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Anne Lister aged aprox 38

(Copyright Calderdale Museums)

The story of Anne Lister warrants a whole website to herself and many worthy sites exist. Beyond a background introduction to give a ‘feel’ for the person, the content within this website is restricted to the elements that have significant relevance to the hall, of which there are many. In particular her long standing relationship with Marianne Percy Balcombe who’s marriage to Charles Bourne Lawton in 1816 did nothing to stop!  


Through the recent BBC docuseries ‘Gentleman Jack’, Anne Lister has been notably established as the ‘First Modern Lesbian’. But she was much more than that. She was intellectual, articulate, educated, passionate, determined and ruthless!


As well as a significant agricultural landowner, she was also a landlord with several properties in Yorkshire including a hotel. She had shares in both the canal and railway industries, two coal mines and various stone quarries. All very unconventional female enterprises! She is perhaps best known by her ‘five million word’ coded diaries which are now available for all to read in books such as ‘No priest but love’, ‘I know my own heart’ and ‘The secret diaries of Miss Anne Lister’. Over her 15 year relationship with Marianne (as the Squires wife), Anne spent many months living at Lawton Hall.


Ann was born in Halifax 1791 as the second child and eldest daughter of Jeremy Lister and Rebecca Battle. Their first child was her brother John who was born two years earlier but didn’t survive beyond his first year. Two years after Anne, their second son, Samual was born and the family purchased and moved to an estate named Skelfler House in Market Weighton. In total they went on to produce a further two sons and Anne’s younger sister, Marian. Only Anne and Marian survived past 20 years of age.


At the age of 14 Anne was sent to board at the Manor School in York (now King’s Manor, part of the University of York)


Kings Manor School

It was here that she met her first ‘love’, Eliza Raine (1791 – 1860). Eliza was of Anglo-Indian parentage. Following the death of her father who was a surgeon with the East India Company, she and her younger sister Jane were placed under the guardianship of William Duffin, a York surgeon. Whilst at school, Anne and Eliza were both considered ‘non-conformist’ and shared an attic dormitory away from the other boarders. Their relationship developed, but Anne was expelled from the school a year later because of her ‘unbecoming behaviour’!


At that time they were committed to each other and swore to remain together for the rest of their lives! They continued to correspond, and in the following summer, Eliza’s first visit to Halifax took place. Her departure some weeks later had far reaching consequences for both Anne and for posterity, because it was the trigger that prompted Anne into starting her diaries.


Through her relationship with Eliza, Anne was introduced to the York social scene. As her circle of friends widened, Eliza began to realise that she was no longer the sole recipient of Anne’s affections. At the age of 19 Anne met Isabella Norcliffe. Isabella was 25 and the eldest child of a wealthy landowner, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Norcliffe Dalton and his wife, Ann of Langdon Hall. Anne was fascinated by the wealthy, sophisticated lifestyle of the family. Impressed by their self-assurance and social confidence, she was eager to learn the ways of the world and recognised a kindred spirit in Isabella.


Over the following 4 years, the cooling of Anne’s relationship with Eliza had a devastating impact on her mental health, culminating in a nervous breakdown. At the age of 23 she was visited by Doctor William Balcombe (ironically the father of Anne’s future lover!) whom a year earlier had opened ‘The Retreat’ in Clifton which was a ‘private asylum for the specialist care of the mentally ill’. Eliza was subsequently certified insane and spent the rest of her adult life (46 years!) institutionalised.


Isabella never married but at that time, entertained hopes of becoming Anne’s life partner. However, she was instrumental in introducing Anne to Marianne Balcombe. The intensity of that new relationship soon precluded any realisation of her dream of a future with Anne.


Anne was 21 when she met Marianne who was one year older. They quickly fell passionately in love with each other and spent the next 4 years enjoying an idyllically happy sexual affair. 


By this time, Anne was spending most of her time at Shibden Hall which was the family home of aunt and uncle, Ann and James Lister. At the age of 22 the family decided that Anne would inherit Shibden estate on her aunt’s death and her sister Marian would inherit the Skelfler estate. Three years later both Anne and her sister Marian moved into Shibden Hall permanently with their aunt and uncle as they were struggling to manage the estate in their later years


Shibden Hall

Although she didn’t inherit the property until 1836, she was known to be managing the entire estate for the whole 10 years prior.


4 years into her whirlwind affair with Marianne, her world was shattered! In order to satisfy the conventions of the day and to enjoy the material comforts of wealth, Marianne accepted a proposal of marriage from Charles Bourne Lawton. Charles was the future heir to the Lawton Hall estates, who’s first wife had died during childbirth 17 months earlier together with their infant.


If it was her father’s intention to break up the relationship between his daughter and Anne, then giving her hand in marriage would have seemed a far preferable alternative to having his own daughter institutionalised within his asylum, as he had done to Eliza, Anne’s first lover! However…. it didn’t work!


Marianna Percy Balcombe and Charles Bourne Lawton were married on 9th March 1816 St Michael le-Belfry in York, a small medieval church in the shadow of York Minster. Marianne was 26 and Charles was 46.


