexual History, p. 5.