By the time you read this, you should have had the opportunity to watch the first two episodes of Gentleman Jack the screening of which began on 19th May on BBC 1. In this TV series, Sally Wainwright focuses on the romance between Anne Lister of Shibden Hall and Ann Walker of Lightcliffe during the early 1830s. As you probably know, the series stars the excellent Suranne Jones as Anne Lister, while Sophie Rundle is ideally cast as Ann Walker.
Here is a brief account of a girl who lived in the old Master’s House at Heath Grammar School, who was a friend of Ann Walker for much of her life.
To begin: on the north wall of Halifax Minster, near the porch door, is a memorial in Latin to Rev Robert Wilkinson who was headmaster of Heath Grammar School from 1789-1839. He was also curate at Lightcliffe Chapel from 1782 onwards. It was Robert Wilkinson who baptised Ann Walker at Lightcliffe in 1803.
A native of Cockermouth, Robert married Sarah Robinson of Hipperholme at Halifax in 1782; four of their children died in infancy, the surviving children Mary, Catherine, Sarah and Lydia. Lydia was born at Heath in January 1795 and baptised at Lightcliffe on 25th of that month. She grew up to be a close friend of Ann Walker.
In her diary for 21st July 1818 Anne Lister recorded: “Met the two Miss Walkers, of Crow Nest, and with them two Miss Wilkinsons, of Heath, at the Library.”
A direct reference to Lydia Wilkinson appears in Anne Lister’s diary for 7th December 1832, describing a visit to Ann Walker at her home, then at Lydgate: “Miss Parkhill was in the room on my going in – spoke or rather bowed to her formally … She goes on Monday & Miss Lydia Wilkinson then comes to Lidgate, of which I said I should be glad.”
An entry in Anne Lister’s diary from a year earlier, 28th October 1831 informs us: “[Heard] from Langton of a Miss Wilkinson, of Heath, going to be married to Mr. George Fenton.” It was not till 30th May 1833, aged 38, that Lydia married Rev George Fenton at Halifax Parish Church; he was then a minister at Ilkley Parish Church.
George and Lydia Fenton had two children, both of whom sadly died in infancy, being buried at Ilkley. In 1836 Rev Fenton was appointed vicar of Royston near Barnsley; but he sometimes officiated for his father-in-law Rev Wilkinson at Lightcliffe Chapel. Anne Lister tells us in her diary for 23rd August 1835: “Mr George Fenton did all the duty – preached 23 minutes tolerably but, unfortunately as to subject…”
Lydia Wilkinson’s husband George Fenton died in 1843, aged 48; he was taken to Lightcliffe for burial, near his father-in-law. Widowed Lydia then moved in with her unmarried sisters, living at 2 Savile Row, Halifax.
From 1833, Anne Lister and Ann Walker attended services at Lightcliffe Chapel regularly, and the Lister diary makes many mentions of Lydia’s father Rev Robert Wilkinson.
Ann Walker inherited a life interest in Shibden Hall on Anne Lister’s death in 1840. Sadly, in 1843 she was forcibly removed to an asylum near York. A few years later she was finally judged well enough to return home, to live at her own property of Cliffe Hill, Lightcliffe, under supervision. We have no clear knowledge of her mental condition; no letters written by her after the early 1840s survive. Ann’s affairs were taken into the hands of one of her Rawson cousins, who arranged for her to be looked after at Cliffe Hill by a housekeeper and an ‘attendant’. But it is the housekeeper who interests us – she was the widowed Lydia Fenton, in charge of the building for the remainder of Ann’s time there. Her suitability, given her friendship with Ann so well in her youth, may be imagined.
Following Ann Walker’s death in 1854, Lydia returned to Savile Row, Halifax, to live with her sisters. Lydia was the last survivor, dying on 24th March 1865 at Savile Row aged 69. At each of the sisters’ burials, Archdeacon Charles Musgrave, vicar of Halifax, presided, as indeed he had done at both the funerals of Anne Lister and of Ann Walker. You can see the Wilkinson family tombstones today in Lightcliffe Churchyard, not far from the last resting place of her friend Ann Walker.
I am most grateful for the splendid work of Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington in transcribing Anne Lister’s Diaries. Also, my thanks to The Friends of Lightcliffe Churchyard.
David C Glover
On Tuesday 25th June at 7.30 pm, I am speaking at The Grayston Unity Bar, opposite Halifax Town Hall Porch about Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights and High Sunderland. Tickets £5.00 must be booked in advance on 07807 136520 – seating is very limited.
On Thursday 27th June at 7.30 pm, I am speaking at St Matthew’s Church, Lightcliffe about John Crossley & Sons of Dean Clough 1803-1982. Entry £5.00, tickets from Tony Hillam on 01274 675405.