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York celebrates Gentleman Jack...twice!

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

The popular BBC TV series Gentleman Jack has just been re-commissioned for a series 2 which is sadly on hold during to the Corona Virus outbreak. The series is about the life of Anne Lister the English landowner who kept secret diaries about her daily life and lesbian encounters.

The popularity of the TV series has led to a boom in tourism in Calderdale, as she lived in Halifax and inherited Shibden Hall. So when I saw a plaque in honour of Anne Lister on the wall next to a church in York I was intrigued and decided to find out more.

The plaque is actually situated within the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, just off Goodramgate. It is in honour of where Anne Lister took sacrament with Ann Walker, her lover in 1834. The plaque states she was a Lesbian and Diarist but it turns out this is the second version of the plaque because of an outcry over the original which described Anne Lister as being “gender non-conforming” as opposed to a lesbian. Many fans of Anne Lister felt that the original words had nothing to do with her sexuality.

A petition signed by 2,500 people claimed that by not stating Anne Lister was a lesbian was “erasing this iconic woman from our history”.

York Civic Trust apologised for the original wording saying “they had not meant to cause offence” and paid for a new plaque. (They also apologised for having an upside down rainbow on the original plaque).

Anne Lister is often referred to as ‘the first modern lesbian’, defying the social conventions of the Victorian age. She inherited Shibden Hall, the family estate in Halifax, running it as a successful business. Her secret diaries, mainly written in code add up to over 5 million words and due to their importance in chronicling the times and her sexual liaisons, have been declared as “Pivotal Documents” by the United Nations.

In 1832 Anne Lister started pursuing the 29 year old Ann Walker the owner of the adjoining estate. Ann Walker moved into Shibden Hall where the two women lived openly as a couple. They became notorious in Halifax but found York to be more tolerant being the centre of Yorkshire Society at the time.

Anne’s diaries record the ‘blessing’ of their ‘marriage’ at Holy Trinity Church Goodramgate in York in 1834 during a visit to friends in York. The two women decided to cement their union having previously exchanged rings and made marriage vows so they attended the Easter Sunday service at Holy Trinity Church.

Anne records the event in her diary: ‘At Goodramgate church at 10.35; Miss W- and I … The first time I ever joined Miss W- – in my prayers – I had prayed that our union might be happy – she had not thought of doing as much for me.’ Receiving communion side by side was interpreted by the two women as a blessing of their union.

Before the marriage, Anne Lister had acquired a lucrative coal mine, competing directly with the male-dominated business community of Calderdale. To be taken seriously, she abandoned the usual white frilly attire for unmarried young ladies and wore long black skirts and dresses. Her forthright manner and open relationship with Ann were a matter of local gossip and gained her the disparaging local nickname of ‘Gentleman Jack’.


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