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The history of Smallhythe Place

Exterior of the 16th century house at Smallhythe Place with exterior timber beams and climbing red roses
The 16th-century house at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

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 origins of Smallhythe Place

The precise age of Smallhythe Place is not known, although 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 of Small Hythe and it is likely that the house was built shortly afterwards.

After the decline of the shipbuilding port at Small Hythe, the house and barn became associated with farming. Despite being thought to have been built in the late 17th century, there is some evidence that the lower part of the barn building may date from the 16th century or even earlier. Several of the roof timbers are scorched and charred, which could suggest that they may have been salvaged from the fire of 1514, or damaged by a fire in the barn.

Whose was the house?

Traditionally, the house was believed to have been the port reeve's (local official'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 courthouse 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.

At the height of its success, Smallhythe was a community of around 200 people, most of whom were involved in shipbuilding. What is now farmland was once the great River Rother, a river that provided an important link between Tenterden and Rye, and had several royal commissions built there.

Shipbuilding in Smallhythe

In 1410, The Marie, a 100-ton vessel, was built at Smallhythe for Henry IV. Four years later, Henry V came to the shipyard to see two vessels that he had commissioned being built. The Jesus was the first ship of 1,000 tons and The George, a balinger, of 120 tons. A balinger was a craft that could be rowed as well as sailed. In the 15th century they were used for scouting and raiding purposes.

Throughout the 15th century, Smallhythe continued as a successful shipyard but in the 16th century activity began to decline with the silting up of the river and the establishment of new shipyards elsewhere. Local craftsmen had to look further afield for work and in 1514, 37 men from Smallhythe walked 44 miles to Woolwich to take part in the building of the Henry Grace a Dieu.

The world's biggest warship

At 1,400 tons, it was the largest warship in the world and capable of carrying up to 1,000 men. The ship was commissioned by Henry VIII as a replacement for the 600 ton Regent, which had been built downstream from Smallhythe at Reading Street in 1486 and lost in battle in 1512.

In 1546, Henry VIII ordered The Great Gallyon to be built at Smallhythe. At 300 tons, she was the last of the great ships, the last Royal Commission for Smallhythe and the last large vessel to be built there.

The decline of shipbuilding

In 1636, a great storm destroyed a dam upstream on the River Rother, which resulted in the main flow of the river reverting to the course that it had taken up to 300 years previously, to the south of the Isle of Oxney.

The silting-up of the river

Initially, the old stretch of the river continued to be an important highway for cargo such as iron and wood, but it gradually silted up and larger ships could no longer reach Smallhythe. Consequently, the port and ship-building activities declined. By the end of the 18th century, only small boats and barges could navigate the river.

With the draining of the Romney Marsh to the south-east, it eventually became impossible for vessels to navigate between the sea and Smallhythe. The last record of a sailing vessel to reach Smallhythe was at the beginning of the 20th century.

A home fit for a Dame

Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry led an extraordinary and unconventional life. She was the leading figure of Shakespearean drama, giving unrivalled performances of his iconic female leads throughout a career spanning 65 years.

Ellen instantly fell in love with Smallhythe Place when she was riding through from Rye to Tenterden with fellow actor Henry Irving on her pony and trap. She asked 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.

A house shared with friends

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.

For Ellen, Smallhythe Place was also a retreat away from her busy acting career in London. She took great joy in escaping to the countryside and tending to her much-loved ‘daffodilly farm’ where she found peace and solace in contrast to city life.

Black and white archive photograph of Ellen Terry in costume with her grandchild Nellie Craig holding the train of her costume, at Smallhythe Place.
Ellen Terry in costume with grandchild Nellie Craig | © National Trust

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 late 17th-century thatched barn in the garden into a theatre, which still holds performances to this day.

Transforming a barn into a theatre

Once used as a farm building, before its transformation into a theatre, the barn has its own fascinating story.

The timber frame, four-bay structure of the barn suggests it was originally designed to fulfil a multi-functional purpose, incorporating cattle housing as well as crop storage and processing. Later, in the mid-19th century, several changes were made to the building to increase the crop storage area and various lean-tos were added to the outside. Since then, the main structure and features of the barn have changed very little, except for rethatching the roof in 2009.

Keeping Ellen Terry's legacy alive

The barn was transformed into a theatre in 1929 by Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, as a way to keep her mother’s legacy alive. Throughout Ellen Terry’s residency at Smallhythe Place her daughter, Edith, had 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.

Innovative fundraising

Edith also raised funds for the theatre in other ways, including ‘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. More recently, the barn theatre was fortunate to receive funding from the Rye & District National Trust Association to refurbish these chairs.

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 continues to be kept alive by the wonderful Summer Theatre Company and their rendition of a different Shakespeare classic every July and August.

Supporting the arts at Smallhythe

Edith passed away in March 1947 when planning that year's Shakespearean matinee, and actors Sir Lewis Casson and Sir John Gielgud established the Ellen Terry Fellowship that presented the annual memorial matinees from 1947 to 1961.

Angels Appeal

In 1997, which marked 150 years after Ellen’s birth, a theatrical Angels Appeal was launched to raise funds. Angels who donated £100 were given a certificate, and Guardian Angels who donated £1,000 had their names put on the back of the original rush-seated chairs.

There were 22 Guardian Angels, including Sir Paul and Linda McCartney, and Sir Cameron Macintosh. In 2004 the National Trust took over the management of the theatre and introduced a season-long programme of productions to supplement those of the Barn Theatre Society, which was established by Edith in 1932.

Pamela Colman Smith’s lost paintings

Two uncatalogued folders of paintings by the prolific artist, Pamela Colman Smith, were found by house steward Susannah Mayor at Smallhythe Place in 2013.

Creative collaborations

Pamela was born in London in 1878, and had many creative collaborations with English actors, writers, and artists. This included Irish poet W.B. Yeats who commissioned her illustrations for his 1898 Book of Illustrated Verses, and she designed what is still the world’s most popular Tarot deck: the Waite-Smith deck.

In 1899, Pamela joined the Lyceum Theatre in London as a set designer and was taken under the wing of both Ellen and Henry Irving. Pamela also formed a firm friendship with the theatre’s business manager Bram Stoker and illustrated his final book: The Lair of the White Worm.

Discover more at the Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Database.

Traditional Kentish house and barns reflected in pond in foreground beneath blue skies

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