The Annie Horniman Papers

Scope and Content

The Annie Horniman material listed in this catalogue is in fact comprised of five separate accessions to the John Rylands Library: two of the collections were donated by Annie Horniman herself, and the other two come from different sources. The material includes: two series of press cuttings books which chart the early history of the Abbey Theatre and the entire history of the Gaiety, in the form of reviews, reports, features and articles from a broad range of local and national publications; a series of theatre programmes for productions at the Gaiety Theatre between 1908 and 1920; photographs and papers relating to the Horniman family; a series of letters written by Annie Horniman to various members of her family, in particular her second cousin, Marjorie Garrod, with whom she corresponded from 1914 to the year before her death; in addition there is a substantial number of letters to Annie Horniman from authors, journalists, playwrights, critics, actors, managers and various other well-known figures of the day. Individuals represented in the correspondence include George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, Harold Brighouse, Edward Garnett, W.B. Yeats, Marie Stopes and Emmeline Pankhurst. The final accession consists of annotated musical scores, containing Horniman's address and signature.

Administrative / Biographical History

Born on 3 October 1860 at Forest Hill in Lewisham, Annie Elizabeth Fredericka was the eldest child of Frederick and Rebekah Horniman. Her paternal grandfather, John Horniman, founded the family tea business, Horniman & Co., and made a fortune from the innovative idea of selling tea in packets of a guaranteed weight and purity. Frederick followed his father into the business, and during his extensive travels around the world for the company he indulged in his favourite pursuit of collecting: he amassed vast collections of curios, art objects and specimens of flora and fauna, which later formed the basis of the Horniman Free Museum set up at the family home in Forest Hill.

Annie Horniman and her younger brother, Emslie, never attended school, and were taught instead by governesses and private tutors. Both children developed a love of music and the arts, and Miss Horniman later remembered how her interest in the theatre was first aroused by a German governess who taught her from the age of 13, and who took the Horniman children to see a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Crystal Palace. Theatre games subsequently became a passion and the two children spent many hours constructing miniature sets and figures. It was a pastime which had to be concealed from their parents, however, because their father - for all his liberal attitudes - had a puritanical distaste for anything connected with the theatre.

This was not the only way in which Miss Horniman rebelled against her parents and the Victorian middle-class values and prejudices which they represented: she ardently believed in the equality of the sexes and supported the women's suffrage movement; during her teens she took up smoking heavily, a habit she retained for the rest of her life; she was fond of dressing eccentrically and loved unusual jewellery, particularly opal, her birthstone. She also developed a well-informed interest in alternative cults and beliefs, such as theosophy, the occult and astrology.

From 1882 to 1886 Annie Horniman attended the Slade School of Art. Here, despite discovering that she possessed no great artistic talent, she made many lasting friendships and became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the day in literature and drama. She developed a love of continental travel, often undertaking long journeys alone on her bicycle, and making pilgrimages to the annual Wagner festival at Bayreuth in Germany. It was during her travels that she was struck by the plays of Ibsen, with their exploration of contemporary social and psychological problems, and she also became aware of the cultural value of subsidized repertory theatres which were particularly numerous in Germany. This prompted her determination to promote the 'new drama' at home in Britain and, as a first step, she joined the Independent Theatre Society.

During the 1880s and '90s, she also pursued another of her enduring interests and became deeply involved in the Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret occult society founded by Samuel Liddell Mathers in 1888, where she first made the acquaintance of the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, and the actress, Florence Farr. With the exception of the years 1897-1900, following a disagreement with Mathers, she remained a member of the Order until 1903, although during the final years there was growing acrimony amongst leading figures within the movement, leading to the resignation of both Yeats and ultimately Miss Horniman.

A legacy from her grandfather gave Miss Horniman the opportunity to undertake her first theatrical venture: in 1894 she funded a season of experimental drama at the Avenue Theatre in London organised by her friend Florence Farr. She insisted on remaining an anonymous backer as she wanted to avoid provoking the displeasure of her family. The season was a financial disaster but was critically acclaimed; Miss Horniman subsequently referred to it as a 'fruitful failure'. The season stands as an important landmark in the modern theatre movement: included in the programme were productions of Arms and the Man, the first play by George Bernard Shaw to be seen in the commercial theatre, and The Land of Heart's Desire, the first play by W.B. Yeats produced in London. Annie Horniman had a great admiration for Yeats's work, and for some years she acted as his amanuensis in London.

