2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 10

Anne Lister’s Diaries: Decoding the Secrets of The ‘First Modern Lesbian’

by Hannah McCann

The television drama Gentleman Jack, based on the life of 19th-century lesbian Anne Lister, has been ground-breaking in its portrayal of lesbian relationships. Lister is a significant part of queer and women’s history and her story has rightly been recently adapted for the screen. This article will not focus on Lister’s life but the source of her history – her secret diaries, which were written in her own code. She used code when writing about private matters – sex, money and her opinions on the people around her. In fact, one sixth of her writing was in code – a mix of Ancient Greek, mathematics and punctuation. These diaries have a fascinating history, almost as intriguing as Anne herself. Without them, her voice would have been lost to history, a fate that befell many queer women. 

When Anne died in 1840, her diaries remained at Shibden Hall – the Lister’s ancestral home. John Lister, a descendant of Anne’s family, and his friend Arthur Burrell later decoded her diaries in 1887. They had found a scrap of paper, on which ‘In God is my hope’ was scrawled in Anne’s handwriting – but ‘hope’ was in code. This allowed them to form an alphabet from the H, O, P and E.

They discovered an ‘intimate account of homosexual practices’ and so they hid the diaries in a wall at Shibden Hall. Burrell had suggested that Lister should burn the diaries to prevent a scandal, but luckily Anne’s writing survived this initial discovery. 

Burrell had reasons to be fearful. In the 19th-century homosexual acts between men were illegal – due to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 and sodomy had carried the death penalty until 1861. John Lister also had a further motive for hiding the diaries – he was gay and did not want to draw attention to the Lister family – or himself. 

The diaries remained hidden until 1934, when they were re-discovered after Shibden Hall became the property of Halifax Town Council. However, John Lister had died in 1933 so only Arthur Burrell knew how to decipher the code. He gave the key to the code to Halifax’s head librarian, who locked the key away in a safe. Various historians studied the diaries in the 1950s but no hint of Anne’s sexuality was ever published. 

However, over the next few decades gay rights started to progress and the taboo surrounding lesbianism started to lift. In 1957, the Wolfenden Report was published. It had been commissioned following the decision that homosexuality could no longer be classified as a disease. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 implemented the report’s advice and made some homosexual acts legal (those that were in private between men over the age of 21). The Gay Liberation Front was formed in the UK in 1970, following the New York Stonewall Riots the previous year. They fought for LGBT rights and their first Pride march was held in 1972. 

Therefore, by the time Helena Whitbread came across the diaries in the 1980s, society was more accepting of lesbianism. In 1988, Whitbread was the first to decipher and publish long extracts from Anne’s diaries. She revealed Anne’s sexuality to the world, in her book I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791–1840. Ironically, this was the same year that Section 28 came into force, which prevented councils from ‘promoting homosexuality’. This legislation was only repealed in 2003. 

In 2011, Anne’s diaries were placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, alongside the work of Samuel Pepys. The work to decode all of Anne’s diaries is still ongoing as they are 7,500 pages long and contain 5.5 million words – in near illegible handwriting. However, the success of Gentleman Jack is helping to fund this research and has renewed interest in Anne Lister. Shibden Hall now receives 400 visitors a day, three times the amount before Gentleman Jack aired. The pages of her diary and the screen have come together to educate the world on the ‘first modern lesbian’. 


Caroline Crampton, ‘The lesbian Dead Sea Scrolls: Anne Lister’s diaries’, New Statesman Online, 5 December 2013. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/11/lesbian-dead-sea-scrolls – Article about the historical significance of Anne Lister’s diaries in regard to queer history. 

Steven Dryden, ‘A short history of LGBT rights in the UK’, British Library. https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/a-short-history-of-lgbt-rights-in-the-uk – Article about LGBT rights in the UK.

Jade Hammond, ‘The Gentleman Jack effect: visitors to Anne Lister’s home treble’, The Guardian Online, 22 July 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jul/22/gentleman-jack-effect-anne-lister-home – Article about the impact that Gentleman Jack has had on interest in Shibden Hall. 

Taylor Maple, ‘Anne Lister’s Diaries Are Still Being Decoded, But ‘Gentleman Jack’ Is Helping To Piece Them Together’, Bustle Online, 22 April 2019. https://www.bustle.com/p/anne-listers-diaries-are-still-being-decoded-but-gentleman-jack-is-helping-to-piece-them-together-17133127 – Article about the current decoding of the diaries and the impact Gentleman Jack is having on the scholarship. 

‘Anne Lister – The Journals’, West Yorkshire Archive Service. https://wyascatablogue.wordpress.com/exhibitions/anne-lister/anne-lister-the-journals/ – Article about Helena Whitbread’s involvement with publishing the diaries. 

Helena Whitbread (ed.), I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840 (London, 1988) – Book of extracts of Anne Lister’s diaries and includes information about how the diaries were decoded.