Smallhythe Place: a creative ménage à trois

Edy, Chris and Clare at Smallhythe Place

We're marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality by exploring the LGBTQ heritage at many of our places. Discover Smallhythe Place, Kent, and the lives of three remarkable women: Edy Craig, and her female partners Chris St John and artist Tony Atwood (both of whom adopted male names).

Smallhythe Place

Tucked away in the weald of Kent is a quintessentially English home. But the Tudor beams and rambling roses disguise a deeper truth: Smallhythe Place was also a vibrant, radical place filled with creative spirits and pioneering women. 

The house and garden at Smallhythe Place
The house and garden at Smallhythe Place

The famous Victorian actor Ellen Terry bought the sixteenth-century farmhouse in 1899. She gave the use of another house in the grounds – Priest's House – to her daughter Edy and Edy's female partner, Chris St John. They were later joined by the artist Tony Atwood (originally called Clare), and their relationships lasted the rest of their lives. It was important to them all as a loving home, but Edy also transformed Smallhythe into a lively and pioneering place for women and the arts.

Pioneers

Edy Craig followed her mother into the theatre, working most often as a producer and costume designer. She was also a committed suffrage feminist in the years before the First World War, when Smallhythe became a haven for many other activists. Edy founded and managed the Pioneer Players for almost fifteen years from 1911. It was a theatre society that staged many innovative plays in London and produced some 150 plays for the suffrage movement. 

A new way of living

Edy Craig and Chris St. John holding hands
Smallhythe Place LGBTQ history Edy Craig

In the same defiant spirit, Edy created a home life that embodied her own values. She shared a home with writer and translator Christopher St John from 1899. In 1916 the artist Tony (Clare) Atwood joined them and they lived in a ménage à trois for many years, each supporting the others in their relationship and their creative endeavours. They were part of a lesbian network who were drawn to Smallhythe as a place that offered freedom of expression in art, gender and sexuality. 

A network of women

Smallhythe was visited by many other queer women, such as Virginia Woolf, and her lover Vita Sackville-West, who lived at nearby at Sissinghurst. Chris St John, like many women, was quickly mesmerised by Vita, and recorded her intense feelings in her diary. 

The Barn Theatre

The 17th century barn theatre at Smallhythe Place
The 17th century barn theatre at Smallhythe Place

Edy Craig was the most important figure in preserving Smallhythe Place for future generations. When her mother Ellen Terry died, she made the house into a museum in her memory. She also converted the barn into a theatre which hosted many famous figures both on the stage and in the audience. Few places offer such immersion in the world of the theatre and queer history.

Prejudice and Pride

This is just one of the stories we’re exploring as part of a programme called Prejudice and Pride. Throughout the year you can discover more with events, exhibitions and installations which tell the stories of the men and women who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality and who shaped the properties in which they lived. We’ll also be taking part in community celebrations including Pride festivals around the country and Heritage Open Days to build an understanding of LGBTQ histories in local communities. 

This article is adapted from our new guidebook, ‘Prejudice and Price: Celebrating LGBTQ Heritage’ by Alison Oram & Matt Cook. It is available now at National Trust shops and our online store.