The story behind Gentleman Jack and its real-life protagonist Anne Lister

Gentleman Jack is a beloved BBC one series but did you know that the show is based on a real person? Her name was Anne Lister and we’re here to tell you all about the woman known as the first modern lesbian.

A photo of Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack. She is wearing a black dress coat.
Image: Image via Twitter @MsAnneLister

Gentleman Jack has returned after a three-year hiatus and we are so excited! There’s nothing quite like when our favourite 1800s gay icon, Anne Lister breaks the fourth wall and allows us to have a peek into her world. 

Anne Lister is just as formidable, just as ambitious and just as brave this time around as she navigates a world that hasn’t quite caught up with her. 


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It may have come as a surprise (because it certainly did for us!) to know that Anne Lister was in fact a real person. She was born on April 3 1791 in “shabby little Shibden” as she refers to her hometown in Season One of the acclaimed series.

She was known for keeping a diary all throughout her life that detailed her business ventures and travels around Europe. However, there was a secret section in this book of her life that was written entirely in code. 

The code was devised by Anne herself and consisted of combining the Greek alphabet with zodiac, punctuation and mathematical symbols. This code is genius and allowed her to be free in who she was on paper designed for her eyes only. 

Why was it written in code when she wrote the rest of her diary without secret? Because buried deep within this coded language were the details of her affairs with women. She explained every romantic and sexual encounter with women and hid it from the rest of the world. 

She documented her first love in this diary when she was fifteen years old. Historian Helena Whitbread explains that the first-ever entry opens with “Eliza left us”.

Who is Eliza and why is she so important to this true story? Eliza was Anne Lister’s first love. They shared a room together whilst they were away at boarding school and subsequently fell in love. 

Anne was eventually asked to leave the school due to her behaviour as a student but Eliza remained. The two were separated until Eliza came to stay at Shibden Hall, where Anne and her family resided. 

The diary begins when Eliza leaves to resume her studies and Anne stays in Shibden. The two were so in love that Eliza expected to eventually live with Lister but that was not the case.

Anne returned to the school after Eliza left and began having affairs with Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Belcombe. Eliza was heartbroken by this and sought treatment in the Clifton House Asylum which was run by Mariana’s father, Dr Belcombe.

Anne Lister was described by many as having a “masculine appearance”. She frequently dressed in all black and wore a top hat to compliment her outfits. She carried a cane and would walk at a fast pace throughout Halifax on her many daily tasks. 

Fans of the show have commented on the speed of Lister wondering if she manages to get her 10,000 steps a day and honestly, it’s a fair question! 

Suranne Jones (who plays Anne Lister in the show) did say recently that if she was wearing a coat in a scene, she would wear her Fitbit underneath just to log the steps- gotta close those rings! 

Anne inherited her family home after the death of her aunt in 1836 but she had already taken charge of it in 1826. Anne had a steady flow of income with the residency of her agricultural tenants as well as owning many properties in the town. 

She also maintained shares through the canal, railway, mining and stone industries which were used to finance Shibden Hall and travel around Europe. 

Now, you’re probably all wondering “when are you going to talk about her marriage to Ann Walker?” and it is a fair question. Their love story knew no bounds, even against the judgement of their surroundings, nothing was ever insurmountable for them… so let’s get into it!

Ann Walker was born in Lightcliffe, West Yorkshire on 20 May 1803. She faced tragedy from a very early age losing both of her parents by the age of nineteen and her brother and sister shortly after that. 

The death of her family came with the inheritance of a substantial fortune making her a wealthy heiress. Her extended family were known as the “tribe” and frequently disrespected her wishes as well as questioning her ability to do things.

1832 was the year that Anne Lister and Ann Walker officially began courting. Lister had reached the age of forty and desired to settle down with a titled woman who she could also share her life with.

Ann Walker was a perfect fit for her given her wealthy status and her interest in Lister. In one of Anne Lister’s diary entries, she states, “She falls into my views of things admirably.  I believe I shall succeed with her – if I do, I will really try to make her happy – and I shall be thankful to heaven for the mercy of bringing me home, having first saved me from Vere, rid me of M- [Mariana], and set me at liberty.”

She further writes “We shall have money enough.  She will look up to me and soon feel attached and I, after all my turmoils, shall be steady and, if God so wills it, happy….I can gently mould Miss W- to my wishes – and may we not be happy? How strange the fate of things! If after all, my companion for life should be Miss Walker – she was nine and twenty a little while ago! How little my aunt or anyone suspects what I am about!”

Ann and Anne (two icons!) each took the sacrament together in the Holy Trinity Church in York which symbolised a marriage between them. Their wedding is now referred to as the first same-sex union documented in the 1800s. 

Fans of the show (or even fans of Anne Lister) can now visit the church in York where they will find a commemorative plaque placed outside it saying “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax. Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker. Easter 1834”

The Lister-Walker’s shared a beautiful life together eventually combining their estates and legally changing their wills to include one another. They were trailblazers of their time and are so unbelievably admired even today, almost 200 years later.

Where did these diaries go after Anne’s death in 1840? John Lister, the last inhabitant of Shibden Hall discovered the four million word volume of entries in the late 19th century. 

After that, John enlisted the help of his friend Arthur Burrell to decipher the code that his late relative invented. It took them five years to crack the code and when they did, Arthur was appalled.

He suggested that John burn the diaries as he did not want his friend associated with them. Miraculously though, John didn’t listen and instead, he returned the diaries to their original hiding place behind the panelling in Shibden Hall. 

These diaries exist today thanks to John Lister and his decision to keep Anne’s legacy in existence to be discovered one day and celebrated. 

Anne Lister is celebrated today with her diaries being published and available for anyone to read as well as the hit BBC One show Gentleman Jack which takes entries from her diaries and brings them back to life. 

If you would like to learn even more about the ever so inspiring Anne Lister, be sure to check out Gentleman Jack which is now on every Sunday at 9:00 pm.

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