Anne Lister – The Journals

To say the least Anne was a compulsive diarist! Her diaries comprise some 7,720 pages or around 5 million words.  In comparison the diaries of Samuel Pepys run to just 1.25 million words.  Beginning in 1806 aged 15, the reason for starting seems to have been the departure of Eliza Raine following a visit to Anne and her family.  The habit grew into what could be called an obsession in adulthood with Anne referring in her diaries to her “private memorial” which helped to “compose” and “comfort” her.  For the period 1806-1810, the journal is in the form of loose sheets, comprising some 20,000 words.  She wrote her journals in volumes systematically from 1817, aged 26, and as the years went by, Anne increased the amount of detail she wrote in her tiny handwriting made harder to read by her abbreviations and shorthand.


Bill to Anne Lister from Whitley and Booth of Halifax, booksellers, where Anne bought her blank diary volumes, 1833 (HAS/B:13/36/1)

By the autumn of 1832, 20,000 words only cover a 5 week period!  Her usual method was to jot down memoranda on a slate and then write up her journal later that day or the following day.  She used a cipher of her own devising – a combination of Greek and algebraic terms, without wordbreaks or punctuation – to record her deepest and most private feelings, and accounts of the relationships with the women in her life.  She was careful as to who knew about the diaries but believed, quite wrongly as it turned out, that these passages would be almost impossible to decipher!

SH-7-ML-E-26_first entry

“Eliza left us”

Diary – First entry of loose sheets, 11 Aug 1806 (SH:7/ML/26)


Her last entry was for the 11 August 1840 when she was in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. Six weeks later she died on 22 September at the age of 49, having contracted a fatal fever.  The history of the diaries after Anne’s death is a fascinating one and it can be said their survival has been a bit of a miracle.  When Anne died in Georgia, Ann Walker brought her body back, together with at least some of the diaries, including the one she was writing in Georgia, and we know from an 1850 list of the Shibden papers that there was a bundle listed as “Diaries and journals of Mrs Lister” and that the diaries and other records seem to have been kept behind the panels at Shibden.  Following Ann Walker’s death in 1854, John Lister, a distant relative from Wales moved to Shibden with his family.  His son, John Lister made the first serious attempt to present a picture of Anne in 21 instalments from the diaries in the Halifax Guardian, but this was not an intimate picture because the personal extracts were written in code and because Lister, as a local antiquarian, was perhaps more interested in other aspects of her life and influence in the Halifax area.



Last entry in diary 11 Aug 1840 – 14 months after she had left home. Six weeks later, Anne would be dead (SH:7/ML/E:24)


A key event in the history of the journals took place in the early 1890s at 2 o’clock one morning. John Lister and a Bradford antiquarian called Arthur Burrell cracked the code and translated a passage, and Burrell left a description of the event.


“Up to that time we knew nothing of the cipher alphabet. I distinctly remember taking a volume back to Shibden….and telling Mr Lister that I was certain of 2 letters, h and e; and I asked him if there was any likelihood that a further clue could be found.  We then examined one of the boxes behind the panels and half way down the collection of deeds we found on a scrap of paper these words “In God is my….”. We at once saw that the word must be “hope” and the h and e corresponded with my guess. The word “hope” was in cipher.  With these four letters almost certain we began very late at night to find the remaining clues.  We finished at 2 am….The part written in cipher – turned out after examination to be entirely unpublishable.  Mr Lister was distressed but he refused to take my advice, which was that he should burn all 26 volumes.  He was as you know an antiquarian and my suggestion seemed sacrilege, which perhaps it was”

Letter by Arthur Burrell to the Halifax Borough librarian, 12 Dec 1936, (SH:7/JN/B/74/6)


It has to be remembered that in 1885 all male homosexual acts had been made completely illegal and that public opinion was very hostile as shown in the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde. The diaries went back behind the panels and when John Lister died in 1933 he took his knowledge of the coded diaries to the grave. Halifax Borough now became owners of Shibden, and the Borough Librarian, Edward Green was given permission for his daughter, Muriel to sort through the mass of manuscripts and unsorted letters (some 1850 of which are also at WYAS, Calderdale).  After spending 2 years cataloguing John Lister’s books, she began work on the letters, dipping into the diaries to check points but failing to work out the code.  Edward Green, tracking down missing volumes of the diaries, contacted Arthur Burrell in London and was told the story of the cracking of the code. Green was supplied with a copy of the key which he shared with his daughter.  Further research continued in 1958 with Phyllis Ramsden and Vivien Ingham, who were allowed to borrow the diaries two at a time and who were given a copy of the key.  They produced a chronology of Anne’s activities together with summaries of the coded sections and Ramsden can be said to be the first scholar with a detailed knowledge of all the diaries.  In 1984 a Guardian article entitled “The two million word enigma” opened up the diaries to a much wider audience and ended with a heartfelt if simplistic plea – “All we need now is the dedicated researcher to fill in the gaps. Any takers?”


Cipher for code (RAM:78)


SH-7-ML-E-07_0056_composed and done me good

“Writing my journal has composed and done me good; so it always does”

21 Aug 1823 – written in Anne’s journal (following drama with MB) (SH:7/ML/E/7)



“Isabel, much to my annoyance, mentioned my keeping a journal and setting down everyone’s conversation in my peculiar handwriting (what I call crypt hand). I mentioned the almost impossibility of its being deciphered…”

16 Aug 1819 – written in Anne’s journal (SH:7/ML/E/3)



“In spite of all I have written in my journal, I have not unburdened my heart enough”

25 Aug 1823 – written in Anne’s journal (SH:7/ML/E/7)


Shortly afterwards Helena Whitbread came into the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, became intrigued by the diaries, and started to decipher fully the coded sections. She has produced two key publications “I know my own Heart” (1988) which for the first time made clear in print Anne’s lesbianism, and “No Priest but Love” (1992).  She is currently working on a biography of Anne.  In 1992 Muriel Green’s “Miss Lister of Shibden Hall” was finally published concentrating on Anne’s letters whilst Jill Liddington has written such works as “Presenting the Past” (1994) and “Female Fortune, Land, Gender and Authority” (1998).  Many other articles have also been written all over the world.


Other Exhibition Pages

Anne Lister – An Introduction

Anne Lister – Early Years

Anne Lister – Love Life

Anne Lister – Shibden Hall

Anne Lister – A Window into History

Anne Lister – The Traveller

Anne Lister – Reading Anne’s Diaries

Anne Lister – Diary Transcription Project