LGBTQ stories at National Trust places in Kent and East Sussex

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

Many of our places were home to, and shaped by, people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality. In Kent and East Sussex, four very different places are connected by a tangled web of family, love and friendship that crossed both decades and societal boundaries of the time. 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, we join the dots between the people whose collective story started over 150 years ago.

Edith 'Edy' Craig was a talented theatre director and producer, costume designer and early pioneer of the women's suffrage movement.

Born in 1869, Edy’s theatrical career took her to London and America. She was recognised for her skills in creating historical costumes, and later came to focus on play production.  

Daughter of actress Ellen Terry, Edy lived most of her life in the Priests House at Smallhythe Place, Kent. She lived from 1899 with writer Christabel Marshall, better known under the pseudonym Christopher St. John.

Later, they were joined in a ménage a trois by artist Clare 'Tony' Atwood, which continued until Edy passed away in 1947.

Ahead of their time

Edy, Clare and Chris lived extraordinary lives. There was nothing “closeted” about their relationships or living arrangement. Indeed they were core to a thriving community of contemporary LGBT artists and theatre practitioners.

Ahead of their time, they embodied an openness about sexuality and gender more recognisable in society today.

Character connections

Edy’s story interconnects with Virgina Woolf, a novelist, essayist, literary critic, and central member of the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia lived for many years at Monk’s House, East Sussex, with her husband Leonard. Together they founded the Hogarth Press, which published T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Woolf’s later novels.

Through their literary community Virginia and Edy came to know one another. Such was their friendship that the character ‘Miss LaTrobe’ in Virginia’s 1941 novel Between the Acts was inspired by Edy.

‘Charming love letter’

Virginia took inspiration for her writing from other relationships too. Her passionate affair and long-lasting friendship with Vita Sackville-West is widely accepted to be the basis for her ground-breaking novel, Orlando.

The story follows a gender-changing character across Knole’s history, the 600-year old house where Vita was born.

Nigel Nicholson, Vita’s son, once referred to Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

Despite their turbulent affair, Virginia and Vita remained married to their respective husbands.

In her writing, Virginia recounts Leonard’s knowledge of her affair. Meanwhile Harold Nicolson, husband to Vita, had his own same-sex relationships during their marriage.

Rural retreat

Vita was heartbroken not to be able to inherit Knole when her father passed away. As small consolation, she settled on then-derelict Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent. Under her and Harold’s care, it became from early 1930 their retreat away from the world.

The two lived in the South Cottage, where they slept in separate rooms. The idyllic cottage was also Harold’s writing space, and his library remains there today.  

Life in the tower

Instead, Knole passed to Vita’s cousin Edward Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville.

Known to his friends as Eddy, he was a novelist and music critic who lived in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole between 1926 and 1940.

Eddy was passionate about art, music and literature and was regularly visited by Vita and Virginia at Knole.

Unlike Vita, Virginia and Edy, Eddy’s personal relationships and feelings remained hidden. He is known to have had close relationships with numerous men, but never enjoyed the freedom to explore and pursue his sexuality with the rare openness of his cousin and literary friends.

Fifty year anniversary

50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, we are celebrating these stories in Kent and East Sussex.

From new exhibitions to installations and theatre, we will bring them to life at the places they called home.  

A new podcast series and guidebook exploring LGBTQ heritage at National Trust places will be another way to connect with their unique history.