Ellen Terry's life at Smallhythe Place

Post card of Dame Ellen Terry's farm

Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry led an extraordinary and unconventional life. She was well-known for giving acclaimed performances of Shakespeare's iconic female leads throughout a career spanning 65 years.

Ellen first saw Smallhythe Place when she was riding through from Rye to Tenterden with Henry Irving on her pony and trap and instantly fell in love with the property, so requested to be told if it were ever to become available to buy. Some years later in 1899 a postcard with a Tenterden postmark was sent to Ellen's Chelsea house with the brief message "House for Sale". Later that year she purchased Smallhythe Place and lived there happily for almost 30 years.

For Ellen, Smallhythe Place was a retreat away from her busy acting career in London. She took great joy in escaping to the countryside and tending to her much-loved “daffodilly farm”. It provided Ellen with peace and solace; a complete contrast to city life, and was the place she truly felt at home. After a visit to Smallhythe Place, the critic E.V. Lucas wrote that the house mirrored Ellen’s character:


" I thought, when I was there the other day in spring, that it was very like her; like her in its grace, like her in its independence and Englishness, like her in the sunshine that irradiated it, and in the gaiety of its yellow wallflowers."
- E.V. Lucas

Throughout her time at the house Ellen was surrounded by family and friends, some of whom, like Ellen, were esteemed thespians of the era. Her daughter, Edy Craig, was a prolific theatre director, producer and costumier, and lived next door in the Priest House. Henry Irving, Ellen's close friend and colleague, was also a regular visitor.

Ellen Terry and friends having tea under the cow byre at Smallhythe Place
Ellen Terry having tea with friends and a dog
Ellen Terry and friends having tea under the cow byre at Smallhythe Place

Immediately after Ellen's death in 1928 Edy transformed the house into a memorial museum to commemorate her mother's remarkable life and career. She left Ellen's bedroom very much as it had been, but used the sitting room and the dining room for historical displays. She also converted the 17th century thatched barn in the garden into a theatre, which still holds performances throughout the year. 

Since the National Trust took ownership of the house in 1947, the conservation of the house has been carefully overseen, and many visitors comment on how homely it feels. Walk through the front door and into Ellen's home as she knew it.

Discover more at the Ellen Terry and Edith Craig database