An historic building with a notorious resident

Shibden Hall in Halifax (Picture courtesy of Calderdale Council Museums)

by ANTONY CLAY

A NINETEENTH century businesswoman has become something of a 21st century icon, thanks to a popular TV series.

The growing interest in the controversial – for her day – woman has also inspired a renewed interest in her West Yorkshire home which has seen visitor numbers swell.

Actress Suranne Jones’ portrayal of Anne Lister in the BBC TV drama Gentleman Jack brought to our screens a fiery, irascible, certainly challenging character who very much speaks to modern women for her firm intention not to be pushed around in a man’s world of business.

The real Anne Lister was as fascinating a character as her TV version suggests, and her home at Shibden Hall halfway between Bradford and Halifax is similarly interesting.

Shibden Hall (Picture courtesy of Calderdale Council Museums)

Prior to the TV series last year, the old building was a reasonably popular visitor attraction for the area but most people perhaps went there to enjoy the open grassland and boating lake that surrounds it.

But now the Grade II*-listed hall itself has become a focus of renewed interest, and quite rightly.

The building was started in the fifteenth century, believed to be around 1420, when it was inhabited by William Otes. It was then owned until the early seventeenth century by the Savile and Waterhouse families.

Indeed, a window at the hall bears the families’ armorial symbols.
But between around 1615 and 1926, the estate was owned by the Listers, who were mill owners and cloth merchants.

The famous Anne Lister was one of this clan. She was born 1791 and died in 1840.

She ended up owning the hall and made improvements to the house and grounds.

Additions included a tower and terraced gardens, rock gardens, cascades and a boating lake.

Anne Lister died abroad in 1840 and the estate passed to her partner, Ann Walker, who herself died in 1854.

Portrait of Anne Lister

The property went back to the Lister family who donated it to the Halifax Corporation in 1933 who made it into a museum with the estate becoming a very pleasant public park.

The park is a popular attraction for local families and the hall has always been something of a draw, but since Anne Lister became a modern-day TV personality Shibden Hall has hit it big.

But what was Anne Lister like?

She always dressed in black, she had sexual relationships with women quite openly, and wrote millions of words in a diary, much of which was in code.

Portrait of Anne Lister

She travelled widely across Europe and beyond – unusual for a woman at that time – and also thrust herself into business, again putting male noses out of joint.

In her relatively short life – she died aged 49 and is buried in Halifax Minster – she could perhaps be said to have laid the foundations for many of the more positive gender and sexual norms we see in modern life.

Her ‘marriage’ to the love of her life – the pair took communion at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York, on Easter Sunday in 1834 – may not have meant a legal partnership as such but they regarded themselves as a couple because of it. It took more than 100 years for the UK to recognise same sex marriages. The York church has been regarded as “an icon for what is interpreted as the site of the first lesbian marriage to be held in Britain”.

The couple even ignored the norm of the time by openly living together at Shibden Hall.

It is an impressive example of someone living her life as she wished, which certainly speaks to people today.

The staircase at Shibden Hall (picture courtesy of Calderdale Council Museums)

Much of what we know about Anne Lister come from the four million words in her diaries, much of the more personal and raunchier parts written in code.

The hall is a popular attraction, not just for the well maintained building itself but also the adjoining farm buildings, including a 17th century aisled barn.

Workshops are home to a carriage collection and displays of crafts such as a blacksmiths and saddlers.

The delightful gardens around the hall are well worth a wander through. Colours, scents and an air of tranquility make them pleasant to explore.
For the kids there is, in the surrounding park, a boating lake, a miniature railway (really great fun for children of all ages), trails, a play area and a woodland to explore.

It really is a great day out for all ages, even without the Gentleman Jack connection.

The hall was also used in the Mike Leigh film Peterloo.
Inside the hall, attractions include a music room containing a square piano dating from 1769.

There is also a stunning oak-panelled staircase which gives some insight into the high standards enjoyed by the families who inhabited the house over the years.

It seems odd then that Anne Lister spent so much time away from home travelling the continent. Perhaps she found provincial Halifax life a little too dull for her roving and adventurous spirit?

What would she have made of this sudden interest in her life? She would probably have appreciated the fact that the law has moved on with respect to same sex relationships, but she may have also been frustrated that the glass ceiling for women still exists in many respects.

A visit to Shibden Hall is an inspiring thing. It can be seen as a journey to an old house offering a glimpse into how life was in the past for landowners and their servants, but given the notoriety of one of its residents it also encourages a visitor to think about the issues she inspires.

And when you have finished at Shibden Hall there are plenty of other attractions in Halifax – such as the Bankfield Museum, Heptonstall Museum and Smith Art Gallery – and in Bradford – such as the National Media Museum, Cartwright Hall and Bolling Hall Museum – to spend some time exploring. It’s a great part of the world.

FACTFILE:
Address – Shibden Hall, Lister’s Road, Halifax, West Yorkshire HX3 6XG
Telephone – 01422 352246
Email – museums@calderdale.gov.uk

The garden at Shibden Hall (Picture courtesy of Calderdale Council Museums)

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