Gentleman Jack: Anne Lister And The Brontës

Nineteenth century England was a very strict, staid place wasn’t it – after all its restrictive corsets are where we get the expression ‘straight laced’ from? In fact, one of the fascinating things about the period is that it’s often much more daring and exciting than that cliché suggests. The Brontës weren’t afraid to break free from the norm in their writing, and many other women challenged societal norms in their lives – women such as Mary Anne Evans, better known as the great novelist George Eliot, who for most of her life enjoyed a common law marriage to George Henry Lewes, who himself was already in an open marriage solemnised by the church. In Yorkshire, there was the great Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax, and we’re going to take a brief look at her incredible story today.

Anne Lister is the real life heroine of a new drama coming to BBC One tonight, ‘Gentleman Jack’ starring the brilliant Suranne Jones, but just who was she, and what, if any, Brontë connections did she have?

Anne Lister, painted in 1830
Anne Lister, painted in 1830

Anne was born into a wealthy Yorkshire family in 1791, the eldest daughter of James Lister, a landowner and former army officer. Anne had four brothers, but none of them outlived their father, and so it was that she came to inherit her family fortune, including the splendid Shibden Hall in 1836, although she had in effect been given the building, and the large estates that came with it, ten years earlier, allowing her a life of ease and independence.

She possessed a brilliant mind, and a love of literature and the arts, and she left a series of diaries that add up to more than four million words. In these she details the expansion of Shibden Hall that she carried out, and how her astute financial mind increased her fortune through investments in mining and railway shares, as well as detailing her life in Halifax and beyond.

The diaries would have proved a brilliant historical document in themselves, but what makes them especially fascinating is that approaching a million of the words are in a secret code that wasn’t cracked until the 1930s. Anne’s secret cypher was a mixture of ancient Greek with algebraic formulations thrown in to conceal things still further. What was Anne hiding that needed such secrecy? When the code was finally cracked it laid bare a series of conquests, sexual and amorous, with other women.

Shibden Hall, Halifax is open to the public

The fact that Anne Lister was a lesbian was well known at the time, she lived quite freely with a woman she considered her wife for many years, and she always wore black, male clothing. This led to her being nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘Fred’ by Halifax locals, but the sheer scale of her love life and the frankness with which she wrote about it behind the protective code still came as a surprise to some, considering the reputation that the first half of the nineteenth century had, and still has. I won’t go too much into Anne’s story, as I don’t want to spoil what should be an excellent drama series that’s about to burst forth onto our screens, but was Anne Lister known to the Brontës, and could they even have been known to her?

In September 1838, Emily Brontë surprised her family by taking the post of a teacher at Law Hill school in Southowram, in the hills above Halifax. She served under the head teacher Miss Elizabeth Patchett, who believed in giving her girls (it was an all girl’s school) a comprehensive education, taking them to museums and concerts, as well as giving them more traditional lessons. We know that whilst Emily served at the school as a teacher, the pupils were also taken to the grand home of a woman who had been known to Miss Patchett since childhood – the home was Shibden Hall and the woman, of course, was Anne Lister.

Would Emily Brontë have been expected to accompany her pupils on the two mile walk to visit Miss Lister? It seems likely, especially as Charlotte had written how Emily was never allowed any time on her own during her service at Law Hill: “I have had one letter from her [Charlotte wrote of Emily] since her departure, it gives an appalling account of her duties – Hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half-hour of exercise between – this is slavery, I fear she will never stand it.”

One of the most remarkable scenes in Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre‘ comes when the young protagonist is locked in the ‘red room’ of Gateshead Hall by her cruel aunt, Mrs Reed. Shibden Hall really is one of the delights of Yorkshire, and I urge you all to visit if you get the chance; thanks to Anne Lister it is splendid inside and out, and one of its many rooms was known as the red room. We know that one of Miss Lister’s lovers, an Anne Walker, barricaded herself into the room at one point, and also that it was reputed to be haunted by Anne Lister’s uncle, just as the red room of Gateshead Hall is haunted by Jane Eyre’s uncle. It seems clear to me that the fictional red room of ‘Jane Eyre’ is modelled upon the real red room of Shibden Hall; and that leads me to think it probable that Emily Brontë had herself been inside the room during a visit as a teacher, and been so impressed by it and its ghostly reputation that she later told the story to Charlotte, who stored it away for later use.

Shibden Hall
Shibden Hall has a haunted red room – sound familiar?

Charlotte would doubtless have been impressed by the story, by the grand hall, and by Anne Lister herself, for she was in many ways a grander version of Charlotte’s great friend Mary Taylor – Anne, like Mary, travelled extensively across Europe and was a pioneering female mountaineer, and in later life Mary Taylor too lived with a succession of women, young maids who travelled to Gomersal from Switzerland.

