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Born in Marylebone, Lister grew up in Sandown on the Isle of Wight and Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He attended Winchester College, then Brasenose College at the University of Oxford and finally Inner Temple, where he qualified as a barrister.
Lister was influenced by the Oxford Movement and in 1871 joined the Roman Catholic Church. In 1873, he was elected to Halifax Town Council for the Liberal Party. In 1882, he founded the Catholic Working Men's Association.
Increasingly influenced by Christian socialism, Lister joined the Fabian Society in 1891. He was a founder member of the Halifax Labour Union, for which he was re-elected to the Town Council in 1892. He joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) on its formation the following year, becoming its first treasurer. Lister stood for the group at the Halifax by-election, 1893, taking 25% of the votes cast. He again stood for Halifax at the 1895 UK general election, but fared less well, and left the ILP and his elected posts in 1895.
In his remaining years, Lister focussed on managing his estate and on local history.
- Lister, John", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography