Fred and Horace Collins, A History of Scottish Variety Theatre

collins variety.jpgRemembering Fred and Horace Collins

The Heart of Scottish Variety Theatre for 44 Years

by Ross Collins

I always thought there was something odd about my surname. Our family name was Collins but the nameplate on our front door read ‘Collins Nelson’. Nelson is my middle name too. As a child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I didn’t really care why. Very occasionally my dad, Randle Collins, would mention the family’s theatrical history but my grandparents died long before I arrived and nobody was too bothered to give me details. It wasn’t really until my aunt Josette wrote a short book in 1995, telling the family’s story that I really learned to be proud to be a ‘Collins’.

Fred Collins was born ‘James Nelson’ in 1877 in Denniston. By the age of ten James was an orphan and was raised by his big sister. One of young James’ only joys in life were his weekly visits to the ‘Bursts’ at his local music halls. He decided to try writing comic songs and he wrote for many big stars in their infancy like Harry Lauder. James then decided to take to the stage himself as a comedian. It was then that he changed his name to the more pleasing ‘Fred Collins’ and Collins has been the family name ever since.

From there Fred became a producer, theatre proprietor and innovator. Fred was also the founder and president of the Scottish Musical Artiste’s Benevolent Fund, improving the conditions for countless Scottish performers.

In 1912 he established Scotland’s first variety agency, which he ran with his son Horace. The agency became famous for it’s twice nightly pantomimes starring many of the great stars of the day such as Dave Willis, Power and Bendon, Harry Gordon, GH Elliot, Will Fyffe, Denny Willis, Don Arrol, Tommy Lorne, Alex Findlay, Jack Radcliffe, Robert Wilson, Charlie Kemble and Jack Anthony.

On his father’s death in 1931, Horace took the reins of the business and established the Collins Seasonal Circuit. This allowed the Collins’ performers to hone their talents the year round moving from productions in Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre to Edinburgh’s Royal, Dundee’s Palace and Aberdeen’s Tivoli. Later an English outpost was established with Liverpool’s Shakespeare Theatre.

During the war Horace was made an honorary colonel as ENSA controller for Scotland and received an OBE for his tireless charitable work.

Business boomed for the Collins Variety Agency until Horace’s untimely death in 1947. Neither his widow Josee nor his son Randle were able to properly step into Horace’s shoes or fight the decline in Scottish variety theatre. The business was eventually closed in 1956.

Over the past two years I have collected together a full history of Fred and Horace and in doing so a history of Scottish Variety and Pantomime. Our new website contains their full story, illustrated with countless rare photographs, programs, playbills and films of the Collins pantomimes. A small tribute to two men who never received an ovation.

I invite you to roll up and visit their story at


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This section: What's on in Glasgow: Theatre and Comedy

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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