A Thoroughly Modern Woman

Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman was born in 1860, into very wealthy surroundings. Her father was the Quaker tea merchant, Frederick John Horniman, who would later be Liberal M.P. for Penryn and Falmouth and a member of the London County Council. He was also the founder of the Horniman Museum, initially at their home at Forest Hill in South London, which he later gave to the L.C.C. for the use of the people of London. Annie’s mother, Rebekah Emslie, was also from a monied background, inheriting a substantial sum from her father when in her early twenties.

However, money can be stifling and Annie’s parents were perhaps not quite prepared for the personality of the daughter they had created. Both Annie and her younger brother, Emslie, were educated at home by a series of governesses and tutors, but in the early 1880s Annie persuaded her father that she and Emslie should be allowed to study at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College, London. Perhaps surprisingly, this request was granted and so Annie and Emslie were able to escape the confines of their home and branch out into the real world.

Emslie’s life differed little from his parents’; he married a colonel’s daughter, had a family, held a keen interest in antiquities, followed his father into politics and eventually became the Liberal member for Chelsea, whilst Annie’s life totally deviated from the line her family expected her to tow.

At the Slade School Annie met Mina Bergson. Mina was a daughter of a wealthy orthodox Jewish family and was also trying to escape her family background. During their studies, Annie took time away to travel Europe, possibly because she discovered that she might never become a talented artist. She shocked society by going about on a bicycle, unchaperoned, and was often seen smoking in public. Some Swiss hoteliers refused to give her a room because of her unconventional clothing of ‘outrageous knickerbockers’ and short-cropped hair!

Once Annie returned to London, she and Mina, who were probably also romantically linked, became interested in alternative religions. Mina met the Freemason, Samuel MacGregor Mathers, who was also very interested in pagan worship and symbolism. Mina and Samuel were married in 1890 by the Reverend William Ayton, who, despite being the incumbent for Chalcombe in Northants, was also a member of the mystical ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ and a keen alchemist. Mina and Samuel (known as MacGregor) declared their marriage would be a non-sexual partnership and their lives and that of Annie Horniman were closely linked, by their membership of the Golden Dawn, through the 1890s and into the 20th century. It seems likely that the Mathers lived off Annie’s money until MacGregor died in Paris in the flu pandemic of 1918.

During her tours of Europe in the 1880s and 1890s Annie Horniman discovered the theatre. Her parents, one brought up a Quaker and the other a Congregationalist, both disapproved of theatre as a form of entertainment. No doubt this hostility encouraged Annie!

Through her membership of the Golden Dawn Annie became acquainted with the poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats. She helped him with typing his poems and correspondence and greatly respected his creative talents. Annie also met an actress named Florence Farr through the Golden Dawn and in 1894 Florence obtained financial backing from Annie for a season at the Avenue Theatre in London, thanks to a large legacy Annie received from her grandfather, John Horniman, who had died in 1893. That season, the Avenue Theatre saw the first public production of plays by W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Annie continued to finance several projects at the Avenue Theatre over the following years.

Annie’s next project was to finance productions at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, encouraged by Yeats. She did this willingly, despite the frustration that she was not expected to do anything more than provide the finance. The Abbey first opened its doors to the public on 27th December 1904 and became home to the Irish National Theatre.

It was widely acclaimed for its productions of new works. However, there was an underlying political atmosphere with which Annie refused to get involved, but eventually, having underestimated the force of nationalist feeling, she withdrew her support in 1907.

In 1906 Frederick John Horniman died. Annie went to great lengths to tell people that she had been cut out of his will following her refusal to accept his second wife, who at forty years Frederick’s junior and from a very different social background, had caused some degree of controversy. In actual fact, Annie received a bequest of £25,000, so presumably this was much less than she had hoped for!

In 1908 Annie purchased the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester for the exact sum of her latest inheritance, which she then set about renovating. It was here that she set up a repertory company and put on more than two hundred plays, of which the majority were new works. The company was run personally by Annie; she had previously felt hampered by the expectation that she would provide finance, but would otherwise not be involved.

Wages were fair, actors were employed on forty week contracts and were expected to alternate between major and minor roles. Annie regularly read up to thirty or more new plays every week, from which she was able to select works from the likes of Ibsen and Shaw and other local dramatists.

She revelled in the title, conferred upon her by the theatre staff, of ‘An actor’s best friend’ and was even more proud when, in 1910, Manchester University made her an honorary M. A.. Annie’s repertory theatre influenced audiences throughout Britain and North America and her public campaigning led to a network of subsidised regional theatres being set up.

The First World War put paid to Annie’s theatre work and whilst she continued to manage the Gaiety Theatre until 1921, the number of works produced was much diminished and Annie spent some of her greater free time supporting the woman’s suffrage movement.

In 1933 she was made a ‘Companion of Honour’ for services to drama. After many years of immobilisation through arthritis, Annie died at her home ‘Acorn Bank’ at Shere in Surrey in 1937. Luckily, she lived long enough to see the spread of the repertory theatre movement throughout the country and beyond.

My connection to Annie is that her grandmother, Ann Horniman (nee Smith), after whom she was named, was my great x4 aunt.

Merry Monty Montgomery

© Merry Monty Montgomery 2008

The John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester

Miss Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre Manchester by Rex Podson

The New York Times 1913