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A Lesbian Tragedy - The Life of Ann Walker (A-Z LGBTQ+ History)

Anne Lister and Ann Walker made up the first-ever known women to have a same-sex wedding ceremony, albeit without legal recognition. Since the hit BBC TV Show “Gentleman Jack”, a lot of people have become a lot more acquainted with the lesbian and diarist Anne Lister, but her lover and wife Ann Walker is often over-looked when she is an amazing woman in her own right.

Ann Walker is played my Sophie Rundle in the TV show "Gentleman Jack".

Early life

Ann Walker was born to John and Mary Walker (nee Edwards) on the 20th May 1803 in Lightcliffe, West Riding of Yorkshire. The Walkers were a wealthy family; they owned a worsted mill and Crow Nest, a grand mansion. Ann lived her younger years in her childhood home near Cliffe Hill but when Anne was six her father inherited from his unmarried elder brother and the family moved into Crow Nest.

Ann had two elder sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and a younger brother, John Junior, the families heir; she did also have another brother, William, but he died shortly after birth. Ann faced a lot of tragedies in her life. On the 1st of February 1815, Ann’s sister Mary died and when Ann was just 19 her father died on the 22nd April 1823 and her mother died later the same year on the 3rd November.

Ann’s sister Elizabeth married Captain George Mackay Sutherland and mover to Ayrshire in early November 1828. A couple of years later in 1830, her newly-married brother, John Junior, died on his honeymoon in Naples, Italy. His wife was pregnant but the child was a stillborn and John had not made a will so Ann and Elizabeth became very wealthy co-heiresses.

Faith, Philanthropy and Mental Health:

Faith was incredibly important to Ann and her philanthropic endeavours. She was an Anglican Christian and worshipped regularly at St Matthew’s Church in Lightcliffe. As well as that, she read prayers and scripture to her family and servants on Sundays. Ann even created her own Sunday school as she was incredibly fond of children. Her servants and tenants were also very important to her as is apparent in letters written back home while she was travelling in 1839 - 1840 where she lists out the Christman gifts they all should be given in her absence.

Ann was described to be withdrawn and shy. She also struggled with mental health issues throughout her life and was prone to periods of anxiety and depression; this was diagnosed as religious melancholy (a recognised and common contemporary term) in which the sufferer’s depression and anxiety is linked to their religious faith.

Ann found it incredibly difficult to accept her own sexuality which presumably was an additional strain on her mental health.

Relationship with Anne Lister:

Anne Lister is played by Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack.

Ann and Anne became neighbour in 1815 when Anne Lister moved to Shibbden Hall but they only met occasionally until 1832 when they became involved in a romantic and sexual relationship. The two did grow very close and Lister invited Ann to move in and live with her at Shibbden Hall. However, Ann was uncertain and asked for six months to consider her decision as she was also trying to choose whether to accept a traditional marriage with a man. Ann eventually sent Lister a letter in which she said “I find it impossible to make up my mind. This angered Lister and she travelled to Europe for several months but the pair do eventually reconcile.

They exchanged vows and considered themselves married on the 10th February 1834, making them the first known women to have a same-sex wedding ceremony although without legal recognition. They exchanged rings on the 27th February 1834 as a symbol of their commitment to one another. They took communion at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York on Easter Sunday (30th March) to seal their union where there is now a rainbow plaque to commemorate this. My Girlfriend and I actually visited here last August and of course, took a photograph:

My girlfriend and I with the plaque.

They had a three-month-long honeymoon travelling through France and Switzerland and on return, Ann gave up here family home and moved to Shibden Hall to be with Lister. Using their combined wealth, they renovated Shibbden Hall, travelled widely and remade their will to leave a life tenancy to one another upon their deaths.

Shibden Hall, I hope to visit here soon!

Their marriage was not picture perfect; they were both of very different character and Lister in her diary did mention being tired of Ann’s behaviour and occasionally hurt by her harsh language. Ann would spend many days resting of the sofa doing nothing and suffering from back problems but Lister would comment on how Ann felt better after travelling.

The couple went travelling again in 1838. In 1840, they were travelling through Russia, some 4,500 miles from home when Lister became ill. It is thought that this stemmed from an insect bite which brought a fever. Lister died on the 22nd September 1840, aged 49, in present-day Kutaisi in Georgia.

Ann had Lister’s body embalmed and, over eight months, had it shipped on land and sea back to Yorkshire, arriving back in Halifax on 24th April 1841.

It is rather debated whether Lister actually saw Ann as a genuine companion she loved or if Lister, more cynically, was in it just for her money. Whatever the case, Ann Walker’s love for Anne Lister was certainly genuine.

After Anne’s death:

Ann returned to Shibden Hall and changed her will to leaver her estate to the oldest son of her sister Elizabeth’s husband Captain George Sutherland.

Ann physical and mental health decline as she worked to maintain the two estates of Shibden and Crow Nest. This ultimately came to a head on the 9th September 1843 when Ann’s family travelled to Halifax and accompanied by a local constable had to forcible remove Ann from the Red Room at Shibden Hall. Apparently, in order to do this Captain Sutherland had to bring a locksmith and a joiner to take the door off the hinges. They, reportedly, found the room all smeared with blood, probably menstrual blood. She was then taken off to York to an asylum under the care of Dr Henry Belcomb and resided there for several years.

Watch here an interview with Helana Whitbread, decoder and author of Anne Lister’s secret diaries, talking about the demise of Anne Walker.

Ann never returned to Shibden Hall and instead returned to Cliffe Hill shortly before her death on 25th February 1854, aged 51. Her death certificate reads “Effusion on the brain, Congestion.” suggesting it was perhaps caused by a stroke. She was buried in St Matthew’s Church, Lightcliffe according to her memorial plaque “under the pulpit.” The exact location of this pulpit is unknown since the church has now been demolished.

Main takeaways:

Much of what we know about Ann Walker comes from the diaries of Lister, however, she was an amazing woman in her own right. Her story of courage, determination and mental health struggles is still incredibly inspiring in the 21st Century.

This is the only portrait of Ann Walker.

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