Common Myths Busted

Research into Ann Walker’s life is ongoing and these myth busters are based on evidence we have or have not found to date.  As we approach all our research with an open mind, these may change over time. 

Myth 1: Very little is known about Ann Walker 

While the focus of our research has not been on Ann Walker’s early life, it is not correct to suggest that there is a lack of existing material about Ann Walker. There is not the same breadth of material as written by Anne Lister of her own life , but there are letters, documents and a diary written by Ann to be explored in the West Yorkshire and National Archives. These include a large collection of letters between her and her sister, Elizabeth, in the mid 1830’s, and the Crow Nest papers particularly in regards to her family history research and her estate business. There are numerous wills, court cases, accounts, invoices and letters written by others that all help us to build a picture of Ann Walker.  References can be found in the National Archives, the West Yorkshire Archives, local newspapers as well as Anne Lister’s diaries

Myth 2: Ann Walker accompanied Anne Lister’s body back from Russia

Ann Walker arrived back in England before Anne Lister’s body, as a letter dated 19th February 1841 from Rev James Gratrix states Ann is ‘recently returned’. Further correspondence between William Gray, the co-trustee of Anne Lister’s estate, and Ann Walker on 5th March 1841 states that Gray is waiting to hear word from a Mr. Brodrick (London lawyer and Gray family friend), who in turn is waiting to hear news of a ship identified as ‘Levant Packet’. This is likely the ship that returned Anne Lister’s body ‘by way of Constantinople’. Recent evidence found in Foreign Office records proves that Ann Walker came home from Russia via Warsaw (accompanied by Captain Sutherland) on a completely different route to Anne Lister. Knowing this information conclusively proves that Ann and Anne Lister’s body did not return together.

Myth 3: Ann Walker was frail

It can be tempting to think of Ann as ‘frail’ or ‘weak’ when compared to the indomitable spirit of Anne Lister. However, there are several instances in the correspondence that suggest Ann Walker was quite spirited. In March or April 1843, Ann rallies her estate workers and leads them into confrontation with an Ordnance Survey party of soldiers and labourers, who she feels are trespassing on her land. Another example, in correspondence discovered by Captain Sutherland, Ann has secured a bond to one of her lawyers, stating that should anything happen to her, he is to prosecute Parker & Adam (against whom she had a grudge) “to the knife”. Ann has no issue with dealing with trickier parts of estate business, such as dismissing tenants and refusing rent reductions. Aside from general estate business, it must be illustrated that Walker took the opportunity – in the face of family scorn and societal ridicule – to marry and live with the woman she loved, and to share every aspect of her life with her.  Anne Lister had the support of her family, her unshakeable sense of self, and enjoyed her status around Halifax as an accepted – if not curious – fixture. Ann Walker enjoyed none of that support, and yet still chose to make these bold decisions

Myth 4: Ann Walker was an experienced estate manager

Although it would be difficult to gauge how successful Ann’s estate management was, the evidence post 1840 suggests she may have struggled to manage two large estates. Prior to John Walker’s death in 1830, Ann would have had little to no experience in estate management, and immediately following his death the Walker estates would have fallen under the aegis of the Trustees of his will, supported by competent persons at ground level like Samuel Washington. Following her marriage to Anne Lister in 1834, it is generally accepted that Lister had a tremendous impact on Ann’s estate management, drafting letters, seeking legal advice and providing a rudder with which to steer the estate. After Anne Lister died, there are a number of actions that suggest Ann was struggling to run the two large estates. These include questionable purchases, being led into bad agreements, and eventually suffering lawsuits from tenants and unpaid tradesmen. Several illegal actions are taken including the eviction of tenants and the removal of an ordnance survey team. There appears to be a lack of clarity on the estate as to who – Booth or Parker – is responsible for what, and Ann makes or attempts to make several important decisions without the input of her Co-Trustee William Gray.

