Historian sensationally discovers 'Gentleman Jack' Anne Lister's wife Ann Walker's secret diaries

Archivists who believed they were reading extracts from one of Anne Lister's secret journals have revealed that the diary entries were actually written by her 'wife' Ann Walker.

Monday, 26th October 2020, 1:12 pm
Updated Monday, 26th October 2020, 1:16 pm

A member of a research group called In Search of Ann Walker made the discovery when examining papers collected by the Rawson family at the West Yorkshire Archive Service's Halifax office last week.

The Rawsons - who appeared in the BBC period drama Gentleman Jack about the life of Anne Lister - ran a bank in Halifax and were friends and business associates of the Listers and cousins of the mill-owning Walker family.

The papers included travel journals from 1835 that had been previously been attributed to Anne Lister, as the Shibden Hall heiress's coded diaries spanning most of her adult life were already well-known and formed the basis of the Gentleman Jack storylines.

Shibden Hall, home of Anne Lister
Shibden Hall, home of Anne Lister

Yet researchers spotted that a reference by the author to the death of 'my poor brother John' five years earlier actually referred to John Walker. Anne Lister had also had a sibling named John, who died in 1810.

The group's find has now been verified by archivists, who say it will allow the same-sex relationship between Lister and Walker to be studied from both women's perspectives. The discovery was made on October 20, shortly after the archives re-opened following lockdown.

Although the Walker diary only covers a year, it includes accounts of their domestic life together at Shibden Hall and their travels in Europe during their 'honeymoon' after they pledged marriage to each other.

Walker does not use code as her lover did, but she does use an abbreviation to refer to Lister - 'Dr t' for 'dearest'.

The couple considered themselves married after taking Holy Communion together in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, in York - now recognised as the site of Britain's first lesbian nuptials, although same-sex unions were illegal at the time and the ceremony was not official.

Archivist Dan Sudron believes the fact that both women used similar notebooks to record their thoughts in could have contributed to the initial 'misidentification' around 10 years ago, when the service first took delivery of the collection as a deposit from a private owner.

"They were first catalogued around 10 years ago, and this diary is only one of many items. There was a small series of records relating to both of them, and some checks were made which led us to believe the journal was Anne Lister's. Lister was known to use a smaller journal when she was travelling, so there was a physical similarity. With their handwriting, though you can tell the difference if you have studied it, again there are similarities. It needed a detailed reading for someone to pick up on these key details."

Mr Sudron believes the listing error may have eventually been spotted when the Rawson papers were re-examined as part of a major transcription project which has already seen Anne Lister's journals made available online.

"With the sheer quantity of writings, the focus had not yet moved onto this diary. The listing has now been updated - it's a small but important change. Words in Ann Walker's own hand are very valuable.

"It's possible that there may be more 'hidden' diaries of hers, but our listings are very thorough. Very little survives of Ann Walker's personal writings, so this find is very exciting. It's great to be able to compare their versions of the same events, and there is such a high level of interest in both of them now. It really adds to the story of both women."

Diane Halford, who made the find, described the journal as being inside 'an obscure file'.

She immediately noticed that the letter 'W' was written in the way Ann Walker was known to write her own name, and then compared handwriting samples to confirm her hunch.

Although copyright restrictions on items held in private collections mean the researchers cannot share full transcriptions or take photographs of the diary, the group intend to share 'snippets' and corresponding entries from Anne Lister's journals on the Twitter page @searchingforann.

West Yorkshire Archives Services may eventually make the journal available to read online depending on copyright permissions.

Lister and Walker - played by Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in the TV adaptation - first met in 1832, after Lister, whose family owned the Shibden estate, had already had sexual relationships with several other women. They 'married' two years later and Ann Walker moved into Shibden.

Her family were wealthy in their own right - the Walkers owned a worsted mill and Crow Nest, itself a grand mansion. Ann's childhood home was nearby Cliffe Hill, in the village of Lightcliffe. She was born in 1803 and was the daughter of John Walker and his wife Mary Edwards. John inherited from his unmarried elder brother when Ann was just six, and the family moved into Crow Nest.

Ann had two elder sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and a younger brother, John - the heir.

By 1823, when Ann was just 19, her sister Mary and her parents had both died. John inherited the estate, while Ann and her remaining sister Elizabeth were left with a comfortable allowance.

In 1830, further tragedy struck when newly-married John died on his honeymoon in Italy at the age of just 25. Although his wife was pregnant, her son was stillborn and John had not made a will, meaning no provision was made for his widow. Ann and her sister Elizabeth - who was married - became very wealthy co-heiresses. It is John's passing which is referred to in the diary kept by Ann Walker.

Perhaps the deaths of most of her close family members had liberated Ann to defy convention and pursue her relationship with Anne Lister. The couple used the Walker fortune to renovate Shibden Hall. They visited the Pyrenees together - Anne Lister was an accomplished mountaineer at a time when few women were able to take part in adventurous sports.

In 1840, they were travelling together in what is now Georgia when Lister fell ill and died from a fever at the age of 49. Her body was brought home and buried in Halifax Minster, although the grave was later covered by a floor and not re-discovered until 2010.

Anne Lister had left Shibden to her cousins, but Ann Walker was given a life interest in the estate. However, the Walker family had Ann declared insane, and she spent some time in an asylum. She was unable to make a will of her own due to her mental state. She died in 1854 at Cliffe Hill, aged 51.

Ann Walker was buried in St Matthew's Church, Lightcliffe, but her grave beneath the pulpit was destroyed when the old church was demolished and a new one built in its place. The church has placed a memorial stone on the spot where she lies.

Anne Lister's risque diaries, written in code, were hidden behind a wall panel at Shibden and not discovered until the 1930s, when a Lister descendant managed to decipher the code.

However, he hid them once again, fearing scandal, and they were not found and transcribed again until the 1980s.