Smallhythe Place: a creative ménage à trois

Edy, Chris and Clare at Smallhythe Place

Discover Smallhythe Place, Kent, and the lives of three remarkable women: Edith "Edy" Craig, and her female partners Christopher St John and artist Tony (Clare) 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 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, Christopher 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.

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

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 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. Christopher St John, like many women, was quickly mesmerised by Vita, and recorded her intense feelings in her diary. 

The Barn Theatre

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.

The 17th-century barn theatre at Smallhythe Place
The 17th-century barn theatre at Smallhythe Place
The 17th-century barn theatre at Smallhythe Place
Vita Sackville-West's desk at Sissinghurst

Exploring LGBTQ+ history at National Trust places 

Learn more about the LGBTQ+ links at places we care for, and how the National Heritage Lottery Fund has donated to the Queer Heritage Collections Network, of which we're a founder member.