Decoding & Transcribing Anne Lister’s diaries

Anne Lister was a land owner, business woman, lesbian, diarist and inspiration for the hit BBC/HBO drama Gentleman Jack.

Anne kept diaries from 1806 to her death in 1840 covering all aspects of her life as a landowner, business woman, traveller and lesbian.

Anne is considered by many to be ‘the first modern lesbian’.

She wrote her diaries systematically in volumes from 1817, aged 26, proposing to write her diary every day. Her diaries comprise of some 7,720 pages or around 5 million words, with about one sixth of the entries written in a code that she created.

In 2011 Anne’s diaries were inscribed in the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in recognition of their substantial cultural significance to the UK.

They are an important resource in the field of Gender Studies and Women’s History, as well as providing a wealth of information about politics, business, religion, education, science, travel, local and national events, medicine and health.

From John Lister to the digital age, sharing the story of Anne Lister from the 1890s to the present day.

The remarkable life Anne recorded in her diaries was first shared in the 1890s when John Lister, a distant relative of Anne’s and the last Lister to inherit Shibden Hall, began to read and transcribe the diaries.

Published instalments of Johns work in the Halifax Guardian, demonstrated the social and political life in Halifax of the early 1800’s, but spoke nothing of her relationships which were hidden in the coded passages of the diaries.

Following John’s death in 1933, the Shibden Hall estate, along with Anne’s diaries and the key to the code, came into the possession of the local council. Early researchers of the diaries, including Muriel Green, used the diaries themselves along with the key to the code to produce chronologies of the diaries and summaries of the coded sections.

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale. SH:7/ML/E/1/0002 – Diary of Anne Lister, March 1817

Later the diaries, alongside other items in the Shibden Hall collection, were microfilmed and the microfilms were used to provide access to the diaries to preserve the original volumes. Over the years many researchers used these microfilms when researching Anne’s life, these included Helena Whitbread author of ‘The Secret Diaries of Miss Lister’ and Jill Liddington author of ‘Female Fortune, Land, Gender and Authority’. Photocopies of the microfilm were provided for researchers to continue their work at home, though staff at the time recall “having to use some really bad photocopies that were hard to decipher”.

In 2018, access to the diaries was to improve dramatically when the opportunity for a joint digitisation project between the Archive Service and Calderdale Museums arose. With the generous support of Sally Wainwright, from the Wellcome Trust Screenwriters Fellowship, the Archive Service set out to digitise every page of Anne’s diaries and to carry out conservation work to help ensure their long term safety.

The digitisation itself was carried out by Townsweb Archiving, a digitisation company who specialise in archival records.  Based in a digitisation room at our Leeds Archive office, they carefully worked through the 7,720 pages to provide high quality digital images in both Jpeg and Tiff file formats.

We were now able to share high quality images of the diary on our online catalogue for researchers all over the world to see. A far cry from the difficult to decipher microfilm copies. However, there was still one drawback, approximately 1/6th of the diaries were in code and the diaries had never been fully transcribed. Unless one is able to read her challenging handwriting and decipher her secret code, many details of Anne’s remarkable life remain hidden in the tiny scribbles and symbols she scrawled on the 7,720 pages of her journals.

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
SH:7/ML/E/4/0122 – Diary of Anne Lister, January 1821

With the explosion of interest following the release of the first series of Gentleman Jack the time seemed right to launch our Diary Transcription Project. This project recruited volunteers to transcribe all 7,720 pages of Anne’s diaries. The response was phenomenal and in just a few months after its launch the project had over 180 volunteers from 17 different countries. In 2020, the project was awarded with the ARA Archives Volunteer Award, in recognition of the invaluable contributions that its volunteers are making to extend the reach of Anne’s diaries and engage with a large online community.

Once complete researchers will be able to access the full transcripts of the diaries via the service’s online catalogue. The transcriptions covering the year’s 1806-Apr 1823 are already available.

You can read all about Anne, the Diary Transcription Project and information on how to read Anne’s diaries on our online exhibition – https://wyascatablogue.wordpress.com/exhibitions/anne-lister/anne-lister-reading-annes-diaries/

Twitter: @wyorksarchives

Instagram: @westyorkshirearchive

Facebook: @WestYorkshireArchiveService

Email: calderdale@wyjs.org.uk

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