Annie Horniman 1860 – 1937
Eccentric arts champion
Annie Horniman challenged society’s expectations of women. She raised many an eyebrow by remaining unmarried and being a heavy smoker; not to mention travelling alone, in trousers, across Europe and North Africa – including cycling across the Alps. George Bernard Shaw reckoned her preference for riding men’s bicycles was “monstrous and unheard of”; but for Annie it was just practical: “ladies’ bicycles are mere hen-roosts…serious travelling on them is ridiculous”. She attended the Slade School of Fine Art, and would pop to see new impressionist exhibitions in Paris.
Born into a wealthy tea trading family, in 1894 Annie inherited £40,000 from her grandfather; a sum that would be worth several millions today. She used her wealth to champion her passions, especially the theatre.
In 1908, after a stint managing a theatre in Ireland, she bought and refurbished Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre. Aiming to bring affordable, quality plays to the masses, she pioneered a ‘repertory’ system, assembling a resident company of actors to perform a rotating programme of classic and contemporary work. She was a hands-on owner, selecting the plays (reading up to 40 works a week), the ticket prices, and programme design. She also nurtured a Manchester School of playwrights, including one Harold Brighouse author of ‘Hobson’s Choice’.
Annie became a popular local celebrity in Manchester. Eccentric and extravert, she was famed for her flamboyant fashion sense – an abundance of peacock feathers and pearls; and her outspoken views on women’s rights. In 1910 she was awarded an honorary MA by Manchester University for services to the theatre and the cultural life of Manchester, and loved wearing her graduation gown for photo shoots.
Her theatre was popular with mill workers eager to broaden their horizons on life. One such worker Alice Foley recalled a visit to the Gaiety 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.”
Along with other arty celebrities in her social circle, Annie was a member of occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She used Tarot card readings to help guide decision making, and her Gaiety Theatre programme designs even featured occultist symbols.
The First World War put the brakes on Annie’s work at the Gaiety, and the repertory company folded in 1917. She leased out the building, eventually selling it in 1921 before moving down to London. However her pioneering work at the venue inspired similar repertory theatres across Britain. George Bernard Shaw declared that she “really started the modern theatre movement”.