Trailblazers: Anne Lister

It has not always been possible for the LGBT+ community to be open about who they are and who they love. Finding historic LGBT+ figures can be difficult, yet today’s trailblazer left us a priceless resource for exploring LGBT+ love in 19th century Britain.

That woman was Anne Lister (1791-1840).

Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner

Born in Halifax in 1791, Anne was the daughter of Jeremy and Rebecca Lister. Tragically many of her siblings died young, with only Anne and her sister Marian surviving to adulthood. Anne would one day inherit Shibden Hall in Halifax. She was her uncle’s designated heir for many years, and undertook a lot of work managing the estate.

From a young age Anne knew she was attracted to women, and would later write in her diary “I love and only love the fairer sex“. Her diaries (held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service) are an incredible resource, and in 2011 were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in light of their cultural significance. Her diaries go into a lot (and I mean A LOT) of detail about all aspects of her life. She recorded details about her health and bodily functions, thoughts and opinions on people she knew as well as observations on societal events. Due to society’s attitudes towards the LGBT+ community, Anne wrote diary entries about her love life in a secret code she devised. Within the coded sections are many heartfelt and poignant statements as she recorded passionate affairs and tragic heartbreaks.

Diary entries from January 1821. Image courtesy of the West Yorkshire Archive Service (collection ref: SH:7/ML/E/4/0122)

In 1834, Anne would marry Ann Walker at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York. Although a legal marriage wasn’t possible at this time, she and Ann took the sacrament together sealing their union. A plaque has been placed at the site to commemorate this significant moment.

Anne Lister Plaque courtesy of York Civic Trust.

Anne was incredibly brave to stay true to herself and live and love the way she did in a time period where her sexuality was not accepted or understood by society at large. She is an inspiration, an icon, and for me: a trailblazer.

What do you think of Anne Lister? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale. You can find Anne’s digitised diaries and accompanying transcripts here.

WYAS Catablogue:

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister by Helena Whitbread

York Civic Trust: Anne Lister

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