The 1890s saw changes in Miss Horniman's family life too: her mother died in 1895, and two years later her 61-year-old father married Minnie Louisa Bennet, who was 21. Annie strongly disapproved of this marriage, refused to attend the wedding and broke off all contact with her family, including her brother who condoned the match. She later claimed to have been disinherited by her father; she was in fact left £25,000, although this was a small sum in proportion to his large fortune.

Her friendship with Yeats and her desire to promote his work led to Miss Horniman's next involvement in the theatre. Yeats was a leading figure in the Irish National Theatre Society, and in 1903 Miss Horniman designed and made the costumes for a performance of his play The King's Threshold in Dublin. The Irish National Theatre Society had no permanent home and on discovering that her Hudson Bay shares had risen dramatically, Miss Horniman offered to use the unexpected windfall to fund a theatre for them; her formal offer was accepted in May 1904. She hired the derelict hall of the Mechanics' Institute on the corner of Lower Abbey Street and Marlborough Street in Dublin, which was renovated and officially opened as the Abbey Theatre in December 1904; plays by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory were produced on the first night, and these two playwrights, along with J.M. Synge, became the first directors of the theatre.

The Abbey went on to achieve an international reputation, and was famed for its naturalistic acting style, pioneered by the brothers Frank and Willie Fay. Miss Horniman provided an annual subsidy for the theatre, without which it could not have survived: her money supplied the various technical resources required, facilitated the development of a professional and talented repertory company, and enabled them both to produce plays which commercial companies would have been unable to consider staging, and to undertake tours which spread the Abbey name outside Ireland.

Theatre business was, however, hampered by internal disputes and there was resentment amongst some of the actors against their English patron. Miss Horniman believed politics had no place in the theatre and there was mutual suspicion between her and the Irish nationalist element of the company. There was also some controversy over the level of control Miss Horniman wished to exercise at the Abbey: she had a strong proprietary interest in the theatre's affairs, and wanted a say in matters such as seat prices, the management of the theatre and the repertoire of plays. She disliked the Fay brothers' acting methods, seeing them as too amateur in style, and wanted the theatre to produce more international plays in addition to Irish drama. Although not resident in Ireland, Miss Horniman was in constant contact by post, and her frequent letters filled with criticism, complaints and advice grew in number. Matters came to a head when, due to a combination of mishap and a lack of communication between managers and directors, the Abbey remained open on Saturday 7 May 1910, the day following King Edward VII's death, when all other theatres in the country closed as a mark of respect. Miss Horniman was furious on hearing of this, viewing it as a political act, and immediately withdrew her subsidy. This led to acrimony on both sides and a bitter legal dispute over sums of money owed. Her close friendship with Yeats was never subsequently renewed.

Miss Horniman now turned all her attention to her Gaiety Theatre enterprise in Manchester. This project had been initiated when Annie received the legacy from her father on his death in 1906. The money enabled her to realise her ambition of establishing a theatre over which she had greater control than she had held at the Abbey, and one which was based as far as possible upon repertory principles. The aim was to set up a theatre with a regularly changing programme of plays and a stock company of talented actors to perform them, none of whom were 'stars' in their own right, thus providing an alternative to the long-run commercial theatres where the main attraction was often an individual name. Miss Horniman also hoped to give an opening to new writers whose work had never before been staged. She commissioned a talented actor and producer, Ben Iden Payne, to take charge of the venture, and Manchester was chosen as the most suitable city to house such a theatre. Her intentions were announced to an enthusiastic reception from the Manchester public, and the Midland Hotel was leased for a trial season starting in September 1907. The newly-formed 'Manchester Playgoers' Theatre' produced a repertoire of plays which included works by Shaw, the French playwright Edmond Rostand, and Charles McEvoy, a new playwright who became a Gaiety favourite. Before the end of the season Miss Horniman announced that she had purchased the Gaiety Theatre in Peter Street as a permanent home for the company, and after a tour and a brief season at the old Gaiety in the spring of 1908, Miss Horniman's Company moved into the reopened and completely refurbished Gaiety theatre in September of that year.

