Seven words that led to the discovery of Anne Lister's secret

Anne Lister afternoon tea at Holdsworth House, Halifax, with author Helena Whitbread
Anne Lister afternoon tea at Holdsworth House, Halifax, with author Helena Whitbread

With all eyes on Halifax on a Sunday night thanks to BBC drama Gentleman Jack, the people who have brought her story to life are now in the spotlight.

A sold out audience gathered at the Holdsworth House in Holmfield for afternoon tea and to hear the fascinating story of how she came across the historic Halifax diarist that is now known across the world.

Anne Lister afternoon tea at Holdsworth House, Halifax, with author Helena Whitbread and Gail Moss, owner of Holdsworth House

Anne Lister afternoon tea at Holdsworth House, Halifax, with author Helena Whitbread and Gail Moss, owner of Holdsworth House

Helena Whitbread first discovered Anne Lister’s diaries after visiting her local archives around 35 years ago when looking to find a subject to write about.

“I knew that Anne Lister who had lived at Shibden Hall was quite a notable figure in her day,” she explained. “In fact the whole family was.

“I did know that some of her letters were down there and I thought that perhaps I could write a short article about this woman.”

After talking to the man at the archive who showed her the letters he asked her ‘did you know she kept a journal?’.

“Seven words. Now 35 years later after those seven words, we’re all here,” Helena said to the engaged room full of Anne Lister fans, as well as to those across the globe who had tuned into the broadcast of the talk on Facebook.

That day she took home 50 photocopies of the journal, along with a copy of the code, and began her marathon investigation into the life of Anne Lister.

Five years later Helena had gone through the 27 books, 6,600 pages and almost five million words, and she had enough material for two books.

The code is made up of a number of elements. The vowels are numbers and greek symbols are used along with symbols that she made up herself.

The codes in the journals had been transcribed several times before Helena discovered them, but the material was deemed too shocking to publish.

Although she didn’t take it lightly, Helena felt that her findings had to be published. Her first book, now called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, was a culmination of her work and brought Anne’s secret, that had been hidden away in the diaries for so many years, out into the world.

“She was a woman of great courage, she would never deviate from her lesbian personality,” Helena said.

“Her lesbian credo was 'I love and only love the fairer sex and thus be loved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs'. and she remained true to that until the end of her life.”

Having been so engrossed in Anne Lister’s life over the past three decades, Helena Whitbread was the perfect person to assist on Sally Wainwright’s BBC drama Gentleman Jack.

Along with several other consultants, Helena was able to help Sally with her vast knowledge of Anne Lister's life.

Helena first met Sally in the early 2000s when she wanted to discover more about the life of Anne Lister and the pair were put back in touch when she began to work on the series.

Having looked into Anne's life in such detail for over three decades, Helena had a picture in her head of what Anne Lister was like. But what did she think when it was announced that Suranne Jones would play the part in the BBC series?

She said: "When it was first revealed to me it was going to be Suranne I thought she’s wonderful but she’s been in so many lovely series.

"At first I thought maybe overexposure but no I was wrong she’s wonderful in the part.

"I said to Suranne when I met her I’m having trouble now because I don’t want you to dislodge my Anne Lister in my mind."

"Suranne is wonderful, she’s wonderful in the part."

Helena’s book is available online at Amazon.

The final episode of Gentleman Jack will air on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday (July 7)