Putting Smallhythe Place to bed this winter

Close view of the old wooden door and brass knocker, a Lion's Head, at Smallhythe Place, Kent

Smallhythe Place is now closed for the winter whilst our conservation team do important work to clean and protect our unique and theatrical collection of over 9500 artefacts, from costumes and props, to scripts, paintings and jewellery.

Conserving and cleaning

Throughout the colder months these delicate artefacts from Ellen Terry’s personal and professional collection are carefully polished, condition checked and cleaned by our specially trained team. They use a variety of cleaning methods from washing with a gentle solution of water and soap, to deep freezing.

The National Trust housekeeping manual outlines all the methods we use for each category of item e.g wood, metal or ceramics and recommends what cleaning materials we should use. Each item is then recorded as having been looked at, cleaned and finally covered with tissue paper or dust sheets for protection whilst the house is closed. This is a huge task and we are helped by volunteers who have been trained to assess, handle and clean appropriately.

One collection of particular importance is the costume collection. It is the largest portfolio of Ellen Terry’s costumes and garments that she gathered over a 60-year career as one of England’s most reputable actresses. 

Smallhythe Place is the home to the largest collection of Ellen Terry's costumes from her career on stage
Ellen Terry's costumes being carefully packed away for winter
" Preventing the infestation of carpet beetles and ‘wooly bears’ amongst the costumes is arduous but important work. In 2014 we had to freeze over 200 costumes after a breakout occurred, which is a long and tricky process, so we do everything we can to prevent this happening again."
- Susannah Mayor, House Steward

Preparing for 2018

We also dedicate time to the artefacts visitors do not see, some of which will form part of our two main exhibitions in 2018. Original playscripts, photos and suffrage memorabilia from Edy Craig’s personal collection and involvement with the Actresses Franchise League will be on display in the Barn Theatre and green room.  Additionally, the Shakespearean Lectures of Ellen Terry will be exhibited within the house. These are in conjunction with National Trust’s ‘Women and Suffrage’ programme, where we are celebrating the voices and actions of these strong women.

The Jewellery collection requires delicate and specialist cleaning by our trained team at Smallhythe
Jewellery worn by Ellen Terry being placed in display panels in the Costume Gallery at Smallhythe Place, Kent.

Over the winter, we will also be installing a wildlife camera for our resident swallows in the Tearoom in preparation for next year’s hatchlings. This will enable visitors to see into the nest and watch the chicks being fed. Our swallows have increased in numbers this year after their fledglings hatched in July 2017.

Our resident swallows are a joy to watch darting in and out of the Theatre tearoom
'Swallows in residence' sign on the door of the tearoom at Smallhythe Place, Kent.

Maintaining the aesthetic

We aree also doing important work in the garden, such as replanting wild flowers, pruning hedges, and clearing overgrown areas and pathways. We constantly strive to improve the beautiful gardens allowing our visitors to see the house and grounds buzzing with colour and wildlife. 

Last winter our pond underwent dredging and rejuvenation in order to help diversify the flora and increase the resident wildlife here. Pond management continues to take place to ensure our great crested newts, dragonflies, moorhens and Hungarian bullfrogs can bask happily in this tranquil setting.

Rejuvenating the pond at Smallhythe Place on a crisp Winter's morning
The pond at Smallhythe Place undergoing rejuvenation with the aid of a tractor

The fragile structure and unusual exterior of Smallhythe Place means constant upkeep throughout the year. Whilst it is important to ensure the building is structurally sound, it is also very important to us to preserve the aesthetic of Ellen Terry's home. So even when the house is closed the work to further our cause continues; helping to keep her characterful country retreat open forever, for everyone.