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Gentleman Jack writer contests Lister burial site in Halifax Minster

06 May 2022

Vicar: ‘Any suggestion that the Minster is homophobic is baseless and without foundation’


Mural of Anne Lister by Anna Jaxe on the side of the Ring O’Bells pub, Upper Kirkgate, next to Halifax Minster

Mural of Anne Lister by Anna Jaxe on the side of the Ring O’Bells pub, Upper Kirkgate, next to Halifax Minster

THE writer of the BBC1 drama series Gentleman Jack has called on the Church to help to find the final resting place of her eponymous hero.

Sally Wainwright, who dramatised the life and loves of Anne Lister, the 19th-century Yorkshire diarist-adventurer dubbed “the first modern lesbian”, has attracted global acclaim. But Lister’s grave, in Halifax Minster, has been lost, and the writer would like it restored so that one day people might lay flowers there, “knowing that we are laying them as close to her mortal remains as we possibly can”.

Lister was a regular worshipper in St John’s Parish Church, which is now the Minster, and was buried there in 1840; but the grave was destroyed during a refurbishment in the 1870s. It was only in 2000 that fragments of the ledger stone were unearthed, and have since been put on display in the Minster.

Ms Wainwright said: “The church’s official line is that she is buried in the family vault, but a lot of scholarly opinion now believes that she is buried elsewhere in the church. She has become a world-famous writer, and I think the church should respect that, and do everything it can to locate where she was originally, and restore it, but there does seem to be a reluctance. I don’t know if it is because she was gay.

“Anne Lister is now increasingly regarded as a great literary figure. Halifax has its own Shakespeare, its own Brontës. It is time we stopped regarding her as a dirty secret, and instead be proud that she was probably Halifax’s most famous daughter. Continuing to keep her grave shrouded in mystery is to be complicit in the belief that people like Anne Lister should be obliterated from history, and I don’t think that is good for the Church.”

The Vicar of Halifax Minster, Canon Hilary Barber, pointed out that the Minster had supported a recent Anne Lister Birthday Festival, hosting events, pilgrimages, guided tours, and selling books and memorabilia. It also held a memorial service for her last year. “None of this looks to me as if the Minster is reluctant to engage with this subject,” he said. “The Minster welcomes people of all backgrounds irrespective of their gender or sexuality, and has done so for over 900 years of Benedictine spirituality.

AlamyThe broken memorial stone for Anne Lister in Halifax Minster

“Many people from the LGBQI+ community are members of the worshipping community, and we spent the season of Lent following the short course offered by Inclusive Church. Any suggestion that the Minster is homophobic is baseless and without foundation.”

The Minster had taken expert advice from the national Church, through the Church Buildings Council, on locating the grave. “On the balance of probabilities, we believe that she is in the family vault on the south side of the Minster, where a space would have been reserved for her. However, we are aware that, because her tombstone was found in a different location, the location is a contested one.”

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