John Lister and the cracking of the secret code

Many of you may think that Anne Lister’s secret code was cracked recently in modern times, but it was in fact done already in the 1890s by the son of her distant cousin, John Lister (1847-1933). In this post I try to introduce John Lister who wasn’t born in Halifax but who would live at Shibden Hall as an adult. Shibden Hall was taken over by his father after the death of Ann Walker.

John Lister (1847-1933)

The Listers were not allowed to claim Shibden Hall according to the jurisdictions provided in the final will by Anne Lister. Because of the criterias listed in Anne Lister’s final Will Shibden Hall was to be considered as the rightful property of Ann Walker as long as she didn’t marry and beget children. Because of her bad health Ann Walker herself didn’t live at the Hall except from a brief period upon returning from their trip in 1841. These circumstances annoyed the Listers, but she refused to give the estate up and collected the rents from its tenants as long as she lived. The Listers had to wait for Ann Walker to pass away before they could move in to the hall which they finally did in 1855. John himself was its last resident and from what I’ve been reading, he donated the Shibden estate to the Halifax community.

John Lister (8 March 1847 – 12 October 1933) was; as wikipedia states “an English philanthropist and politician.” He was born in Marylebone, Middlesex to John and Louisa Ann (née Grant). His father John Lister (1802–1867) was a physician. John Lister had two younger siblings named Charles and Anne. The Listers grew up in Sandown on the Isle of Wight and Halifax. John Lister attended Winchester College, then Brasenose College at the University of Oxford and finally Inner Temple, where he qualified as a barrister.

At Oxford University Lister became interested in the religious and aesthetic Oxford Movement which had him converted to Catholicism in 1871. In 1873, he was elected to Halifax Town Council for the Liberal Party. In 1882, he founded the Catholic Working Men’s Association. Increasingly influenced by Christian socialism, Lister joined the Fabian Society in 1891. He was a founder member of the Halifax Labour Union, for which he was re-elected to the Town Council in 1892. He joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) on its formation the following year, becoming its first treasurer. Lister stood for the group at the Halifax by-election, 1893, taking 25% of the votes cast. He again stood for Halifax at the 1895 general election, but fared less well, and left the ILP and his elected posts in 1895.

In his final years John Lister focused on managing Shibden estate and on local history. He published several articles about what he found in Anne Lister’s diaries in the local newspaper (Halifax Guardian). Needless to say, his articles on Anne Lister focused on daily life, Shibden enviroments and nothing controversial. According to historian Jill Liddington, John Lister published these selections from her diaries in Halifax Gaurdian between 1887-1892 (Liddington 2010 p. 13).

The Cracking of the Code

First, one most conclude that John Lister was very familiar with who his famous relative Anne Lister was in life. Certainly he had heard stories about her already in childhood from his family. It is also suggested he painted a personal portriat of his famous ancestor in the novella The Mistress of Langdale Hall – A Romance of The West Riding published in 1872. As mentioned he also published articles in the local newspapers on Anne Lister.

John Lister never managed to solve the coded passages of Anne Lister’s diaries by himself. In doing so he contacted a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. It’s not known how their friendship began, but one can conclude they shared same interests in antiquarian matters and in local history related subjects. They finally cracked it by identifying one word “hope” as in God is my hope. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries. Lister did not take this advice, but instead continued to hide Anne Lister’s diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall.

Arthur Burrell was a teacher at Bradford Grammar School between 1881-1899. He later moved on to London and died in 1946. As mentioned above, historian Jill Liddington has looked into the life of John Lister, so its much thanks to her we know how the coded sections were solved and how the key to the code was passed on. Her own theory presented in Presenting the Past: Anne Lister of Halifax (2010) is that the men solved the code about 1892 or maybe later (Liddington 2010 p. 68). Her first source of information was the pioneer Anne Lister researcher, Muriel M. Green, whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog.

After John Lister’s death in 1933 his library, papers and unsorted archive at Shibden Hall became the property of the Halifax council. They sent a librarian to the Hall. Liddington descbribes in her work how local librarian Edward Green together with his daughter, Muriel came to Shibden Hall to investigate the archive. They were accompanied by a policeman in doing so. What they found was a great mess with papers and books everywhere. It would take Muriel Green some two years just to catalogue John Lister’s big collection of books. Anne Lister would also be the subject of Muriel Green’s dissertation. She choose to focus on Lister’s great Letter collection, not the diaries. Just like John Lister she would also share some of her findings with the public. She published some 12 articles on the life and times of Anne Lister in the Halifax Guardian. As Edward Green was working on the archives he also managed to trace down Arthur Burrell in London. Burrell gave him the key to the Code.

It has also been suggested, but not fully confirmed, that John Lister was gay. Living in a time when British law condemned same sex relations between men and the Oscar Wilde scandal from the late 1890s so close at hand it wasn’t possible for John Lister to live openly as a gay man. Liddington touches briefly on these matters in her work Presenting the past: Anne Lister of Halifax (1791-1840) from 2010.

Bildresultat för anne lister code
A sample of Anne Lister’s diary year 1832 with coded passages. //fair use!


Calderdale Council webpage (various)

Liddington, J. (2010). Presenting the past: Anne Lister of Halifax (1791-1840). Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens. (various)