Discover the women who helped shape our places

Published: 03 March 2021

Last update: 03 March 2021

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Oil painting on canvas, Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

Stories of inspirational women are everywhere at National Trust places, whether tied to the very creation of the properties themselves or hidden more subtly behind the facades. This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the achievements of some of the most iconic, powerful, boundary-pushing women connected with National Trust places through the guidebooks that tell their stories.

Portait of Bess of Hardwick by Rowland Lockey (c.1565-1616)

Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608) 

Building four houses and marrying four times, Bess of Hardwick became a great power within Elizabethan society and the second richest woman in England after the Queen. Bess was an astute negotiator, an adept social operator and a determined builder, overcoming the 16th-century obstacles to female ownership and achievement. Hardwick Hall in Chesterfield – a marvel of its age – is a testament to her wealth, power and will. We explore Hardwick’s grandeur in the guidebook.

Portrait of Ellen Terry, age 17

Dame Ellen Terry (1847–1928) 

Actress Ellen Terry was a star of the Victorian age. One of the highest earning women of her era, she achieved success at a time when women were usually dependent on men for respectability and income. Smallhythe Place in Kent, which Terry bought with her own money in 1899, was a place of respite and privacy from her frantic career. In the guidebook, we delve into Ellen Terry’s life at Smallhythe.

A painted portrait of Margaret Greville wearing a black hat and a fur

Dame Margaret Greville (1863–1942) 

One of the most influential hostesses of her generation, Margaret Greville was the last private owner of Polesden Lacey, Surrey. She held her first house party there in June 1909 – the guest of honour none other than King Edward VII – and continued to host the great and good of the day for the next 30 years. Greville also amassed a stunning collection of jewellery which she bequeathed to her good friend the Queen Mother. In the Poldesden Lacey guidebook, we explore Margaret’s party house and tell her story.

" shrewd, so kind, so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty… altogether a real person, a character, utterly Mrs Ronald Greville."
- Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on Margaret Greville after her death in 1942
Beatrix Potter at Keswick show

Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) 

Beatrix Potter was a woman ahead of her time. Not only an accomplished children’s author and illustrator, she was also a fierce campaigner, nature conservationist and prize-winning sheep farmer – long before the importance of conservation became widely known. When she died, Beatrix Potter left 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of land and 14 farms to the National Trust. This included her home at Hill Top, Cumbria – her most treasured purchase and the inspiration for many of her stories. We explore Beatrix's own story in the Beatrix Potter at Hill Top guidebook.

Photograph of Virginia Woolf by photographer Lenare

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) 

Virginia Woolf is one of the most innovative authors of the 20th century. Her novels tested the boundaries of traditional narrative, focusing on the inner worlds of her characters. She and her husband, Leonard, had an enduring love for the South Downs and in 1919 they purchased Monk’s House in East Sussex. Woolf wrote many of her works in the writing lodge in the garden, with tranquil countryside views through the window. It was a room of her own. Her story is told in the Monk's House guidebook.

" How happy I am: how calm, for the moment how sweet life is with L here, in its regularity & order, & the garden & the room at night & music & my walks & writing easily & interestedly."
- Virginia Woolf, 1930
Agatha Christie as a young woman

Agatha Christie (1890–1976) 

In over 60 novels, Agatha Christie brought to life iconic characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, securing her status as a canonical figure in the history of detective fiction. She became the bestselling novelist of all time. She spent many happy years at her beloved holiday home, Greenway in Devon, and retreated there once her last book was complete. Today, the house offers a chance to explore Agatha’s life, including her many controversies. We explore all of this and more in the guidebook to Greenway.

Oil painting on canvas, Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) 

Vita Sackville-West was a fiction writer, poet, journalist and gardener. She enjoyed a loving relationship with her husband, Harold Nicolson, and their open marriage offered them the freedom to embrace their sexualities. Both had relationships with same-sex partners – Vita most famously with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. The couple purchased the long-neglected Sissinghurst Castle in Kent in 1930. Together they created Sissinghurst’s enchanting garden ‘rooms’, which are now world renowned. You can lose yourself in Sissinghurst's Castle Gardens in the guidebook.

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