The history of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place

Archive black and white photograph of the barn in 1928 at Smallhythe Place, Kent, home of Ellen Terry between 1899 and 1928.

Built in the late 1600s, the thatched barn was later transformed into a theatre in 1929 by Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, as a way to keep her mother’s legacy alive. We still put on a diverse programme of performances throughout the year, as well as open-air shows in the summer.

Creation of the theatre

Throughout Ellen Terry’s residency at Smallhythe Place her daughter, Edith, had always wanted to turn the barn into a proper theatre and use it to stage public performances, but Ellen refused – she wanted to preserve the property as a refuge from acting. Nevertheless, in 1928 Edith decided to proceed with her plan, with a view to holding a Shakespearean matinee on the anniversary of Ellen's death the following year.

To make this happen, Edith established the Ellen Terry Fund and Memorial Matinees in 1929, and arranged a benefit at the Palace Theatre in London which raised enough money to get the barn ready despite holes in the roof and gaps in the timbered walls. Edith also raised funds for the theatre in other ways, including by “selling” 100 chairs (with rush seats) for £1 each. The chairs cost only 5 shillings (25p) each, so Edith was able to put 15 shillings (75p) from each sale towards financing the theatre. The “purchasers” had their name engraved in pokerwork on the front of the chair back. Today, the barn theatre is grateful to have received funding to refurbish these chairs from the Rye & District National Trust Association.

As Edith had intended, The Barn Theatre was opened to the public on 31 July 1929, a year after Ellen Terry's death, by which time a 19th century shelter shed to the side of the theatre had been refurbished for use as dressing rooms. Edith chose the play, made the costumes, oversaw the set designs and rehearsed the cast. The tradition of an annual commemorative performance is still kept alive by the wonderful Summer Theatre Company and their rendition of a different Shakespeare classic every July and August.

Upcoming events

Time and Tides: Londinium and links to the Roman Weald

Thu 11 Aug 2022
Archaeologist Sadie Watson talks about the recent excavations at Smallhythe and what the fascinating evidence tells us about the area during the Roman period.

A House Through Time

Thu 18 Aug 2022
Archaeologist Matt Champion talks about the buildings at Smallhythe and the graffiti and inscriptions left upon them by generations of inhabitants and visitors.

Medieval Ships and Shipbuilders

Thu 25 Aug 2022
Dr Ian Friel and Gustav Milne talk about the archaeological evidence for medieval shipbuilding at Smallhythe and the men who worked there.

Our Ellen

Sat 10 Sep 2022
Tina Gray stars in an unique performance to mark the 175th anniversary of Ellen Terry's birth.

Tai Chi in the garden

Sat 24 Sep 2022
Join us at Smallhythe Place for some Tai Chi in the garden on the last Saturday of every month through to the end of September.