Over the next few years the Gaiety produced a widely varied stock of plays, ranging from Greek tragedy, British classics, and translations of foreign works, to contemporary plays by new playwrights. The reputation of the theatre was boosted by a talented and enthusiastic team of critics at the Manchester Guardian newspaper - notably C.E. Montague, James Agate, Allan Monkhouse, and G.H. Mair. A number of Manchester playwrights made their names with plays produced for the first time at the Gaiety, giving rise to the so-called 'Manchester School' of drama, the leading figures being Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse. Many actors who started out in the Gaiety company went on to make important and lasting contributions to the world of theatre and film. The success of the repertory experiment in Manchester sparked off interest in other provincial cities, and the Gaiety became the parent of the modern repertory movement. Its influence was also felt in Canada and America, where the company undertook two tours in 1912 and 1913.

Miss Horniman became a well-known figure in Manchester. She developed her skills as a public speaker, addressing various groups and societies, and was always ready to offer her opinions on many subjects, particularly the women's suffrage movement and issues connected with drama and the theatre. In 1910, her services to the theatre and the cultural life of Manchester were formally recognised when she was awarded an honorary M.A. by Manchester University; she was very proud of this honour and was fond of wearing her academic cap and gown for photographs. In 1913, she made a brief appearance onstage at the Gaiety in a non- speaking part, when she played herself in Nothing Like Leather, Allan Monkhouse's satire on the Gaiety and those associated with it. She received an ovation, and remembered it as one of the great moments of her life.

Despite the critical success enjoyed by the Gaiety, during the years leading up to the war the theatre began to suffer from financial problems. Miss Horniman had always stressed that the theatre would have to pay its own way, and that if the people of Manchester wished to keep their repertory theatre they would have to support it by patronising it frequently. Audience numbers began to drop, however, and 1913 marked the end of an era, with the resignation of Lewis Casson (Payne's replacement) after a disagreement with Miss Horniman over his financially disastrous production of Julius Caesar. The Gaiety continued to stage plays during the war years, but in 1917 Miss Horniman was forced to disband the permanent company, and the theatre became a lodging house for visiting companies. Although she had hopes of reviving the permanent company after the war, Miss Horniman found that her financial situation made this impossible and she was forced, reluctantly, to put the Gaiety up for sale. Despite various attempts to save the theatre, too few people were prepared to provide financial support, and in 1921 the Gaiety was finally sold to a cinema company. This led to extensive analysis and debate, and blame for the company's failure was attributed to various factors, including the type of drama produced there, and general public apathy; Miss Horniman was accused by some of simply being bored with her project.

Whilst the Gaiety Company was still in existence, Miss Horniman had frequently stressed that she would be interested in setting up a repertory theatre in London if she could find a financial backer. After the sale of the Gaiety, however, she never again became actively involved in the theatre, although she remained a frequent and enthusiastic theatregoer. She moved full-time to London, where she had kept up her flat in Portman Square, acquired on first leaving the family home. She had a wide circle of friends and correspondents, and many interests, including travel and contemporary politics. She received national recognition in 1933 when she was made a Companion of Honour. She died in her sleep at Shere in Surrey on 6 August 1937.

She could be outspoken, obstinate and stubborn, often refusing to compromise or accept half measures, but Annie Horniman showed great loyalty and endless generosity both in her personal life - she was always ready to offer financial help to her friends - and in her professional life, funding worthwhile theatrical ventures and launching the careers of many famous figures in the world of drama. She worked hard to achieve her ideals, and her work had a great influence on British theatre, initiating the repertory movement in this country as we know it today: 'critics and historians have credited her as being one of the most important forces in the shaping of the 20th century theatre in England.' (James W. Flannery, Miss Annie F. Horniman and the Abbey Theatre, 1970, p. 34). Many of the letters held in this collection stand as a testimony to this.


