01 March 2020
wikimedia commons
wikimedia commons

ON 30 MARCH 1834, having previously exchanged rings and vows, Anne Lister—seen here in a portrait by a painter known only as Mrs Taylor—and Ann Walker took sacrament together at the Holy Trinity Church in York, England. It was the first ever recorded lesbian wedding. Lister, who was 42 years old at the time, and Walker, aged 30, were both heiresses to neighbouring estates in the Yorkshire town of Halifax. They moved in together at Shibden Hall, Lister’s ancestral home.

Lister maintained meticulous diaries since the age of 15. In her diaries—which ran into 26 volumes, spanning five million words—she recorded her torrid love affairs with several women, beginning when she was in boarding school. An avid mountaineer, she travelled extensively through Europe before returning to Shibden, where she developed the estate’s collieries, as growing industrialisation in Halifax raised the demand for coal. After a two-year courtship, Walker agreed to marry her.

Lister’s family accepted her decision, having known about her sexuality. Walker’s family had died years before. Their cohabitation caused scandal in Yorkshire, but they faced little backlash, besides a few pranks. Lister was used to being ridiculed for her masculine appearance, with people calling her “Gentleman Jack.” She used Walker’s considerable fortune to complete renovations at Shibden and got involved in local Tory politics, before the couple embarked on another tour of Europe. Lister died, in 1840, while travelling through the Caucasus Mountains. Walker spent the next eight months bringing Lister’s coffin back to Halifax. She was soon institutionalised for mental-health issues.