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; this year’s performance is William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (26-29 July and 1-4 August). 

Upcoming events

Kent Wildlife Trust Photography Exhibition

Wed 06 Mar 2019
11:00-17:00
An exhibition of the winning 12 photographs from the 2018 Kent Wildlife Trust Photography Competition, celebrating Kent's wildlife.

The Gift of Smallhythe Place

Wed 03 Apr 2019
11:00-17:00
In 2019 we will be celebrating the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Museum and the 80th anniversary of it being bequeathed to The National Trust by Edith Craig.

Costume Tours

Sat 06 Apr 2019
13:15-14:00
Delve into the store for a peek of the delicate and lavish costumes once worn by Ellen Terry and her actor friends. With fascinating stories attached to each garment, costume tours are an opportunity to discover a rich theatrical history.

Snow White, Red Rose and Brown Bear

Fri 12 Apr 2019
13:00-14:00
Snow White and Rose Red – sisters, twins, best friends – have lived in the forest since they were Babes in the Wood. Bought up by their hardworking Mother to be kind, caring and forest fluent.

Cadbury Easter Egg Hunts

Fri 19 Apr 2019
11:00-16:00
Spring into spring, enjoy the outdoors and explore the nature trail at Smallhythe Place. Will you complete the quest and claim your chocolatey prize? Bring the family together this Easter, it's the perfect time to explore.

Tai Chi in the garden

Sat 27 Apr 2019
11:30-12:30
Join us for gentle exercise, mental relaxation and fresh air with an hour of Tai Chi in the tranquil gardens of Smallhythe Place.