Smallhythe Place - History and Facts | History Hit

Smallhythe Place

Small Hythe, England, United Kingdom

Peta Stamper

26 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Smallhythe Place

Smallhythe Place in Kent is a half-timbered house built during the late 15th or early 16th century, today managed by the National Trust. The property is most well known as the home of Victorian actress Ellen Terry from 1899 to her death at Smallhythe in 1928, from which her daughter Edy ran a suffragist theatre company.

Smallhythe Place history

The dwelling at Smallhythe was originally known as ‘Port House’. It lay close to the River Rother before the river and sea receded, providing a thriving shipyard (‘hythe’ meaning ‘landing place’ in Old English). This integral waterway served the kings Henry V and Henry VIII, who had large ships built there including ‘The Great Gallyon of 1546. It was not until the 16th century when the sea-access began silting up so local craftsmen had to look elsewhere for work.

The Tudor house was later bought by leading Victorian actress Ellen Terry in 1899. Ellen gave use of the property’s Priest’s House to her daughter Edy Craig who followed her mother’s path into theatre as a producer and costume designer. Edy also founded and managed the Pioneer Players from 1911 until 1926 – a theatre society staging innovative plays, particularly around the topic of women’s suffrage, in London.

Edy shared her home with her partner Chris St John who was a writer and translator. In 1916 the pair were joined by artist Tony (formerly Clare) Atwood and the 3 women supported each other, part of a lesbian network that included Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West who lived nearby in Sissinghurst. Smallhythe therefore became a haven for inclusive feminist living.

When Edy’s mother Ellen died, she made the house into a museum and converted the barn into a theatre. The National Trust supported Edy’s museum, taking over the property when she died in 1947. Each year on Ellen’s birthday, a Shakespeare play is performed in the Barn Theatre.

Smallhythe Place today

Set back from the busy road, visitors to Smallhythe Place can explore the Tudor house that is full of items documenting the theatrical life and talent of Ellen and Edy Terry. The theatrical mementoes, including intricately designed costumes, are interspersed with personal items, including paintings by Tony Atwood. There is also a letter from Oscar Wilde begging Ellen to accept a copy of his first play.

After visiting the house and barn, wander through the orchard to find a small gazebo which houses a small exhibition exploring the queer relationships of Smallhythe. Beyond the small wooden hut, you can see St John’s churchyard in which Chris St John and Tony Atwood were buried alongside a memorial to Edy Craig in 2012.

Getting to Smallhythe Place

Smallhtythe Place is located in Small Hythe on the east side of Rye Road (B2082), a 2 hour drive via the M20 from London. There is free parking across the road. Via public transport, you could get a train to Rye on the Southern line and taxi the 8 miles to Smallhythe, or get the 312 bus between Tenterden and Rye to stop Church.