Hordes of lesbians descending upon Halifax: fan tourism, identity and pilgrimage

In the second of a series of blogs on screen tourism, Bethan Jones reflects on the role that identity plays in fans’ decisions to travel to sites of filming locations by taking a look at Halifax and Gentleman Jack.

In the last blog I talked about the impact that screen tourism had on Belfast. A significant rise in visitor numbers was also evident in Halifax after the BBC/HBO historical drama Gentleman Jack aired. Income for museums, local businesses, hotels, events and attractions went up, and there was a 40% increase in visitors to Halifax Minster over summer 2019 (500 to 700 in a week). Shibden Hall, used as a filming location, also saw an increase in visitors: 14,419 people visited the Hall in August 2019, compared to 2,579 in August 2018. The Council had always seen the show as a means for putting Calderale on the map and it was expected “to lead to a significant increase in visitors to Shibden Hall and other surrounding areas and attractions [as well as building] on Calderdale’s growing popularity as a filming destination”. What the Council couldn’t have foreseen, though, was the scale of “the Gentleman Jack effect” and the number of queer women who visited Shibden Hall, and Halifax, as a result of the show.

Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall

Set in the 1830s Gentleman Jack is based on the life of lesbian landowner and industrialist Anne Lister who lived at Shibden Hall near Halifax. Lister kept a series of diaries throughout her life, many of which were written in a secret code as they recounted the range of lesbian relationships she had. The diaries were deciphered in the 1930s by one of Lister’s descendants but were kept hidden precisely because of their content. Although various books and programmes have been written about Lister, it wasn’t until Gentleman Jack that her story became more well-known. 

American author Janet Lea carried out research into “the Gentleman Jack effect”, resulting in survey responses from over 500 women in 48 countries who talked about the impact of the show on their self-perceptions, behaviours and attitudes. 20% of those who responded to the questionnaire had already been to Shibden and 62% were planning to visit in the future. The emotional impact of the show, and its real-life locations, was evident when I visited Halifax for the 2023 Anne Lister Birthday Week (ALBW). ALBW was created by American fan Pat Esgate after she saw Gentleman Jack in 2019. She visited Halifax for a weekend before returning a couple of weeks later to attend the Anne Lister Weekend organised by Calderdale Council, which took place following the season one finale. Pat was inspired by her second visit, writing:

That visit was even more amazing. Sitting in the Minster, surrounded by women every bit as inspired as me, hearing Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington speak of the life of the real Anne Lister, was positively transformative. And from what I saw in the tear-streaked faces of the rest of the audience, I wasn’t the only one who was having that moment.

The following month she reached out to some of those involved in the Anne Lister Weekend and arranged a four-day event to take place in April 2020, including talks, tours and visits, however, Covid put a spanner in the works and the 2020 in-person event was postponed. Many of those who attended the 2023 event were returners, and for many it seemed like the visit was not only a form of screen tourism but also a sort of pilgrimage. I interviewed a representative from Calderdale Council prior to visiting Halifax, who said:

…women go to the Minster to sit and so on. So yeah, I mean they are pilgrims. They want to go to Halifax because they want to see where she lived and they want to, you know, walk where she was…And that is just, you know, really, really powerful. You can walk in her footsteps so you can be a pilgrim and you can do it because that's what she did. But you can also do it and, you know, sort of almost say thank you to her for that.

This idea of pilgrimage has also been suggested by ALBW’s founder Pat Esgate, referring to Halifax as a “Lourdes for lesbians”.

Flower tributes are placed beneath a statue of Anne Lister in Halifax

The Anne Lister Memorial in Halifax

At an evening event in Halifax Minster, Esgate talked about Lister’s impact with Helena Whitbread, Jill Liddington and series consultant Anne Choma. The Minster was packed with attendees, mostly women, who also shared their experiences and many were similar – these were mainly older women who had grown up believing there was something wrong with them for their attraction to women; they had attempted to live ‘normal’ (read: heteronormative) lives, sometimes marrying and having children; they had been deeply unhappy. But after watching Gentleman Jack they had learned – or realised – that there was nothing wrong with them, and if Lister could accept and embrace who she was 200 years ago there was no reason why they couldn’t now.

Anne Lister event at Halifax Minster

Anne Lister event at Halifax Minster

These stories were incredibly affecting and spoke to the impact that a text can have on people as well as the importance of travelling to a location in order to connect with a history, a community, or oneself. Of course, Gentleman Jack is a dramatised account while Lister was a very real woman, but for many ALBW attendees their introduction to Lister came through the show and the two are deeply intertwined. Visiting locations used for filming, many of which are places Lister would have known and visited during her life, enabled fans to get closer to the real woman and connect with “the first modern lesbian” and the fan campaign to save the series shows just how strong the affective relationships viewers have with a text can be.