Smallhythe Place in Small Hythe, near Tenterden in Kent, is a half-timbered house built in the late 15th or early 16th century and since 1947 cared for by the National Trust. The house was originally called 'Port House' and before the River Rother and the sea receded it served a thriving shipyard: in Old English hythe means "landing place". It was the home of the Victorian actress Ellen Terry from 1899 to her death in the house in 1928. The house contains Ellen Terry's theatre collection, while the cottage grounds include her rose garden, orchard, nuttery and the working Barn Theatre.
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. 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, 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. At 1400 tons, it was the largest warship in the world and capable of carrying up to 1000 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. 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. 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 southeast, 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.
Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry led an extraordinary and unconventional life. She was well-known for giving acclaimed performances of Shakespeare's 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. For Ellen, Smallhythe Place was 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”. It provided Ellen with peace and solace; a complete contrast to city life, and was the place she truly felt at home. After a visit to Smallhythe Place, the critic E.V. Lucas wrote that the house mirrored Ellen’s character: " I thought, when I was there the other day in spring, that it was very like her; like her in its grace, like her in its independence and Englishness, like her in the sunshine that irradiated it, and in the gaiety of its yellow wallflowers."
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, was also a regular visitor. 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 throughout the year. Since the National Trust took ownership of the house in 1947, the conservation of the house has been carefully overseen, and many visitors comment on how homely it feels. Walk through the front door and into Ellen's home as she knew it.
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. They still put on a diverse programme of performances throughout the year, as well as open-air shows in the summer. 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 ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.
Smallhythe Place contains many personal and theatrical mementoes, including two walls devoted to David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. Other exhibits include a message from Sarah Bernhardt, a chain worn by Fanny Kemble, Sir Arthur Sullivan's monocle and a visiting card from Alexandre Dumas. There are also several paintings by the artist Clare Atwood, one of the romantic companions of Edith Craig. In an adjoining room is a letter from Oscar Wilde begging Terry to accept a copy of his first play. There is also a selection of sumptuous costumes dating from Terry’s time at the Lyceum Theatre.
Parking is available 50 yards from the house. There is a map of the accessible route available. The site is wheelchair accessible. There is a cafe at the site and there are garden produce sales. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Smallhythe Place, Smallhythe, Tenterden, Kent, TN30 7NG
Transport : Rye (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 293 and 312 stop close by
Opening Times : March 1st to October 31st, Wednesday to Sunday + Bank Holidays 11:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Adults £7.70; Children £4.20
Tel. : 0344 800 1895