Wakefield’s forgotten answer to Gentleman Jack

editorial image

Halifax landowner Anne Lister is probably best known for her lesbian relationships, recorded, often in code, in diaries documenting her life. Her candid writing of her love affairs leave little doubt she was gay - but over in Wakefield, the words of another woman of Anne’s time leave much more to interpretation.

Born in 1811 to a wealthy family, who had their money in the corn trade and cotton mills, Clara Clarkson kept a journal from the age of 15, recording entries at least once a day.

The pages, according to researchers from the Forgotten Women of Wakefield (FWW) project, which is bringing to light the lives of influential females from the city’s past, are “full of comment and gossip, and observations personal and public, and give a detailed insight into the life of a woman who was restrained, repressed and full of contradiction”.

Clara, they say, was a trailblazer, an early suffragist and Unitarian who rejected social conventions around class and gender and publicly embraced the acceptance of all faiths.

“Unitarian folklore was all about her being a lover of women,” explains Sarah Cobham, who leads the FWW group. “Anne Lister’s diary was so explicit that we know she was gay. We can’t say Clara was gay but we can say she was a lover and protector of women.”

The group says her “fierce loyalty” and friendship with women is evident in her journals, which, like Anne Lister, she wrote in code. After her death, the trustees of Clara’s will were bombarded with requests for specific dated volumes to be destroyed, whilst the remaining went to her cousin’s daughter, who broke the cipher, but burnt several more editions due to what she felt was “indiscretion or unkindness”.

Four ended up, years down the line, with distant relative Ann Jacques, who in 1971 published Merrie Wakefield, a book based on some of Clara’s diaries, though the research group claim it was “highly sanitised”.

The group have also studied the will of Clara, who died in 1889. It split her considerable fortune, noting that any gift taken by a woman under the agreement would be for her “sole and separate use free from the debts control and insolvency of any husband”. One recipient was Ann Ashton, referred to as ‘Emma’ in the 1971 book, who is listed as her servant. It is thought she joined the household after Clara’s mother died and is referred to as Clara’s ‘companion’ on the back of a photograph held in Wakefield Library archives.

“Clara’s voice is strong and resolute when she names Ann Ashton not once, but six times in her will,” says group researcher Helga Fox. “Ann was gifted everything that made up their home together...and the final third was dedicated almost solely to Ann’s financial wellbeing.”

She was gifted a £1,000 annuity, held in a trust to enable her to buy a freehold property, and a lifetime yearly annuity of £1,000 - more than £134,000 in today’s money, administered by trustees, ensuring Ann was well cared for until her own death.

“I’m very confident that Ann Ashton was a life partner,” says Sarah. “Because it was extraordinary to leave all that money to a servant. It was completely unheard of.”

Describing Clara as a “rebel” who did not conform to Victorian social expectations, she says a legacy has been left in the form of her diary writing, which offers a glimpse into the “parlour life” of people in Wakefield at the time.

“But I think her real legacy is her will,” she adds, “and the fact that, I think, she made it clear there that she loved one woman her whole life and made sure she was kept financially secure.” The group plans to erect a blue plaque for Clara in November, supported by the Wakefield Westgate Unitarian Chapel, where she was buried.

The Forgotten Women of Wakefield

The Forgotten Women of Wakefield project aims to gain recognition for the women who shaped the city.

When the project was started last year, there were 50 blue plaques in Wakefield. Of these, 23 were dedicated to men and a further 23 to buildings.

Just four recognised the achievements of Wakefield’s women.

The project, which is backed by the Express, wants Wakefield to become the first city in the UK to achieve blue plaque parity for men and women.

Volunteers have spent hundreds of hours researching the women who helped to shape our district, drawing attention to their remarkable achievements, which risked being lost to history.

Their discoveries include the Gissing sisters, who opened the city’s preparatory school, contralto singer Phyllis Lett, suffragist Florence Beaumont and Alice Bacon, Yorkshire’s first female MP.

Gentleman Jack

Gentleman Jack tells the story of Halifax diarist Anne Lister, and is one of the biggest TV shows of the year.

Known for her detailed diaries and passionate relationships with women, the 19th century landowner’s life has been brought to life in the latest series penned by Calderdale writer and director Sally Wainwright.

It stars Surranne Jones, who spent six months rehearsing for the role while Anne’s diaries were still being decoded.

For over 30 years she recorded over five million words, writing about her life in minute detail, with intimate details of her love life also written in a secret code.

Much of the show was filmed on location across Yorkshire, and Suranne has even visited Halifax library to see one of Anne’s famous diaries, which she described as a “magical” experience.

Calderdale Council’s Chief Executive Robin Tuddenham said that Gentleman Jack was “a game changer” for tourism.

In a tweet, he said that visitor figures for Shibden Hall, where the show was filmed, were up 700 percent “and counting”.

He said: “Let’s be clear – this is a game changer, with sustained impact, building upon the Piece Hall effect, with confirmation from the BBC just last night that it will return for a second series.

“The leadership team are working on how we harness this impact across Calderdale, taking tourism and our heritage identity to another level.

“This is a real example 
of delivering our Vision 2024 for Calderdale to stand out 
as a truly distinctive place to live and visit.”

Shibden Hall is a historic house that sits on the outskirts of Halifax town centre in the Shibden valley.

The property dates back to 1420 when it was owned by William Otes and before 1619, the estate was owned by the Savile and Waterhouse families.

From 1615 the Shibden estate was in the hands of the Lister family for over 300 years, with the most famous resident being Anne Lister.