York Civic Trust Plaques

Anne Lister (1791-1840)

Gender-nonconforming entrepreneur often referred to as the 'first modern lesbian'

Location of plaque: the Goodramgate entrance to Holy Trinity Church churchyard

Unveiled on July 24, 2018, by York Civic Trust, York LGBT Forum and the Churches Conservation Trust

SHE'S been played on TV by Maxine Peake. Sally Wainwright has written a new eight-part drama for the BBC and HBO about her. And now Anne Lister, the woman sometimes described as the 'first modern lesbian', has been given the ultimate accolade: a plaque in York. Appropriately enough, it's a rainbow-bordered one.

The plaque commemorates Easter Sunday, 1834, when Anne attended a service at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate and celebrated communion with the woman she regarded as her wife, Ann Walker. She later wrote that she considered the ceremony a blessing of their marriage.

Anne was a woman who openly defied the conventions of her age, in a way that seems exhilarating to us today. She was a traveller, adventurer and businesswoman who made no secret of her preference for members of the 'fairer sex', as she put it.

The daughter of a wealthy Halifax cloth merchant, she was sent to school at Ripon and then at the Manor House School in York (part of King's Manor). She was a 'tomboy' at school. It was considered normal for girls to have 'crushes' and romantic friendships. But Anne's friendships with other girls became increasingly flirtatious. Her first serious love affair was with Eliza Raine, with whom she shared a bedroom at school. The pair both kept journals, and invented a secret code in which to write about their relationship. Eliza referred to Anne as 'my husband'.

Anne kept a diary for the rest of her life, recording her numerous affairs with different women, as well as her widespread travels.

In an entry from 1817, when she was 26, she makes clear how completely she rejected the conventions of the age. She describes burning some 'farewell verses' from a Mr Montagu so 'no trace of any man's admiration may remain'. "It is not meet for me. I love only the fairer sex ...my heart revolts from any love other than theirs," she wrote.

Anne's first serious love, Eliza, was declared insane in 1814, thanks in part, it seems, to the stress of maintaining their illicit relationship. But Anne continued to have relationships with other women.

It was her love for one woman in particular for which she is most remembered today. By 1834, she and Ann Walker were living openly as a couple at Shibden Hall near Halifax, which Anne inherited on the death of her uncle.

They had already exchanged rings and vows with each-other, before blessing their marriage by attending that Easter Sunday service at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate.

Anne's diaries also record her travels. In 1838, she was the first person to climb Pic Vignemale in the Pyrenees. In 1839, she and Ann went travelling again, through Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Caucasus and Persia. Anne galloped across the frozen Volga river, and even visited a Tartar harem. Reaching the Black Sea, however, she became ill with a fever, and died on September 22, 1840. A grieving Ann Walker embalmed her body and returned to England, where Anne was laid to rest in what is now Halifax Minster.

Anne Lister was no saint. But her refusal to be cowed or constrained by the male-dominated conventions of the day marked her out as a true social pioneer.

To read the stories behind more Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk/