Today Ann Walker is primarily known, if she is known at all, as the wife of Anne Lister aka Gentleman Jack, but Ann was much more than this. She was a remarkable woman in her own right. She was rich, owned a vast amount of land and cared deeply for those who lived on it. Ann opened a school for local children, at which she taught and took a keen personal interest. She was also a keen reader, collector of books, traveller, and mountaineer, she rode well enough to impress the Cossacks and frequently hiked for miles. She thrashed the fiercely intelligent Anne Lister often at backgammon and was not afraid to stand her ground when she thought she was right. Alongside all of which she was a peacemaker, shopaholic, animal lover, cook and student of languages and history.
Here are five key facts about her:
1. Ann Walker was an artist. Her diary is filled with references to her spending her days having drawing lesson and sketching and painting. Unfortunately none of her paintings have been found to date although I personally hold out hope that one of her sketchbooks might yet turn up in the Calderdale archive. Ann’s diary does contain a few sketches but these are very basic and of things such as a series of arches – depicting crudely the form of those at the Roman baths in Lyon and a wine or bottle rack. Whatever her level of accomplishment Ann was undoubtedly passionate about art and she spent a lot of time on her travels admiring the works of the old masters and in purchasing prints. In Chambery for example she bought prints of Savoy from the booksellers.
2. Ann had met Anne Lister many times before they became romantically involved. In 1820 Ann had been invited to tea at Shibden Hall and Anne Lister called her a “nice enough good humoured talkative girl.” (WYC SH:7/ML/E/4/0074) They met on and off for many years and Anne Lister mentions her several times in her diaries prior to their intimacy.
3. Ann was an excellent climber and she and Anne had many adventures on their travels together. Ann Walker climbed (amongst others) Mer de Glace, Col Ferret and on Mont Brevent. On her honeymoon on the 16th July 1834 she was at Col Ferret, the mountain pass between the valley of Cournayer in Switzerland and the Val Ferret on the Italian side of the border. Today this area is the highest part of the Tour de Mont Blanc rising to an elevation of 2,490 metres. Ann Walker wrote that the “ascent of (the) mountain verysteep….(but)….beautiful view.” (WYC:1525/7/1/5/1) They followed this with a trip up Mont Brevent, although Ann turned back three quarters of the way up and didn’t quite reach the summit. They also climbed the Great Saint Bernard Pass, the third highest peak in Switzerland, where Ann records that they walked on a road “much better than usual up such mountains” and that the situation was “cold, bleak and snow-clad…air very cold.” (WYC:1525/7/1/5/1) Ann’s achievements in making such climbs flew in the face of medical opinion at the time which argued vehemently that such strenuous physical activity would seriously damage a woman’s health and many doctors wrote treatises advising against it. This is especially ironic in Ann Walker’s case as her mental health had long been poor, and her ambitions suppressed by her overbearing family. Out in the fresh air, eating, drinking and exercising well it can hardly be a surprise that her health, both mental and physical dramatically improved when she was in the mountains.
4. Ann was a very capable knitter and was excellent at sewing. Both skills she employed in making clothes for both her friends and family and for the local poor. She made baby clothes for her friend Lydia Fenton and repaired or altered Anne Lister’s gloves and clothing on many occasions.
5. Although her consumption of it fluctuated in different periods of her life, food was very important to Ann. On the 5th April 1825 whilst in York we know she ate the rather unappetizing dish Mock Turtle Soup which was Britain’s attempt to replicate the hugely popular turtle soup that had appeared at high class dinner parties ever since the 1750’s when sailors had first brought turtle soup back to England. The price of turtles made the soup out of the reach of most people, so a mock turtle soup recipe was created which used calves head or pigs ears instead. Her honeymoon diary is also littered with references to the food that she ate, and she was particularly fond of fruit, especially strawberries which she ate regularly. Anne was rather surprised that her wife needed to eat so regularly and at one point Ann took to taking provisions in the carriage.