Marianne marriage entry

Anne was determined not to let go of Marianne, not only did she attend the wedding, but masochistically chose to accompany Marianne on her honeymoon!  Together with Marianne’s sister Anne Balcombe (Nantz) they toured as part of the entourage for the first six months of the marriage, which was customary in the day!


The newlyweds and their entourage consisting of Anne Lister, Anne Balcombe and Marianne’s maid ‘Watson’ left York for Manchester where they spent the first night of their honeymoon at the Bridgewater Arms hotel. Five months later Anne’s diaries confirm that the Lawtons were still accompanied on their protracted honeymoon and were in Buxton, on route for Lawton Hall. On 14th August Anne’s diary states she went to bed early and that Marianne joined her and stayed until 3 in the morning – “I teasing & behaving rather amorously towards her. She would have got into bed or done anything of the loving kind I asked her”. She wrote.


The party left Buxton 3 days later and arrived at Lawton Hall. Having stayed a further 3 days, Anne reluctantly left Marianne and Charles to begin their married life together and went to visit Marianne’s brother Dr Steph Belcombe and his wife Harriot at their home in Newcastle-under-Lyme.


Anne and Marianne continued their sexual relationship unbeknown to Charles, and they formed a plan to eventually live together as a grieving widow and her companion following, hopefully, the early death of Charles. They kept up a regular correspondence and met both at Lawton Hall and Shibden on a regular basis until in 1817 Charles discovered one of Anne’s letters referring to their ‘hope’ of his early death! He wrote to Anne forbidding her to visit Lawton Hall. This did nothing to stop their relationship as Marianne would regularly visit her family in York when they would meet and stay either in York or Manchester. In 1826 Marianne decided to leave Charles and arrived at Shibden Hall. Although the separation was brief, during her absence, Charles appealed for Anne to intervene for him, which she did. This led to a slight reconciliation between Anne and Charles. Although they were never really at ease in each other’s company, it allowed her to visit as a friend of both Lawtons. Charles’ presence as the apparent amiable husband, accepting the band of friendship between his wife and her best friend, sanctioned their relationship and surrounded it with an air of respectability.


During one of her visits to Lawton Hall, Charles drunkenly confessed to her that he had a son by Mrs Grantham (the lodge keepers wife!). After this admission he was hardly in a position to object to Anne and Marianne spending as much time together as they wished, in exchange for her discretion.  


Contrary to their hopes, Charles did not die, although he did come close when he was climbing over a hedge and the trigger of his shotgun caught and went off stating afterwards that “his gloves and waistcoat were considerably burnt”!


Anne and Marianne’s relationship continued for a further 6 years, during which time they went to Paris together. Following this trip, Anne was becoming disillusioned by their plan not coming to fruition and began to withdraw from the relationship. She decided to begin traveling in earnest to take her mind off her disappointment. Following her uncle’s death later that year, she travelled extensively on her own to France, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia. A woman traveling abroad solo in Georgian times was considered outrageous!! especially by the social circles she was trying to ingratiate herself within, but she didn’t care, she was her own ‘person’ and had the independent means to be so.


In 1829 she left for the continent once again. Using Paris as her base, she visited Belgium, Germany then over the Pyrenees and into Spain, returning to Shibden Hall in 1831. It was at this point that after an on-off relationship of some 20 years, Anne totally gave up on her hope of spending her old age with Marianne. They had both secretly hoped that Charles would die in order to open the way for them to reunite their bond. Alas, this was not to be as Charles went on to live until he was 90!


In 1832 Anne met and began to court Ann Walker, a local extremely wealthy young heiress. Ann was 29 and Lister was 41. After a hesitant and frustrating 2 years for them both, in 1834 they took communion together on Ester Sunday and thereby considered themselves secretly married. Ann Walker moved in to Shibden Hall to live together. Later that year they went on ‘honeymoon’ to France and Switzerland in the hope that it would encourage Walker to wish to travel more. In 1836 Anne’s father and aunt died and Anne inherited the Shibden estate. They re-wrote their wills leaving everything they had to each other, and a significant portion of Walker’s fortune was used to extensively renovate Shibden Hall, adding a Gothic tower, waterfall and lake.


Anne Lister’s last and greatest travel began in June 1839. Leaving Shibden Hall with Ann Walker and two servants they travelled in their own carriage through France, Denmark, Sweden and on into Russia, arriving in St Petersburg some 4 months later, then onto Moscow by the following month. Having stayed over the worst of the winter, in February they set off south along the frozen Volga river to the Caucasus. During August of that year Anne Lister developed a fever (probably from a tick bite) and tragically died the following month. It is hard to imagine how it must have been for Ann Walker to have her partner embalmed and having to travel beside her for the 6 months it took to get back home!

Anne’s body was interred at Halifax Parish Church, (now Halifax Minster) on 29th April 1841.


Ann Walker was known to be mentally ‘fragile’ throughout her whole life, but the strain of her homeward journey could only have placed her under further emotional stress. Having returned to her inherited Shibden estate, she experienced several bouts of ‘affliction’ and spent several years in the care of Dr Balcombe’s asylum in Clifton. Ironically this was the very same asylum that Anne Lister’s first lover Eliza Raine had been institutionalised! ….. Although Ann died at her childhood home Cliff Hill in 1854, she had been declared insane by that time and was therefore unable to make a valid will.

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