Anne Lister and the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society

Cassie Ulph

I recently visited Calderdale Archive in Halifax, part of West Yorkshire Archive Service.  Aside from the exciting prospect of playing with microfilm (something I find strangely thrilling), I was also looking forward to getting my hands on the minute books accounts of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society, for two reasons.  Firstly, Halifax’s position in the middle of the Pennines suggested it could offer a link between the burgeoning literary clubs in Yorkshire and Lancashire.  Secondly, the Halifax Lit and Phil famously admitted a female member within a year of its inauguration (although according to Jon, Newcastle may well have got there first).  Anne Lister, a prominent local landowner (and go-to example of nineteenth-century alternative sexuality), is well known to have joined the Society in 1831.  However, I wanted to find out more about the nature and extent of her involvement with this civic institution, and what kind of ‘improvement’ was on offer for Lister at the Lit and Phil.

By comparison to that of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society (see my earlier post), the minute book of the Halifax Lit and Phil is strikingly formal.  The relative legibility is in part a quirk of local personnel, but it also reflects the strong sense that the younger Society was operating by a well-established set of practices, arguably down to the retaining of a ‘fair’ copy and the destruction of drafts.  The content is less discursive than that of the minute books at Perth, and is structured relatively strictly around resolutions passed (although these in themselves could be fairly verbose).  More often than not the minutes omit the names of members present, although guests and newly elected members are recorded.  The relatively consistent, business-like structure of these records is perhaps unsurprising, given the preponderance of local bankers and merchants who made up the committee, but also carries a strong sense that these practices are well-established by the time of the Society’s inception.  This sense in the structure is underlined by the content of the minutes, which details the gradual construction of Halifax Lit and Phil as a patchwork of components from sister societies from as far afield as Liverpool, Scarborough and Newcastle, to whom emissaries were dispatched for information, which was freely given.  The membership certificate was based on that of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; the cases for the planned Halifax Museum were constructed from ‘plans and specifications’ borrowed from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and the same cabinet-maker engaged.  The extent of visiting between societies is also notable, as at Perth, with many Halifax men being dispatched to societies in major centres on both sides of the Pennines, returning with information from the societies of Manchester, Liverpool, York, Hull, and Leeds.  Halifax’s relative size in 1830 did not limit the ambitions of its citizens, who set out to provide their town with a civic institution worthy of any Northern powerhouse.

The Lister archive itself, which is rumoured to run to four million words, encompasses personal and official correspondence, diaries, and literary remains.  Fortunately, the archive has a detailed index, available online at the WYAS website.  Much of Lister’s diary is in code, intended to obscure details of her sexual and emotional encounters with other women (Helena Whitbread has painstakingly decoded much of this, using the key established by Lister’s nephew and heir John Lister, and rediscovered by Muriel Green).  However, I was mainly interested in the (arguably) less personal part of Lister’s correspondence, referring to civic life, business and public intellectual activities.  Nevertheless, the wealth of material is overwhelming, and Lister’s handwriting, even in the non-coded sections, intricate and slow to decipher.  Glimpses of her involvement with the Lit and Phil begin to emerge, mostly through her financial support for the new Museum building, but these are thrown into relief by Lister’s more assiduous pursuit of intellectual and social improvement through private and shared reading, informal female networks and continental travel.  My visit to Halifax left me wondering: how did the associational activities of the Halifax Lit and Phil fit in with Lister’s established networks, if at all?  Which question I will be answering, or at least posing in more detail, at the Networks of Improvement conference at the University of York, 13-14 March 2015.

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One response to “Anne Lister and the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society

  1. Pingback: Anne Lister and the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society | BARS Exchange

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