How a Gentleman Jack connection put this forgotten Yorkshire church back on the map

St Matthew's tower is tucked away in Lightcliffe, near Halifax (pic: Friendless Churches)St Matthew's tower is tucked away in Lightcliffe, near Halifax (pic: Friendless Churches)
St Matthew's tower is tucked away in Lightcliffe, near Halifax (pic: Friendless Churches) | other
Two years ago, the tower of St Matthew's Church stood almost forgotten, tended only by a few devoted volunteers who dreamed of restoring the Georgian churchyard in Lightcliffe, near Halifax.

The Friends of St Matthew's knew that the remains of their church, which was mostly demolished in the 1970s leaving only the tower behind, concealed a fascinating secret that would intrigue many if only it was more widely known.

The tower played a role in social history that was lost to time until, last summer, the BBC period drama Gentleman Jack suddenly thrust St Matthew's into the spotlight and gave it the recognition its story deserves.

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Gentleman Jack told the story of Anne Lister, the heiress of Shibden Hall, the Halifax estate which is now open to the public. A shrewd businesswoman who was ahead of her time in many ways, she defied 18th- and 19th-century conventions to pursue same-sex relationships, eventually 'marrying' a woman in the country's first gay wedding, more than two centuries before such partnerships were legalised.

Crowds at the St Matthew's open day in summer 2019 (pic: Friendless Churches)Crowds at the St Matthew's open day in summer 2019 (pic: Friendless Churches)
Crowds at the St Matthew's open day in summer 2019 (pic: Friendless Churches) | other

Audiences were captivated by Anne's story, and the series' filming locations in Calderdale soon began to attract visitors from all over the world determined to see the streets she had trodden and the rooms where she had lived and worked.

But the drama did not neglect the fate of the woman she married that Easter Sunday at Holy Trinity Church in York in 1832.

Ann Walker was, like Anne, the daughter of a wealthy mill-owning family. Their estate, Crow Nest, was close to Shibden Hall, although little remains of it today. St Matthew's was their local church, built by her grandfather William Walker, a major benefactor, in 1775. Ann and Anne worshipped there together in a velvet-lined pew.

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By the time of their marriage, Ann and her sister Elizabeth had jointly inherited the entire Walker fortune after the deaths of their parents and brother. Much of this money was used to renovate Shibden Hall.

Anne Lister died in 1840, when the couple were travelling through eastern Europe and she fell ill with a fever. Although she left her wife a lifetime interest in Shibden Hall, Ann was declared insane by the Walker family and spent time in a lunatic asylum. The estate passed back to the Listers, who retained it until the 1930s.

Ann Walker died in 1854, aged 51, at her childhood home, Cliffe House in Lightcliffe. She was buried at St Matthew's.

In 1880, St Matthew's was replaced by a new parish church nearby, and the old building was used as a mortuary chapel instead. It suffered severe storm damage in the 1960s and was almost demolished until the Friendless Churches organisation offered to preserve and maintain the tower, while the rest of the unsafe building was pulled down.

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One of the victims of the demolition was Ann Walker's grave, which lay beneath the pulpit in a reflection of her family's prominence in the parish. A memorial stone has been placed on the spot instead.

The Friends have lovingly cared for St Matthew's tower and churchyard since they were granted a lease in 1974, but interest in and awareness of the site's history was not high until Gentleman Jack was broadcast in both the UK and North America.

Taking advantage of the surge in 'Anne Lister tourism' that saw international fans flock to Shibden, the Bankfield Museum and other key locations, the Friends decided to open St Matthew's for the first time in many years in 2019.

"On a roadside outside Halifax is a tower. It’s a landmark, but it looks a little lost. Inside is a plaque remembering a woman called Ann. Until recently few knew who this woman was, or why she's important. Her memorial, hanging in the dark tower, wasn’t of much interest.

"Last year, we opened the tower for the first time in many years. It was a momentous occasion: hundreds of people flocked from miles - to pay their respects at Ann’s memorial."