The history of Smallhythe Place

The garden and early sixteenth-century half-timbered house at Smallhythe Place

Smallhythe Place has a long and varied history. It has existed as a simple working farm, one of the most significant shipyards in medieval England, and later the home of distinguished Victorian actress, Dame Ellen Terry.

The origin of Smallhythe Place

The precise age of Smallhythe Place is not known, though the style of the building suggests that it was built in the early 16th century. A fire on 31 July 1514 destroyed some of  the village Small Hythe and it is likely that the house was built shortly afterwards.

Traditionally, the house was believed to have been the port reeve's house but there is no documented evidence for the existence of a port reeve at Small Hythe. It is also possible that the house may have served as an inn or court house, or may have been the home or office of a local shipbuilder. The River Rother once flowed through Small Hythe, allowing a major medieval shipyard to thrive; both Henry V and Henry VIII had large ships built here.

Boatmen on a waterway in 1905
A boat on a waterway in 1905
Boatmen on a waterway in 1905

Dame Ellen Terry 1847-1928

Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry led an extraordinary and unconventional life. She was the doyenne of Shakespearean drama, giving unrivalled performances of his 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.

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, also visited several times throughout their partnership at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

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 to this day.

The Barn Theatre stage in 1928
The Barn Theatre stage at Smallhythe Place 1928
The Barn Theatre stage in 1928
The Barn Theatre auditorium today
Smallhythe Place theatre interior 2016
The Barn Theatre auditorium today