Shibden Hall is one of the jewels in Halifax’s heritage crown and amongst Calderdale’s best-known tourist attractions. It is also increasingly one of the most haunted buildings in the area, although despite its antiquity, these ghost appear to be a relatively recent phenomena, unlike the hoary supernatural traditions of other venerable houses nearby in West Yorkshire such as Oakwell Hall at Gomersal or Bolling Hall near Bradford.
Occupation is recorded at the site from 1389 but the oak-timbered H-plan building standing today was originally constructed in 1420 with substantial improvements and additions being made in the 1520s and 1830s. Many have speculated that it was the model for Thrushcross Grange in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. Bronte taught at Law Hill School in Southowram in 1838 and would have been familiar with the Hall.
The hall was owned by the Lister family from 1615 until 1933, when the death of John Lister led to it being donated to the Halifax Corporation and opened as a folk museum. Its most famous occupant was Anne Lister who inherited the estate in 1826 following the death of her uncle James. During her tenure she made extensive alteration to the building and grounds but further improvements were curtailed by her death from the plague on her travels in Russia in 1840.
The reasons for Lister’s fame are numerous. Even in her own time, she was well known to be a lesbian and conducted affairs with a number of local women, whilst riding around the district in men’s clothes earned her the pejorative nickname Gentleman Jack. There was always much hostility shown towards her, with hoax marriage announcements made in the local press and reports of mobs gathering close to the house under cover of darkness.
However, she was also a formidable estate manager and landlord, investing in numerous business ventures in the area including collieries and quarries. The diaries she began keeping in 1805 from the age of 15 until her death – some of which were quite graphic in the description of her various affairs and so written in a private code – are regarded as an important primary source for 19th Century local, social and gender history.
The most prominent and enduring of Lister’s affairs was with Ann Walker, the heiress to Cliffe Hill Mansion at Lightcliffe. and the diaries record how they were “married” at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate in York. Lister left Shibden Hall to Walker in her will on the provision that she did not marry. Walker continued living in the Hall following Lister’s death until her own incarceration in an asylum in 1848. Following Walker’s death in 1854, the property reverted to the Lister family.
Walker had always suffered from mental health problems and Lister herself consulted a doctor about Walker’s mental state on several occasions. In Hauntings In Yorkshire, Stephen Wade describes Walker as the most prominent of Shibden Hall’s ghosts, her spirit haunting the red room where she barricaded herself in the years after Lister’s death and attempted to commit suicide. Upon arrival, a local constable allegedly discovered her covered in blood and surrounded by rotten food.
However, in an article for the BBC website dated 23rd October 2007, stories of a “Grey Lady” are dismissed as “just folklore” by Tony Sharpe, an attendant at the hall for twenty-six years. Instead, he relates his own experiences including an encounter at dawn with a nebulous black shape moving overhead and on several occasions the smell of pipe-smoke in the cellar and tower, thought to be an echo of the last occupant Dr. John Lister, a noted antiquarian and inveterate pipe-smoker.
There are also reports of a former curator who witnessed the spectre of a cat pass straight through her office wall; the ghost of a girl drowned in a nearby pond, who only appears in summer; and finally the manifestation of a headless coachman who drives around the grounds by night in a distinctive yellow-liveried coach made for Lord Lonsdale in the 18th Century and now on display at the Hall.