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A woman's touch
Buy this photo » The distinctive Tudor style frontage of Shibden Hall in Halifax
The grand tower at Shibden Hall looks out onto splendid gardens, with ornate terraces and a rolling lawn.
It’s a view that Anne Lister – who had the tower built in the late 1830s – never got to see.
Anne took over the Shibden estate, in Halifax, in 1826 and died while travelling in Russia in 1840. She ran the sprawling Shibden estate – which included farms, a stone quarry and shallow coal mines – and set about transforming the hall into a grand property, with decor influenced by her overseas travels, spending the equivalent of £1million on elaborate designs. Interest in Shibden Hall has been heightened this year following television drama The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, starring Maxine Peake. It was filmed at Oakwell Hall in Birstall – which the production company said looked more like Shibden before Anne’s alterations – but a documentary about Anne was shot in Shibden.
Anne, who defied social conventions by living with her female lover, was a prolific diarist. Volumes of her four-million word diaries, of which a large portion was written in code, are kept in archives at Halifax Library. “Some of her entries are 2,000 words long. She gave a detailed account of her life, even what she ate, local and national events and weather reports,” says attendant Joe Kirwan. “She was a remarkable woman, running an estate at a time when women weren’t expected to take on such roles. She didn’t have the vote but she instructed her tenant farmers to vote Conservative, otherwise they wouldn’t be her tenants for much longer!” Anne’s presence left a lasting legacy on Shibden Hall. Her portrait hangs in the housebody, the hall at the heart of the house where she added mock tudor wood panelling and had a large stone fireplace built. Her initials and family motto are carved into a ‘Jacobethan’ style staircase and gallery.
“When Anne inherited the property she described it as a ‘rundown farmhouse’,” says Joe. “She travelled around Europe and was influenced by monasteries and castles. She had grand ideas for this place and got top craftsmen to do the work.”
The housebody is dominated by a magnificent oak table which has stood there more than 400 years. “It was brought in pieces and built here in 1595,” says Joe. “King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who became the Queen Mother, dined here during a visit to Halifax in 1937. It had been planned to take the table to the town hall but it was too big to remove from the house, so the Royal party came to Shibden instead.”
Behind a section of wood panelling is an original piece of oak timber from the 1400s, before the house was extended. In the dining room Joe pulls back another panel to reveal a faded floral design painted onto the original Elizabethan wood and plaster wall. The initials RW – Robert Waterhouse – are etched onto the wall, a legacy from the Waterhouse family who lived here in the 1500s.
The hall, home to the Listers for more than 300 years from 1615, dates back to 1420. It was first owned by sheep farmers the Oates, then the Saviles. In the Savile Room ceiling bosses have the Savile crest on. Etched onto windows in the housebody are crests of families who lived here.
“Each family left a legacy on the house in its furnishings; they reflect changing periods and styles,” says Joe. “It still feels like a family home.” Anne took over the estate aged 34, following her brother’s death. After she died her friend, Ann Walker, lived at the hall for a while. John Lister was the last Lister to own it and after his death in 1933 the property and 90 acres of land was gifted to the Halifax Corporation which opened it as a museum and park.
Now owned by Calderdale Council, Shibden Hall is full of intriguing nooks and crannies. The cross passage, connecting front and back doors, leads into a gentleman’s study, complete with 17th century gaming table, where a blocked-up 1420 door is visible. “Nobody knew about it until 20 years ago when an old lady, who worked here in service in 1910, visited and remembered an old door and spiral staircase. It was later uncovered, revealing the door and remains of a stairway,” says Joe.
Beneath the house lies a honeycombed network of passageways Anne Lister built for servants to use. “She didn’t want to see them so they went to and fro underground,” says Joe. “There’s also a gardeners’ tunnel under the lawn where they entered the house unseen.”
One passageway, originally a dairy, lies beneath the buttery, where food was brought from the kitchen and passed to the dining-room through a hatch. During the Second World War the Halifax Home Guard was stationed in the buttery.
In the kitchen an array of contraptions includes a clockwork spit, controlled by a heavy stone, a 17th century mousetrap and a ‘stone mop’ – a slab of stone on a stick which cleaned greasy flagged floors when dragged over sand. Fat from the spit was used to make candles, with local moorland grass used as wicks. The passageways and tower are opened to the public for occasional ‘Secret Shibden’ events. Anne died before her beloved tower – part of her grand design – was complete. Climbing its wooden spiral staircase, I felt a pang of sadness that she didn’t live to see the ornate floor-to-ceiling bookcases or the impressive views of terraces she had built in the gardens. The tower library, used by Shibden staff, is filled with books, from huge leather-bound Victorian tomes to modern reference books. Like all old houses, Shibden has its ghosts. Some staff talk of an occasional rustling noise, draught or waft of scent, as if someone is walking past, and several visitors have felt a presence in the nursery, where a rocking horse, magic lantern and wooden train are among old toys dotted about.
“Each upstairs room represents a 100-year period,” says attendant Kevin Kilroy, guiding me around the bedrooms. The nursery is Victorian – although Anne had it furnished as an ‘Arabian tent room’ – and her former bedroom, where she slept with pistols at her bedside, is now decorated in an Edwardian style. The Green Room is Georgian and two other bedrooms are Tudor, with original 1420 timber walls. The Red Room, so-called because of a red Celtic design around the panelled walls, has a magnificent carved oak tester bed and ‘en suite’ powder room.
“This was Ann Walker’s room,” says Kevin. “She suffered from depression, which Anne Lister wrote about in her diaries, and when she became very ill a policeman, magistrate and doctor had to break down the door to get her out, before taking her to an asylum.”
Outside, the gardens have been refurbished as part of a £3.9 million Heritage Lottery-funded restoration of adjoining Shibden Park. The front lawn is in keeping with original designs by renowned Victorian garden architect Joshua Major, who created formal gardens for Dr John Lister, master of Shibden in the 1850s.
Anne attempted to create the look of a wilderness garden with picturesque landscapes, like ones she’d seen on her travels.
Old farm buildings have been turned into Shibden Hall Folk Museum, where items on display reflect centuries-old crafts and skills. An impressive carriage collection includes the 18th century Lister Chaise, one of the world’s oldest surviving carriages, and dotted around the courtyard are a threshing room, dairy, estate worker’s cottage, blacksmith’s forge, apothecary, brew house, and bar-room laid out in the style of Halifax’s Crispin Inn, where Luddites met in the early 1800s. A slab of stone near the tea-rooms was part of Halifax’s original gibbet.