The material has been arranged into five subgroups reflecting the five discrete collections of varied provenance which constitute the Annie Horniman papers. The groupings are as follows: 

  • /1 Abbey Theatre press cuttings books
  • /2 Gaiety Theatre press cuttings books
  • /3 Gaiety Theatre programmes
  • /4 Marjorie Garrod collection
  • /5 Annie Horniman Musical Scores

Annie Horniman is referred to as AEFH throughout the catalogue.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.


The material held in the collection was used as source material by Rex Pogson for his book, Miss Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester (London: Rockliff, 1952), and by Sheila Gooddie in writing Annie Horniman: a pioneer in the theatre (London: Methuen, 1990).

Other Finding Aids


Custodial History

Both series of press cuttings books were compiled by Annie Horniman herself and remained in her possession until she donated them to the John Rylands Library: 10 volumes relating to the Abbey Theatre were accessioned in 1918 and 17 volumes relating to the Gaiety Theatre came to the Library in 1921. The collection of Gaiety Theatre programmes was donated to the Library by Mr J. Peacock in 1934; and the Marjorie Garrod collection of Horniman material passed from Marjorie to her daughter, Elizabeth Cade, who sold it to the Library in 1984. More detailed information on the custodial history of each collection is given under the relevant subgroup heading. The musical scores were donted to the collection by Howard Rogerson in 2021.

Related Material

The John Rylands University Library houses a number of collections which contain archive material pertaining to Annie Horniman and her work. These include: Papers of C.E. Montague ( GB 133 CEM), containing a letter from Miss Horniman and cuttings of Montague's reviews of various Gaiety productions printed in the Manchester Guardian; Papers of Allan Monkhouse, (GB 133 ANM ) containing 6 letters from Miss Horniman and letters from various figures associated with drama and dramatic criticism during the time of the Gaiety Theatre; the Basil Dean Archive GB 133 DEA, which contains 12 letters from Miss Horniman to Dean and one to Arnold Bennett, one photograph, and various typescript speeches and articles relating to the Horniman celebrations in 1958, commemorating 50 years of repertory theatre in Britain; and the Collected Papers relating to the life and work of Samuel Alexander, which contains one letter from Annie Horniman.

Other repositories which hold archive material relating to Annie Horniman include: the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, London (miscellaneous letters); the British Library (letters written by Annie Horniman to George Bernard Shaw); Manchester Central Library Local Studies Unit (Annie Horniman's letters to Tom Bass); Trinity College Dublin (Annie Horniman's correspondence with J.M. Synge); and the National Library of Ireland in Dublin (material concerning the early history of the Abbey Theatre and various letters written by Annie Horniman).


The material held in the collection was used as source material by Rex Pogson for his book, Miss Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester (London: Rockliff, 1952), and by Sheila Gooddie in writing Annie Horniman: a pioneer in the theatre (London: Methuen, 1990).

Fay, Gerard, The Abbey Theatre: cradle of genius(London: Hollis and Carter, 1958).

Flannery, James W., Miss Annie F. Horniman and the Abbey Theatre, Irish Theatre Series 3 (Dublin: the Dolmen Press, 1970).

Gooddie, Sheila, Annie Horniman: a pioneer in the theatre (London: Methuen, 1990).

Hunt, Hugh, The Abbey: Ireland's national theatre (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1979).

Mikhail, E.H. (ed.), The Abbey Theatre: interviews and recollections (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988).

Pogson, Rex, Miss Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester (London: Rockliff, 1952).

Robinson, Lennox, Ireland's Abbey Theatre: a history 1899-1951 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1951).

Saddlemyer, Ann (ed.), Theatre Business: the correspondence of the first Abbey Theatre directors (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982).

Additional Information

Material from this collection formed the basis of the exhibition, 'Annie Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre', held at the John Rylands University Library, Deansgate, 9 May-23 July 1994. It was supplemented by material from the Basil Dean collection also held at this Library and by some items from the Stanley Houghton collection housed at Salford University.

Geographical Names