Home of the Victorian actress Ellen Terry
Smallhythe Place is located in the tiny hamlet of Smallhythe in the weald Kent. It is around three miles south of the historic town of Tenterden.
Incredibly Smallhythe was once a bustling shipbuilding port and stood on the banks of the River Rother estuary. The thriving quays and busy warehouses would have served many communities around the area, including Tenterden, which became a Cinque Port.
The Royal shipyard at Smallhythe built vessels for Henry V and Henry VIII until the silting up of the river which, became the oncoming demise of Smallhythe.
The word Hythe or Hithe actually means small harbour or port; Smallhythe now lies around 10 miles from the coast.
Thankfully the charming 15th-century half-timbered house of Smallhythe Place remains and is believed to have been named ‘Port House’.
How to get to Smallhythe Place
How to get to...
- By Train
Smallhythe Place is reasonably remote; therefore, the nearest train stations are Rye (8 miles), Appledore (8 miles) and Headcorn (10 miles).
- By Car
Smallhythe Place is located on the B2082, just around 3 miles south of Tenterden in Kent. Limited parking is available in a layby 50 yards south of the house. Additionally, there is free parking just north in the Church car park.
Rescuing Smallhythe PlaceAnd the creation of the Barn Theatre
Smallhythe Place became a rural farmstead and was rescued in 1899 by Dame Ellen Terry, a Victorian actor renowned for her Shakespearian performances.
Smallhythe Place had fallen into a dishevelled state of repair; however, the beautiful timber-framed home was restored with much of its fundamental structure and character remaining with Ellen’s foresight. Smallhythe Place is so picturesque, and you can truly understand why the actress fell in love with it.
When Ellen Terry died in 1928, her daughter Edith Craig took over the house. She opened the delightful home to the public as a memorial to her mother.
The barn that sits in the garden of Smallhythe Place was converted by Edith in 1929 into the Barn Theatre. This enchanting, intimate theatre still hosts Shakespearian performances today.
The house’s upkeep was proving to be challenging, and in 1939 Edith gifted the property to the National Trust. Edith Craig passed away in 1947, and the National Trust continues to lovingly maintain it.
A brief history of Ellen TerryBlossoming from a theatrical family
Ellen Terry was born in 1847 into an acting family. She was introduced to the world of theatre and stage performance at a very early age.
Ellen’s first stage appearance was at the tender age of nine at London’s Princess’s Theatre, playing Mamillius in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale. She continued at the same theatre until 1859, then toured with her parents and sister around the UK for a couple of years.
Ellen Terry’s career continued to flourish into her early teens playing many varied parts; however, she regularly played classical Shakespearian roles. Ellen then headed back to London and joined a production company at the Haymarket Theatre.
While at the Haymarket, Ellen met the artist George Frederic Watts who painted her portrait on several occasions. George Watts had fallen in love with Ellen, and despite him being 46 and Ellen was 16, he proposed, and they were married days before her 17th birthday.
The marriage only lasted 10 months; however, Ellen Terry met many cultured and significant people during this time, and her career flourished further.
Ellen’s next relationship began in 1868 with Edward Godwin, with whom she had her daughter Edith Craig and a son Edward. The partnership was not welcomed by her parents.
Ellen took a break from acting during her relationship with Godwin. After they split in 1874, Terry returned to the stage. Her presence and acclaimed performances were mesmerising, appearing at several theatres throughout London.
Terry had a brief marriage with Charles Clavering, and after their separation in 1881, Ellen reconciled with her parents.
Where to stay in nearby Tenterden
Henry Irving’s leading ladyThe making of a ‘Dame’
Ellen’s most eminent roles during her 20-year career at the Lyceum were almost endless. Ellen played Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Viola in Twelfth Night, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, Cordelia in King Lear, and this is to name just a few.
Ellen purchased Smallhythe Place in 1899 as a tranquil retreat from her continuing busy life in London. Terry continued to act on stage until 1920, and she retired from film in 1922.
In 1925 Ellen Terry was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, only the second actress to receive the honour.
Dame Ellen continued to live at her beloved home in Kent until she died in 1928, aged 81. Her ashes are kept in a silver chalice in the actor’s church in St Paul’s Covent Garden, an amazing place to visit.
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Visiting Smallhythe PlaceA thespian’s dream
As soon as you approach Smallhythe Place, you’ll fall in love with it. The rambling roses are clinging to the doorway and the charming leaded windows peering out from the timber-framed house, like eyes surveying the surrounding countryside.
The cottage is full of so much character; as you take your first step through the historic wooden door into the hallway, the house comes alive with Ellen’s presence.
Tudor beams lead you through every room, and the whole house feels so welcoming. Every inch of wall space is filled with a memory of Dame Ellen’s past and her magnificent life and performances.
You could just imagine unwinding in the old living room, stone tiles beneath your feet and an open fireplace roaring with crackling logs.
We head up the creaking stairs to the captivating rooms above.
Throughout the charming museum at Smallhythe Place, there are over 10,000 precious artefacts, extraordinary items, and keepsakes from Ellen’s personal and professional life. The collection size is very rare as there are over 100 costumes, along with many props from her stage performances.
Often these items were the property of the theatre company.
The house is wonderfully maintained and carefully reflects Ellen’s life, from the unassuming period furniture to the bursting memorabilia cabinets and the modest vanity set on her dressing table.
Upstairs there are many more heirlooms adorning the walls; Dame Ellen’s bedroom is so charming; I loved the old iron and stone fireplace.
Map, guides and more
If you fancy discovering the surrounding footpaths and bridleways around Smallhythe and Tenterden, head to the Ordnance Survey website. The local OS Map covering the region is no. 125, ‘Romney Marsh, Rye and Winchelsea’.
Alternatively, why not purchase and download the OS Maps App, which covers all of Great Britain.
The Barn Theatreand Smallhythe’s tranquil gardens
The garden at Smallhythe Place is so peaceful and a joy to amble around and admire. It would have been a perfect Victorian paradise away from the hustle and bustle of London life.
All the varieties of roses that grow within the rose garden were established at Smallhythe when Ellen Terry lived here.
One place not to be missed within the garden is the old 17th-century thatched barn which now houses the magnificent Barn Theatre.
The year after Dame Ellen died, her daughter Edy Craig converted the weather-worn, dishevelled barn into a beautiful theatre. Edith herself was significantly involved in the theatre world, so it was natural to renovate the barn in her mother’s honour.
Astoundingly the ‘Barn Theatre’ opened in 1929, a year after her mother’s death and was to hold an annual performance to celebrate Ellen Terry’s life.
To assist Edy in funding the theatre project, many of their friends and family sponsored a chair. You may notice name plaques on the chairs across the top. It’s an interesting read to see all the respected names.
The sense of history and feeling within the barn is so intimate that you could almost touch the actors. Many prominent performers have appeared at the Barn Theatre, including Sir John Gielgud, Eileen Atkins and Sybil Thorndike.
One of the incredible things about this splendid theatre is that Shakespearian performances are still held here through the summer months. Click on the National Trust link to find out more.
Why not turn your visit to Smallhythe Place into a weekend break? Stay at the historic town of Tenterden; from this beautiful location, hop aboard the heritage Kent & East Sussex Railway to Bodiam Castle, also managed by the National Trust.
Discovering more of Kent
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