Annie Horniman

Annie Horniman was born in 1860 in Forest Hill, London, the daughter of tea merchant and founder of the Horniman Museum, Frederick John Horniman. During her childhood, visits to theatre were forbidden, but when a German governess took her to see The Merchant of Venice, she was instantly hooked. She would go on to become one of the most influential (although often forgotten) women in twentieth century British theatre.

Aged 22, her father permitted her to attend the prestigious Slade School of Art, but she soon discovered that whilst she was hugely passionate about the arts, she could not manage to create what she hoped to articulate.

She was hugely independent and eccentric; she remained unmarried, she cycled alone across the alps wearing trousers (something which her friend George Bernard Shaw deemed ‘monstrous and unheard of’), smoked Turkish cigarettes in a long holder in public, and joined the occult society of the Golden Dawn, practicing tarot and astrology. She even earned the nickname of ‘Hornibags’ owing to her family’s tea business: they were the first company to sell tea in individual bags.

Using the legacy left by her grandfather, she first ventured into theatre patronage in 1894 by anonymously supporting her friend, the director, actress and activist Florence Farr, to produce a season of work including premieres of work by W.B.Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. In 1903, Yeats asked her to move to Ireland and help to develop the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; she consulted a tarot reading and decided to go. Whilst in Dublin, she supported the theatre financially and oversaw the business side of running the building, but she wanted more artistic input, so in 1907 she left Ireland and headed to Manchester to open her own theatre: The Gaiety.

Initially, she set up in the Midland Hotel for a few weeks, but then she and General Manager Ben Iden Payne bought a building on Peter Street. The Gaiety was Britain’s first ‘repertory’ theatre; actors were employed on forty week contracts and alternated between large and small parts in each production. The hope was that by changing the production two to three times per week the actors would not become ‘stale’ – and theatregoers could see a few different shows every week.

As well as producing classic plays, she wanted to include contemporary and local playwrights in the repertoire, so, writing to the local paper, she promised, “If Lancashire playwrights will send their plays to me I shall pledge myself to read them through. Let them not write as one dramatist does, about Countesses and Duchesses and society existing in imaginations, but about their friends and enemies – about real life.”

She kept to her word and, during her tenure in Manchester, she devoted a portion of her day to reading and replying to every play submitted. Sometimes this could be up to forty manuscripts a week which were brought to the theatre by a postman, who was rewarded for carrying the extra weight with free tickets to her shows. She particularly championed three writers who became known as the ‘Manchester School’ of playwrights: Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse. Stanley Houghton said of her: “I can never thank you enough for the chance you have given me of getting a footing and the encouragement and experience your production of my plays have given me. I started to write expressly and absolutely for you. Had the Gaiety not been there, I wouldn’t have written a line.” The Gaiety plays were successful, transferring to London and America for seasons in theatres there.

Whilst she generally stayed away from politics, Annie was a supporter of the suffrage movement and in 1908, she dedicated a matinee performance to raise money for a new Women’s Union building at Manchester University. She gained the support of Emmeline Pankhurst too, who wrote to congratulate her, “You have done so much for dramatic art in this country that you have won our gratitude. It is an added pleasure to me that you are a woman”. She was a firm believer from a very early age that the vote for women would eventually come and finally, aged 58, that wish was granted.

The First World War put a halt to the Gaiety’s success. She tried to support the war effort by holding concerts to raise money for ambulances and wounded soldiers, and gave free tickets to nurses and soldiers, but in 1917 Annie dissolved the company and sold the theatre, which was eventually demolished in 1959. The last performance in the theatre was Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes. When asked if she was going to attend the final night, Anne dryly replied, “Of course I shall be there. Every corpse must attend its own funeral”.

The repertory theatre became the model for most regional theatres during the twentieth century, including Glasgow, Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool, and the plays she championed continue to be performed today. In the words of her friend George Bernard Shaw, she was the woman ‘who really started the modern theatre movement’.

Written for Sheroes of History by Anna Marsland

Find out more…

The book Annie Horniman: A Pioneer in the Theatre gives much more detail about Annie’s life.

Learn more about the development of modern repertory theatre on the V&A Museum’s website.

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin has a portrait of Annie. Find out more about it and see a picture here.

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