Myth 5: AW did not have mental health issues

While it is impossible to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt, it is highly probable that Ann suffered from mental health problems. The diaries of Anne Lister record examples of Ann’s mental health and letters reveal Ann had similiar issues in the late 1820’s. Ann and Anne talk openly to Jonathan Gray, their lawyer, about making provisions should Ann Walker ever become unfit to manage her affairs. In addition, in 1842 Ann talks to Robert Parker about her “indifferent health” which has prevented her from conducting estate business for over 8 months. Finally, in the build up to Ann’s lunacy commission, a number of people – some with no knowledge of each other – make references to Ann’s health. Elizabeth states she hopes that “if it is aided by the blessings of The Almighty she may again have her mental faculties restored” and that she “becomes worse by being left to herself”. Captain Sutherland talks of her “melancholy state”, Dr Belcombe refers to her “privations”, John Snaith Rymer considers her actions “eccentric” and later confides that she is “utterly unfit to manage her affairs”, while Horncastle’s lawyers state that she labours under “singular notions” (odd opinions). Drs Belcombe, Short and Goldie all take part in placing her under care, while Drs Bright, Simpson and Commissioner Winslow take part in her Lunacy Inquisition and its aftermath. Against the body of evidence, it is difficult to argue that Ann Walker did not suffer with issues around her mental health.

Myth 6: No one tried to help Ann in the run-up to her removal from Shibden.

Evidence suggests that Ann had access to a body of excellent professionals. This is not to say that nobody took advantage of Ann’s inexperience or the situations she found herself in, or that everyone working on Ann’s behalf made excellent decisions all the time. While some individuals and their choices may be questioned, the vast majority of work undertaken by people like land agent Samuel Washington, Dr Belcombe, and lawyers such as William Gray and John Snaith Rymer, was of a high professional standard. In addition, it is possible to deduce that for a time Ann had the support of many of her tenants and estate workers, and even a local magistrate – Samuel Waterhouse – attempted to intervene on her behalf. Ultimately, how Ann interacted with these people, especially during times of poor mental health, would have a greater impact on the outcome than the efforts of any single person in her life.

Myth 7: Parker, Captain Sutherland and others conspired to have Ann Walker declared a lunatic

Read in isolation, letters pertaining to Ann Walker’s lunacy can take an ominous tone without wider context. However, a number of extremely unfortunate decisions with estate management, accounts and tenants may have both been exaggerated by, and reinforced, existing mental health issues. Ann Walker was in very serious legal trouble at the time of her removal. There is nothing to indicate that her lawyers, particularly William Gray and John Snaith Rymer, acted in any way other than Ann’s best interests and with proper professionalism. Initial interventions were encouraged by Elizabeth Sutherland and Robert Parker, not Captain Sutherland, and with a view that Ann should be taken into care until her health improved and her legal troubles were resolved. Being taken into care is not the same as being legally declared a lunatic, and Ann’s estate was secured to her during this time. As the seriousness of the situation became more apparent, it became necessary to assume legal control over her affairs. The first reference to a lunacy commission was ventured by Robert Parker in July 1843, but was not the action that the Sutherlands wanted to take at the time. After Ann left Shibden Hall it was discussed again, and this was later advocated by other doctors and John Snaith Rymer, who was acting on behalf of both the Sutherlands, and Ann Walker.

Myth 8: Ann Walker was forcibly removed from Shibden Hall

The short answer is no. Reviewing the correspondence between Dr Belcombe, the Sutherlands and Parker in the build-up to Ann’s departure it is clear that there is no legal authority on which Ann could be removed from Shibden Hall. Instead, she must be encouraged to leave voluntarily and be received into care. The complexity arises from statements made by Belcombe beforehand that should Ann refuse, then in an effort to convince her they are to suggest that the Chancellor may seize her property. Thus there is the possibility of verbal coercion. Reading Parker’s Memorandum, it is clear is that neither Belcombe, Parker nor the Sutherlands were present for Ann’s departure. Instead, that was overseen by medical associates of Dr Belcombe and the Constable of Southowram. The Red Room door was removed from its hinges after Ann had left, and the last-stand in the Red Room, as traditionally told, is folklore.

Myth 9: Captain Sutherland wanted to get his hands on Shibden Hall

There is no evidence to suggest that Captain Sutherland wanted to possess the Shibden Estate. After Ann is legally declared a lunatic, he is advised by the Commissioner in Lunacy that he is legally required to live in close proximity to Ann, and thus his application to be her Committee is jeopardized if he continues to reside in Scotland. Following Ann’s release from the Asylum, evidence suggests that she comes to live with him and Elizabeth in London, and that Captain Sutherland does not actually move into Shibden Hall with his family and Ann until the summer of 1845. Even then, there is a possibility that Captain Sutherland is left with no choice than to live at Shibden – Ann’s own houses were all rented out. However, even whilst residing at Shibden, Captain Sutherland expends over £30,000 of his own money on the purchase of a large Scottish estate for shooting and hunting which he may have eventually intended to return to. In addition to visits to the Aberarder estate in 1846, Sutherland goes on holiday for several weeks to Scarborough in summer 1845, and addresses on letters suggest he spent less than two years actually in residence at Shibden. Although Ann as tenant for life was entitled to the income from the estate – including stone quarrying and coal mining – this money was paid to the credit of Miss Walker, subject to audit from the Commissioner of Lunacy and indications suggest it was not used by Captain Sutherland.

Myth 10: AW returned from the Osbaldwick asylum and moved into Cliffe Hill or died at the asylum

Ann Walker was in Terrace House (House of Elizabeth Tose), a private asylum, for approximately 7-8 months. Evidence infers she may have spent a brief time at Shibden before joining the Sutherlands in London. As the Sutherlands were Committee of the Estate and Person of Ann Walker, they were required by law to be in a close proximity to her. Correspondence suggests that after Elizabeth’s death (and the settlement of several court cases), Captain Sutherland and Ann Walker moved back to Shibden, and Ann may have lived in either the Hall or a Cottage on the estate. An account for her Aunt Walker’s funeral in early 1848 suggests that she only moved to Cliffe Hill after her aunt had passed away.

Myth 11: Her family destroyed all her belongings.

This is a popular myth but there is no evidence in the records uncovered so far which supports this or indicates malicious intent. It is important to remember that when viewing Ann Walker, she is best known for her interaction with Anne Lister, which can offer an extremely skewed perspective on the availability of archived material. Other Halifax families, such as the Rawson, Crossley, Akroyd, and Edwards dynasties left nothing approaching the depth and richness of the diaries of Anne Lister and the wider Shibden Hall manuscript collection. An absence of a plethora of personal correspondence or other diaries by Ann Walker does not indicate malicious intent, and is not unusual. Indeed, if her family did seek to erase her, they did a very bad job given the volume of remaining documents. Finally, there is the issue of provenance. Just because we cannot prove a direct link to a portrait, piece of artwork, or other personal possessions as belonging to Ann Walker, does not mean nothing exists. As new evidence is being uncovered, it is not beyond possibility that item which can be directly attributed to Ann Walker may yet come to light.

Myth 12: Ann Walker and Anne Lister’s relationship was in decline

While some have suggested the strains of the Russia trip and financial pressure on the relationship drove a wedge between Ann Walker and Anne Lister, it is clear that for a number of years after Lister’s death, Walker still thinks fondly of Anne. Existing in a world that did not recognise their relationship, marriage, love or loss, Ann navigates this lonely space without compromising or forgetting her relationship. She continues to live at Shibden after Anne’s death, makes reference in correspondence to her “lamented friend” Anne Lister, and attempts (but does not get legal permission) to complete Anne’s alterations to Shibden Hall at great personal expense as they were so important to her late wife.

If you have any questions regarding any of the myths or would like us explore another myth you have heard about, please contact us at