Women who Shaped Manchester: The Magical Annie Horniman

As we are approaching Halloween, it is appropriate to concentrate a blog on one of our most flamboyant Manchester women, who certainly had a love of all things mysterious and mystical.

Annie Horniman (1860-1937) was born into a wealthy London family of tea merchants. As a child she was greatly inspired by the theatre, which despite the disapproval of her parents developed into a life-long love. Rebellious in nature, Annie shunned restrictive Victorian values: she supported women’s suffrage, smoked heavily, was fond of dressing eccentrically, and cultivated an interest in astrology and the occult.

Annie Horniman
Annie Horniman in her Order of the Golden Dawn robes

Annie joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the 1890s, along with friends George Bernard Shaw, W B Yeats and Florence Farr [1]. Other notable members included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dracula author, Bram Stoker. The Order of the Golden Dawn was devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities, actively engaging with magical rituals and tarot readings. Horniman took the name ‘Fortier et Recte’ (Bravely and Justly) and Yeats the motto ‘Demon est Deus Inversus’ (The devil is the converse of God) [2]. Writing to each other over the years they would sign themselves simply ‘Demon’ and ‘Fortier’. Horniman’s connection to Yeats was very strong; for years she behaved almost as an unpaid personal assistant to him and in the early 1900s she financed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin primarily as a showcase for Yeats’ plays.

W B Yeats, courtesy of the NPG

The partnership in Dublin was not entirely successful (documented in part by the aptly named Samhain, the in-house journal of the Irish National Theatre Society) and by 1906 Horniman was on the search for new a city, a new project and a new theatre. Turning her attentions to Manchester, by September 1908 Miss Horniman’s Company was moving into the reopened and refurbished Gaiety Theatre in the city centre; establishing one of the first regional repertory theatres.

Annie gave her new company a mystical symbol that appeared on all programmes and posters. It comprised of a six pointed star (symbolising fame and success) within which was the sign of Venus, the planet that governs the arts in the house of Libra (Annie’s birth sign). To one side of the star was the sign of Mercury, governing eloquence and writing and on the other the crescent moon to represent change and growth [2].

Company programme with mystical symbols

The symbols also adorned her personal writing paper and were essentially lucky charms for the new theatrical venture. Despite her best efforts to harness good fortune the theatre itself lasted less than ten years, finally being dissolved in 1917. However, Horniman’s impact on the theatre during that ten years and on Manchester itself cannot be underestimated. Her encouragement and support of local writers who formed what was became known as the Manchester School of dramatists, brought plays such as Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice to life. The Gaiety Theatre model was also adapted and capitalised upon by other cities, shaping regional modern theatre as we know it.

Anyone who is interested in Annie Horniman and the Manchester School of playwrights will be likely fascinated by a new publication by John Harding on the subject, Staging Life: The Story of the Manchester Playwrights which is available from Greenwich Exchange Publishing. John will also be in Manchester on Saturday November 10th giving a talk about Annie Horniman and The Gaiety Theatre at the Mary Quaile Club.

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Rylands Imaging Services.

[1] Horniman Museum

[2] Goode, Sheila, (1990) Annie Horniman a Pioneer in the Theatre.

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