When we say the name Anne Lister, we find Ellis at its heart; could Emily have been so impressed by this powerful, free living woman that she inspired the pen name of Ellis Bell? We can never know for sure, but one certain Brontë connection is that tonight’s new drama series comes from the brilliant pen and mind of Sally Wainwright, who hit all the right notes with her Brontë drama ‘To Walk Invisible’. We won’t see the Brontës in ‘Gentleman Jack’ but it will show us a side of West Riding life at the time they lived there, that we don’t often see. I can’t wait to watch it!

What Became Of The Real St. John Rivers?

One of the great things about all Brontë novels is that they are jam packed full of fantastic characters – some we love (like Agnes Grey), some we root for (Jane Eyre or Helen Graham), and some who are sheer villains (Heathcliff and Arthur Huntingdon, for example) and some who can irritate us immensely with their piety and pomposity; foremost among these rascals is surely Jane Eyre’s ecclesiastical cousin St. John Rivers, but just who was the real St. John Rivers, and what became of him?

St. John Rivers
St. John Rivers in an illustrated ‘Jane Eyre’

Many Brontë characters are based on real people, perhaps that’s why they’re all so brilliantly observed; Agnes is surely Anne Brontë herself recounting her two roles as governess, Weston is her tragic love William Weightman, whilst Charlotte’s unrequited love Constantin Heger inspired Rochester and Paul Emanuel of ‘Villette’. St. John is clearly modelled on someone Charlotte knew well too, and whilst in the book he proposed to Jane Eyre in real life he proposed to Charlotte Brontë.

The character St. John Rivers is a cold man who is completely dedicated to his religious faith, and to whom love and emotions of any kind should be subdued, if they ever surface at all. When it finally comes, St. John’s proposal is far from romantic:

“Jane come with me to India: come as my helpmeet and fellow-labourer… God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must be – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”

St. John is determined to become a missionary, and he relentlessly pressurises Jane to accept his proposal and leave England behind for ever. Thankfully she is saved from his bullying coercion by a vision of Rochester, giving her the strength to leave her cousin and find her true love – and the rest is literary history. In real life, Charlotte Brontë didn’t find it quite so hard to escape St. John’s clutches.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of adventure and discovery for the intrepid explorers of the expanding British Empire – of course today, we also see the other, cruel, side of colonialism, but the Brontës, like so many others at this time, loved reading of their exploits. Alongside explorers, large numbers of missionaries travelled with the intention of converting people to Christianity – it was a dangerous profession, not only because many didn’t want to be converted but because of the diseases and extreme temperatures they faced, but it was a glamorous one too. The Brontë’s uncle John Kingston had served as a missionary in the Caribbean and America, Arthur Bell Nicholls applied to become a missionary in Australia after his proposal of marriage was rejected by Charlotte, and the real St. John Rivers, like his fictional counterpart, also dreamed of becoming a missionary – his name was Henry Nussey, brother to Charlotte’s best friend, and one time vicar of Hathersage who was to end his life in truly tragic circumstances.

Rydings, Birstall, once home of the Nussey family

Henry Nussey was born in 1812, one of the six elder brothers of Charlotte’s great confidante Ellen Nussey, and she grew to know him well. He was a serious and religious man, and he seems to have proposed to Charlotte for exactly the same reason that St. John Rivers proposes to Jane Eyre – he felt a minister needed a wife to support his work.

On 1st March 1839, Henry Nussey wrote to Charlotte proposing marriage to her, but her subsequent letter to his sister Ellen shows why she rejected it:

“You ask me dear Ellen whether I have received a letter from Henry. I have about a week since, the contents I confess did a little surprise me, but I kept them to myself, and unless you had questioned me on the subject I would never have adverted to it. Henry says he is comfortably settled in Sussex [where he was then a vicar], that his health is much improved & that it is his intention to take pupils after Easter – he then intimates that in due time he shall want a Wife to take care of his pupils and frankly asks me to be that Wife… I asked myself two questions – ‘Do I love Henry Nussey as much as a woman ought to love her husband? Am I the person best qualified to make him happy?’ Alas Ellen my Conscience answered ‘no’ to both these questions. I felt that though I esteemed Henry, though I had a kindly leaning towards him because he is an amiable well-disposed man, yet I had not, and never could have that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him – and if ever I marry it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my Husband… Could I, knowing my mind to be such as that, could I consciously say that I would take a grave quiet young man like Henry? No it would have been deceiving him.”

Henry had a rather less romantic notion of marriage, as unbeknownst to Charlotte just 11 days prior to his proposal to her, he had also proposed to the sister of a priest he had previously served as curate under at Burton Agnes in Yorkshire’s North Riding. Margaret Ann Lutwidge also rejected him, and she would later become aunt to a famous literary nephew – Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Alice’s creator Lewis Carroll. Therefore, Henry’s first two quickfire proposals could have seen him become husband to Charlotte Brontë or uncle to Lewis Carroll, but it seems he had little interest in literature and the arts himself.

