Annie Horniman portrait by Emma Magnus, c 1935 ( Manchester Theatre Collection)
The remarkable Annie Elizabeth Fredericka was born in 1860 in Forest Hill, the daughter of Frederick and Rebekah Horniman. Her grandfather, John Horniman was a grocer when he had the idea of selling pre-packaged tea. Before then tea was sold loosely, allowing the possibility of adulteration with used tea leaves, copper carbonate, lead chromate and even sheep’s dung. The Lancet had been leading the campaign against the adulteration of food and pronounced that John Horniman’s tea passed its purity tests “in triumphant fashion” which must have been a great boost to business. Horniman became known as “Honest John”.
The firm became incredibly successful and by the 1890s was said to be the biggest tea trader in the world. Like many merchants at that time the Hornimans were Quakers and John Horniman was said to be a splendid sight riding his black horse in full Quaker costume, perhaps not unlike the Quaker Oats man. Annie’s father, Frederick joined the family firm, became Liberal MP for Penryn and Falmouth at the age of 66 and was a noted collector. He had a butterfly, beetle, bug and moth named after him after he founded the Horniman Museum.
Annie grew up in a large detached Victorian villa, set in fifteen acres in Forest Hill. Family life for Annie and her younger brother, Emslie, was run on strict Quaker lines despite her father having converted to Congregationalism on his marriage. The house was gradually filling up with Frederick’s curiosities, collected on his travels but life for Annie and Emslie was rather quiet. They were educated at home and fairly dependent on their governesses for contact with the outside world. Playing cards were forbidden as was going to the theatre but when Annie was 14, she and Emslie were taken to a performance of The Merchant of Venice at The Crystal Palace by a German governess and this sparked a lifelong love of the theatre in her. In 1882 she and Emslie both began studying at the Slade School of Art which had only opened its doors to women eleven years before. She regularly travelled abroad wearing trousers and cycling across the continent alone on a man’s bicycle, “ladies’ bicycles are mere hen-roosts…serious travelling on them is ridiculous”, she said. George Bernard Shaw said that it was “monstrous and unheard of” to ride as she did. She went to Paris to see the Impressionist paintings which were then causing such a stir and it was while attending the Bayreuth Festival in Germany that she became aware of the German subsidised theatre scene and its cultural importance. Back in Britain she joined the Independent Theatre Society and this led to her becoming a pioneer of the modern repertory theatre movement.
She was a fervent supporter of women’s suffrage and sexual equality. She cut her hair short and was a prolific and public smoker at a time when that was considered quite daring for a woman. She dressed flamboyantly and often used furnishing fabrics from Liberty’s to make her distinctive gowns: Sybil Thorndike described her as wearing “beautiful stuff that you would only think of for curtains”. She also had distinctive jewellery including an enormous elaborate dragon pendant with ruby eyes and made of 300 opals which she had collected on her travels.
She joined and helped finance an occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She also financially supported one of the founders of the order, Samuel Liddell Mathers, who had worked for her father at the Museum until he lost his job (and his tied accommodation on Horniman’s estate in Forest Hill) following an argument. Fellow members of the order included the famous occultist Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula and the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats who called her “The Quaker Lady”. She was expelled from the order in 1896 for insubordination and it was at about the same time that she stopped financially supporting Mathers. She was reinstated four years later.
In 1894 she inherited £40,000 from her grandfather; the equivalent sum today would be several millions. Insisting on strict anonymity so as not to incur the wrath of her family, she funded a season at the Avenue Theatre in London including the first public production of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats’ first play in London: The Land of Heart's Desire. A financial disaster but a critical success, it was referred to by Annie as a “fruitful failure”. She developed a strong affection for Yeats and an appreciation of his work led to her becoming his unpaid secretary for many years. She also made the costumes for a play of his performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, a theatre set up by Yeats as a home for the Irish National Theatre. Finding that the theatre had no permanent home she said to Yeats “I will give you a theatre” and funded the purchase of a property which opened in 1904 with plays by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory. It quickly established an international reputation for championing new Irish plays and a high standard of acting.
Annie’s mother died in 1895 and two years later her father, aged 61, married Minnie Louisa Bennet, aged 21. Annie strongly objected to the marriage, boycotted the wedding and broke off all contact with her family including her brother. She never spoke to her father again and later claimed to have been disinherited by him although he did in fact leave her £25,000 when he died in 1906 though this was a small proportion of his fortune. Emslie approved of the marriage and his daughter was a bridesmaid at the wedding. Emslie had joined the family firm and would later inherit the family fortune together with the children from his father’s second marriage and go on to become a noted anthropologist, Liberal MP for Chelsea and, following in the family tradition, a philanthropist and collector. He endowed an acre of land in Chelsea to be laid out as a park and it still exists today as “Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance”.
