Who called Anne Lister ‘Gentleman Jack’ - and when? This nickname has grown extremely popular recently. So where did it spring from?
The first public reference is Helena Whitbread’s Introduction to I Know My Own Heart (1988): ‘that her nickname amongst the inhabitants of Halifax was “Gentleman Jack” is indicative of… her masculine appearance and behaviour…’ Headline-writers always love alliteration - and soon pounced. The London Review of Books (1988) headed its review ‘Gentleman Jack from Halifax’. Others included BBC Radio 4’s programme, ‘Gentleman Jack from Halifax’ (1993).
Now of course, Sally Wainwright’s BBC1 drama series is also titled Gentleman Jack. As is Angela Steidele’s biography (2018), translated from German; plus Anne Choma’s The Real Anne Lister (BBC Books 2019). Finally, the song of local folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow, inspired by Anne Lister, is likewise ‘Gentleman Jack’, heard as each episode closes.
So who came up with this nickname - and when? You would need to spend long hard days transcribing Anne Lister’s nigh indecipherable diaries before venturing an answer. Yet, despite all the researches of Helena Whitbread, myself and Cat Euler (Arizona University), who probably know the diaries better than most, none of us has found a reference to ‘Gentleman Jack’. (Though of course, the word ‘jack’ does appear, referring to masculine women.)
So it’s surprising to learn that the only published ‘Gentleman Jack’ phrase pre-1988 is buried deep in a little-known local history, Story of the Town that Bred Us. Published in 1948, 148 years after Anne Lister’s death in 1840, it proudly celebrates Halifax Borough’s centenary. The chapter ‘From Wasteland to Wilderness’ by local antiquarian W B Trigg contains a reference to how ‘the masculine Miss Lister, known as “Gentleman Jack”, was full of adventure’.
So how would Trigg have come across this compelling nickname? And who was he? Born in 1885, he joined the Halifax Antiquarian’s golden generation - like John Lister, the last Lister descendant to inherit Shibden Hall. In 1909, when he was about 24 years old, Trigg approached ‘the grey beards’ about joining, but they said he was too young. He refused to be deterred.
Trigg brought his professional experience as a surveyor to local history research. For over fifty years from about 1910, he wrote scholarly articles (notably on coal mining) for the Antiquarians’ Transactions. Trigg’s practical knowledge of Halifax mining meant he had met old miners on his local walks. The 1911 census for Halifax records 65 coalminers, mostly living within easy walking distance of Shibden. And in his first ‘Halifax Coalfield’ article (1930), Trigg recalled his own vivid memories:
The Halifax collier, once… an important character in old Yorkshire anecdotes, is now an almost extinct species of humanity. These little black men… were in many cases men of stunted growth, due to working in the very shallow seams of coal, and the precariousness of their existence below ground seemed to reflect itself in [their] light-hearted recklessness… so that in any mischief or horseplay that was afoot the colliers seemed to take a leading part.
We can never be certain: but did a few mischievous miners, perhaps relaxing over a pint, relate to young surveyor Trigg the story of how one mine-owner was known locally as ‘Gentleman Jack’? We’ll probably never know exactly when it was elderly miners’ tongues were sufficiently loosened to pass this tale on to Trigg. It was possibly in the 1900s, some sixty years after Anne Lister’s death, that this tenacious oral testimony was told to Trigg. It could have been in the 1920s, when Shibden’s coal seams became exhausted and the estate seemed doomed to crumble.
Whenever the tale was passed on, it would have been at a time when lesbianism was virtually unspeakable. As late as 1921 there was even an attempt in Parliament to criminalize female homosexuality (though the amendment quickly fell, for fear of drawing unwelcomed public attention to lesbians). Overall, it seems likely that Trigg, meticulous historian, had to wait till well after the death in 1933 of John Lister, a revered local figure and probably homosexual himself, before he felt he could publicly air this controversial nickname.
A Halifax miners’ union continued right up to 1945, about the time that Trigg’s own health began to deteriorate. Did he feel he needed to record local stories while he still could? His article in Story of the Town that Bred Us appeared just three years later, when Trigg was 63. He died not long after, in 1951, aged 66.
Certainly, in a traditional Yorkshire town as proud as Halifax, folk memories of stories told about local characters remained as fresh and green as if they had been first heard just yesterday.
Indeed, when I moved to Halifax in 1980, this traditional local pride remained powerful and tangible. Feminism had yet to arrive (though was just about to) and Halifax was definitely not a great place to be gay in. Getting to know the area and the Antiquarians’ Society culture, I could just still glimpse the traditional world of W B Trigg - though his death was 30 years earlier.
Whatever its precise historiography, the daring nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’ is now extremely well-known. And, largely thanks to Sally Wainwright’s TV drama, even has global reach.
It may well have been easier to live a lesbian life (albeit very discreetly) in rural Shibden as a member of landed gentry in the 1830s than it was a century later. That there was even an attempt to criminalize lesbianism as late as 1921 still has the power to shock. The tenacity of rich oral testimony around the ‘Gentleman Jack’ nickname, popping up publicly only in 1988, 148 years after Anne Lister’s death, suggests how very long lesbianism had remained unspoken.
Especially so in Halifax. After all, this Yorkshire town grew prosperous on its textiles and engineering industries; and even after these declined, it remained fiercely proud of its own cultural heritage. Such West Riding towns can’t be easily likened to London and other cosmopolitan cities.