Henry’s proposals could have seen him become husband to Charlotte Bronte or uncle to this man – Lewis Carroll

Like St. John Rivers, Henry Nussey had dreams of becoming a missionary, and aged just 16 he had written in his diary:
“I trust I shall be called to the ministry, and if it should be the Lord’s will, I would, for Christ’s sake, gladly be called to be a missionary, if I could in any way be an instrument in God’s hands, of promoting the salvation of mankind.”

Henry never gave up his dreams of missionary work, or of marriage, and on 23rd May 1845 Reverend Henry Nussey married the wealthy Emily Prescott of Everton, Lancashire, originally from Hampshire. By this time he was serving as parish priest in Hathersage in Derbyshire’s Peak District. This is the town recreated as Morton in ‘Jane Eyre’ whose parish priest was St. John Rivers, just as Henry was the vicar there in reality. Charlotte’s time in Hathersage, alongside Ellen who was visiting her brother, hugely influenced Jane Eyre, as the Eyres of Hathersage were the leading local family.

St. Michael's, Hathersage
Henry Nussey was vicar at St. Michael’s, Hathersage

St. John Rivers is rejected by Jane but continues on his mission, but, alas, life for Henry Nussey was not to be so straightforward.

Before marrying Miss Prescott, Henry Nussey had delayed his marriage by six months as he wanted to spruce up Hathersage Parsonage first, and his sister Ellen, always the practical one of the family, was called in to help him with this refurbishment. In a letter of March 1845, however, Charlotte had warned against this:

“I shall be so sorry when you are gone to Hathersage – you will be so far off again, how long will they want you to stay? I should say Henry would do wisely to make sure of Miss Prescott immediately – 6 months is a long time to wait, adverse things might happen in the meanwhile.”

It seems that Charlotte’s advice was heeded as the wedding was brought forward, but what were these ‘adverse things’ alluded to?

Henry Nussey had suffered ill health throughout his life, physical and mental. During his service as an assistant curate in his home town of Birstall, early in his ecclesiastical career, he recorded that he had become ‘harassed in mind’, and he was unable to continue in his role. Similarly, he was asked to leave his later post in Burton Agnes because he was having difficulty in delivering sermons and performing the duties of a priest.

Henry had received a head injury in his youth after being thrown from a horse, and there is some thought that this may have contributed to the mental health problems that plagued him throughout his adult life. By July 1847, Henry had given up his role as parish priest in Hathersage, and he and his wife travelled to the continent, hoping that the warm climate and new scenery would be good for his health. This doesn’t seem to have worked, and as well as giving up his vocation as a priest, Henry was soon forced to give up his marriage too.

The excellent detective work of Linda Pierson discovered what happened next. She discovered that in the 1850s, Henry had been admitted to Kingsdown Lunatic Asylum in Box, Wiltshire. In January 1860, he was moved from there to Arden House, a private asylum in Shakespeare country, where his entry record describes the former vicar of Hathersage as ‘lunatic’.

At Arden House, Henry is also recorded as being, “melancholic, at times violent and dangerous to himself and others.”

A half hidden grave at St. Peter’s church, Wootton Wawen in Warwickshire shows what happened next; it bears the following inscription:

“Sacred to the memory of the Revd Henry Nussey MA of Mag Coll Cambridge and late Vicar of Hathersage who died in this parish on the 20th day of August 1860 aged 48 years. He was the seventh son of the late John and Eleanor Nussey of Ridings near Leeds. Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.”

Arden House
Arden House, where Henry’s tragic life ended

Henry had taken his own life in Arden asylum, becoming the second of Ellen’s brothers to die in this way. In 1838, the great hope and success of the family, William Nussey who was Royal Apothecary and a physician to Queen Victoria herself, and who had been offered a knighthood, died after throwing himself into the River Thames. The Nussey story is often a tragic one, and none more so than that of Henry Nussey, the real St. John Rivers.

The Turning Off Of Patrick Reid

History is an endlessly fascinating subject, not only when it deals with Kings and Queens, great houses and great battles, but when it deals with ‘ordinary people’ as well. I put ordinary in quotation marks, because none of us are ordinary really are we? On the face of it, the Brontë siblings were ordinary people too, but of course they did extraordinary things.

The wonderful television series ‘A House Through Time’ with historian David Olusoga recently came to an end, and it showed the amazing secrets that can lie within an on the surface insubstantial home. The Brontës themselves took a keen interest in news stories from their area, and the lives of the people around them. Even Emily Brontë, always painfully shy and increasingly reclusive, knew the people of her village, as Charlotte Brontë recalled:

‘My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them.’

