The Gift of Smallhythe Place

Close view of the house from the South West at Smallhythe Place, Kent, a half timbered sixteenth century house, built c1480, purchased by Ellen Terry at the height of her acting career in 1899. Year photo taken: 1897.

2019 is a momentous year for Smallhythe Place. It marks the 90th anniversary of the creation of this modest property as a Museum, and 80 years since it was given to the National Trust.

When the great Victorian actress Ellen Terry died at Smallhythe in 1928, her daughter Edy Craig set about turning the house where Ellen had lived for thirty years into a Museum, a memorial to her late mother, to celebrate and document her illustrious life.

 

Smallhythe Place was to become something of a shrine. Edy wanted to keep her mother’s name alive and showcase the remarkable collection that Ellen Terry had amassed during her lifetime; from her theatrical garments and annotated scripts to personal possession such as gifts and letters. Edy arranged two rooms in the house which could be visited at a cost of 6d, and converted the 17th-century Barn in the grounds into a working theatre. Ninety years ago in the summer of 1929 she was ready to open both.

The stage in the Barn Theatre, Smallhythe Place 1928

A Memorial Trust fund was launched by Edy to raise £15,000 to buy the house from her mother and to maintain and run it as a museum; however, despite the support of many famous names, there was little interest from investors.

The next decade proved troublesome for Edy. She was ill-equipped to deal with finances and indeed the world beyond theatre. She was growing older and frailer herself and was fraught with uncertainty about the future of the Museum and the funds to support it. The Memorial Trust project had failed and another solution had to be found.

Vita Sackville-West, who lived nearby at Sissinghurst, recognised the difficulties that Edy faced and suggested she donate the house to the National Trust. She put Edy in touch with James Lees-Milne, secretary of the National Trust, which was then an embryonic under-staffed organisation that employed only four people.

80 years ago, in 1939, The Trust accepted Smallhythe Place, but the story of this intervening decade is peopled with interesting characters, difficulties and plot twists. It may be best considered a drama in its own right.

 

The house and Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place, 1929