In 1898 her beloved family home was demolished to build what would become the Horniman Museum and this may have been the time she bought the flat in Portman Square which she was to own throughout her life and where she lived alone save for two tabby cats.
Meanwhile back at the Abbey Theatre, there was some resentment both of an English woman funding the Irish National Theatre and also of the level of control Annie wanted to exercise. She wanted to choose the plays, the management, the ticket prices but most of all to stem the tide of nationalist fervour which was undoubtedly rife at the theatre. There were many internal disagreements and in 1907 Annie shifted her energies and chequebook to Manchester, buying the Gaiety Theatre a year later and opening it as the first modern repertory theatre. The final straw came when the Abbey Theatre inadvertently stayed open the day after King Edward VII’s death in 1910, when other theatres in Ireland were closed. Annie misinterpreted this as a political act (although it seems to have been more cock-up than conspiracy) and she stopped subsidising the Abbey completely. Sadly, Annie’s long friendship with Yeats didn’t survive the altercations.
Annie hired the noted theatre architect, Frank Matcham to completely refurbish the Gaiety Theatre with excellent sightlines, good acoustics and the latest comfortable tip-up seats. Its repertoire ranged from Euripides to Shaw but was most closely associated with writers of the ‘Manchester School’. Annie was involved in every aspect of the theatre, from management to designing programmes, from arranging tours to reading over 40 plays a week looking for material. She allowed no star actors and was rigorous in sharing out parts, with actors taking turns at both large and small roles. She organised paid coffee breaks and was known as “the actors’ best friend”. The theatre was enthusiastically supported by the Manchester Guardian and underwrote the careers of many playwrights and actors. Annie caught the zeitgeist with this venture, attracting young mill-workers who were becoming aware of the wider world beyond Manchester. One such worker, Alice Foley, described a Gaiety matinée in her autobiography, A Bolton Childhood: "Over tea, brown bread, peaches and cream, we animatedly argued and discussed the philosophy, art or satire of the productions. The whole outing cost about five shillings each but we returned home like exultant young gods, tingling and athirst with the naïve faith that if only sufficient human beings could witness good drama and comedy it might change the world."
Living part-time in Manchester Annie became a popular local figure, always ready to get on her soap-box regarding either women’s rights or the theatre. In 1910 she was awarded an honorary MA by Manchester University for services to the theatre and the cultural life of Manchester, after which she often proudly wore her subfusc for photographs.
In 1913, she appeared onstage in a non-speaking role, playing herself in Nothing Like Leather, a satire on the Gaiety Theatre. She received an ovation and later remembered it as one of the great moments of her life.
Unfortunately audience numbers didn’t hold up. The theatre ran into financial difficulties and despite her financial support the company collapsed and was disbanded in 1917. Asked whether she would attend the last performance Annie said, "Of course I shall be there. Every corpse must attend its own funeral." She leased the Gaiety to other companies for four years but in 1921 the theatre was sold to a cinema company. The headline in the Daily Herald read, “Miss Horniman Compelled to Sell Manchester Gaiety. Heavy Blow to Drama”. Many other provincial cities followed the Gaiety Theatre repertory model with more success however, and George Bernard Shaw said that she “really started the modern theatre movement”.
In 1921 Annie packed up, left Manchester and moved back to Portman Square for good. She gave the Durer engravings which had been in the theatre to Manchester Grammar School and her Rossetti painting to the City Art Gallery. She never again became actively involved in a theatre, although she remained a frequent and enthusiastic theatregoer and supported the movement to establish a National Theatre in London. She had a wide circle of friends and correspondents including J M Barrie, Arnold Bennett, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, John Galsworthy, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Stopes, Sybil Thorndike, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Israel Zangwill. In 1918, at the age of 58, having received the right to vote as a female graduate over the age of thirty, she voted for the first time. She then refused an invitation to stand for Parliament as a Liberal, saying that she voted Labour. In 1933 she was made a Companion of Honour for her work in the theatre. She died in her sleep at Shere in Surrey in 1937 at the age of 76. George Bernard Shaw declared that she should be buried in Westminster Abbey but she was cremated and her ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance at Woking.