Lister was from a minor landowning family at Shibden in Calderdale, West Riding of Yorkshire, and conducted multiple lesbian affairs from her schooldays onwards, often on long trips abroad. Muscular and masculine in appearance, dressed only in black, and highly educated, she was later known, generally unkindly, as "Gentleman Jack". Her final significant relationship was with Ann Walker, to whom she was notionally married in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, now celebrated as the birthplace of lesbian marriage in Britain.
Lister's diaries reveal much about contemporary life in West Yorkshire, including her development of historic Shibden Hall, and her interests in landscaping, mining, railways, and canals. Many entries were written in code that was not decrypted until long after her death. These graphic portrayals of lesbianism were so frank that they were thought to be a hoax until their authenticity was confirmed.
Men, women and children toiled in the mines to enrich Lister. Mines operated by Lister were among those that eventually prompted the introduction of the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 which banned women and children from working underground.
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