The Brontë family were avid readers of news local and national, and in 1847 one particular story is sure to have caught their attention – a savage triple murder in Mirfield, the town where Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë had attended Roe Head school, and where Anne had served as governess to the Ingham family of Blake Hall.

Patrick Reid Turned Off
‘Patrick Reid Turned Off’ by Branwell Bronte

It was a case that shocked, or possibly enraptured, the whole of Yorkshire – and we can be certain that Branwell Brontë took a keen interest in it because of his drawing of ‘Patrick Reid turned off, without his cap’. This ‘turning off’ was the public execution of the murderer Patrick Reid, but who was he and who were his victims? It’s a terrible tale with a bizarre twist.

The fateful event took place on 12th May 1847 at Water Royd House (that’s it at the top of the picture, it’s no longer extant although it was during the time I myself worked in the village) in a rural area of Mirfield away from other habitations. It was owned by James Wraith, a 77 year old man who lived there with his 65 year old wife Ann. Wraith had previously served as steward to Joseph Ingham of Mirfield’s Blake Hall. Ingham had also employed Anne Brontë at the hall as well of course, and was later portrayed as the cruel Mr Bloomfield in ‘Agnes Grey‘. It’s likely then that Anne would have known the ill fated Wraiths.

Wraith gravestone
The Wraith gravestone

They were a wealthy couple in their own right, thanks to a string of property they owned, and they had their own servant girl Caroline Ellis. She had become embroiled in an argument with a local knife grinder – Patrick Reid. Reid accused her of stealing a tea caddy from him, whether this was true or the circumstances surrounding it we’ll never know, and on the 12th May he created a scene at Water Royd House demanding that Caroline make repairs for her theft.

James Wraith ordered Reid to leave the house, but he vowed to return and wreak revenge. He then called upon an Irish tinker called Kilty and borrowed a soldering iron, after which he returned to Water Royd House and struck Caroline Ellis on the head. He was then confronted by James Wraith and then Ann Wraith, and he dealt them all the same blow, leaving them fatally wounded. To complete his evil work, Reid rifled their pockets and finally cut the throats of all three individuals. Caroline Ellis had been due to be married just four days later.

Patrick Reid
A contemporary drawing of Reid’s arrest

Reid was soon under suspicion as his quarrel with the Water Royd residents was well known. He was placed under arrest and committed to trial at the York assizes in July 1847. The trials gained huge press attention, but they were rather farcical as contradictory evidence was brought, and Reid was cleared of the murder of James Wraith. He was later, however, found guilty of the murders of the two women, and in December he was sentenced to hang.

The day of execution was set for 8th January 1848, a day that we know was terribly cold – and yet that did not diminish the huge crowds that gathered in York’s Knavesmire to see the triple killer’s execution. The Leeds Mercury reported that it was the greatest gathering ever assembled there to see a public hanging:

‘Probably on no occasion has an execution, within our recollection, drawn together so vast a concourse of spectators. Besides bringing together a very large proportion of the inhabitants of York and its more immediate vicinity, many towns in the West Yorkshire Riding added their thousands to swell the general throng From Halifax, Bradford, Wakefield, Barnsley, Leeds, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Mirfield, Pontefract, and indeed from every other place, great and small, contributions of inhabitants to the vast multitude took place. Some idea of the proportion which Leeds bore, may be formed from the fact that by the 7.20 a.m. train alone there were conveyed to York more than 1,000 extra passengers. All the available carriages were put into use, and still hundreds were left behind, at that time, to be conveyed by a subsequent train. This, however, gives but a very imperfect estimate of the number of persons that went from Leeds to York, as it is exclusive to pedestrians, many of whom even as early as the previous night, left this little town to visit the scene of the execution. It may be truly said of this occasion, that the soul-depressing exhibition of a criminal on the scaffold, drew more persons early from their rest on the coldest morning of the winter, than the most transcendent exhibition of virtue could probably have by a accomplished with all the charms and temptations of one of summer’s most attractive days.’

Caroline Ellis memorial
The Caroline Ellis memorial, Mirfield

The spectacle didn’t stop there. After his most public death, a showman named Andrew Purchase purchased the clothes Reid was wearing and the rope that was used to hang him, and he took them while the body was still warm. Purchase then had an effigy of Reid made, dressed it in the dead man’s clothes, and restaged his execution at shows across the north of England.

Did Branwell Brontë attend Patrick Reid’s execution? We don’t know, but we do know of course that the person depicted in his picture isn’t Reid at all, but the artist himself being hanged. It was a sign of Branwell’s inner turmoil at this time, and below the self portrait is the scene of a drunken brawl. The history of ‘ordinary people’ can be a fascinating one indeed, but it’s also frequently a tragic one.