Romans, royal ships, and a rural retreat

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Exploring the archaeology of Smallhythe Place

Smallhythe Place is a timber- framed house set in an intriguing archaeological landscape. For the last three years, archaeologists have been exploring its surroundings; this team photo was taken in 2023. PHOTO: National Trust/Nathalie Cohen

Smallhythe Place, a National Trust property in Kent, is home to a picturesque timber-framed house with enigmatic origins, while the surrounding landscape preserves unique traces of a medieval shipbuilding centre that served several kings. Over the last three years, a team of more than 100 archaeologists have excavated 21 trenches (and a series of boreholes) to help bring the site’s story to light once more. Nathalie Cohen highlights some of the project’s key discoveries.

Today, Smallhythe Place is best known as the former home of the Victorian actress Ellen Terry and her daughter Edith ‘Edy’ Craig. Ellen acquired ‘The Farm’ and the neighbouring Elfwick and Forstal Fields in 1899, before buying the nearby Priests’ House and Yew Tree Cottage in 1914. The Priests’ House was Edy’s home, where she lived in a lifelong trio with her partners, the painter Clare ‘Tony’ Atwood and writer Christabel Marshall (also known as ‘Christopher St John’). Edy was an influential costume designer, producer, director, and suffragette, and Smallhythe at this time was a radical, creative space, visited by Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and Radclyffe Hall. After Ellen’s death in 1928, Edy turned the main house into a museum dedicated to her mother, and also transformed the late 17th-century Barn into a theatre: a role that it still performs today. Edy and her partners continued to live on the site until her death in 1947, after which the property was given into the care of the National Trust.

Clare ‘Tony’ Atwood’s The Terrace outside the Priests’ House depicts the creative world in which she lived with her partners, Edy Craig and Christabel Marshall, at Smallhythe. IMAGE: National Trust

Echoes of this bohemian episode have come to light during our recent excavations, and in previous work on the site. In 2014, HB Archaeology and Conservation Ltd recorded the remains of an early 20th-century water pump located to the north of the main house. It would originally have been donkey- driven, but it was mechanised in the late 1920s, during which time Ellen Terry’s gardener’s initials were added to the concrete platform. Some of the finds from our recent investigations in the garden and in Forstal Field relate directly to Ellen and Edy’s occupancy. Trenches excavated next to the Priests’ House and at the western end of the field both uncovered dumps of late 19th- to early 20th-century rubbish, very similar in make-up to material that was recovered during Archaeology South-East’s work in 2006.

Together, they include flowerpots; fragments of porcelain and other ceramics including plates, cups, and saucers; pieces of marmalade jars and other containers; a decorated bit of bone, which may have formed part of a pen or a cosmetic tool; a toothbrush and toothpaste bottle; and a large collection of discarded glass bottles for drinks (including gin) and medicines. Our metal-detecting survey also produced a screw top from a tube of artist’s paint (associated with ‘Tony’ Atwood?), as well as a seal with a cameo, dating to c.1825 – could this have been bought as costume jewellery for the theatre and lost in the garden after a performance? Examining these artefacts gives us illuminating and intimate insights into the daily lives of the unconventional women who lived at Smallhythe in the early decades of the 20th century – a community vividly depicted in Atwood’s 1919 painting of the site.

Some of the finds reflecting the period when Smallhythe was owned by Ellen Terry and Edy Craig: a series of glass bottles from the Forstal Field midden, and a cameo found in the garden. PHOTO: National Trust/Nathalie Cohen


Before Ellen Terry’s purchase of Smallhythe Place and the surrounding fields, the site was a small farmstead: historic mapping shows that once there were more agricultural buildings ranged around a yard to the north of the Barn, and excavations and landscape survey have revealed evidence for ponds, field drains, cobbled yard surfaces, and small buildings – possibly agricultural or commercial – in Elfwick Field. Cattle and sheep bones suggest that these animals were being bred and butchered on the site, and harness fittings, horseshoe fragments, a farrier’s nail, and bones indicate the use of horses, too.

Adding to this picture, a vivid description of the Georgian settlement at Smallhythe comes from the Kent historian Edward Hasted in 1798: ‘The hamlet of Smallhyth, commonly called Smallit, is situated somewhat more than three miles from the town of Tenterden, at the southern boundary of this parish, close to the old channel of the river Rother, over which there is a passage from it into the Isle of Oxney. The inhabitants were formerly, by report, very numerous, and this place of much more consequence than at present, from the expressions frequently made use of in old writings of those infra oppidum and intra oppidum de Smallhyth; the prevalent opinion being, that the buildings once extended towards Bullen westward; no proof of which, however, can be brought from the present state of it, as there remain only three or four straggling farm- houses on either side, and a few cottages in the street near the chapel.’

A detail from Emanuel Bowen’s map of Sussex, 1760. Smallhythe lies just over the border, in Kent. IMAGE: National Trust/Nathalie Cohen

Why had Smallhythe declined to such an extent? The gradual silting up of the northern branch of the River Rother, described as ‘only a creeke of salt water where no ship can come but only lyters and such kind of small vessels’ in a mid-16th- century enquiry, was exacerbated by the deliberate breaching in 1636 of the medieval Knelle Dam upstream from Smallhythe, and thus the waterway became increasingly unusable for larger vessels during the post-medieval period. This was the driver for the gradual decline in prosperity and population at Smallhythe, although the site continued to function as a ferry point and, by the 18th century (at the latest), as the location of a bridge-crossing leading to the Isle of Oxney and the route onwards to Rye and Winchelsea to the south.

This later period of the site’s life was reflected in an interesting assemblage of 17th- and 18th-century finds recovered during our 2021-2022 excavations (material from the 2023 investigations is currently undergoing post-excavation assessment). They included copper-alloy items such as a late 16th-/early 17th-century bar mount with loop, a mid-17th-century spur buckle, an 18th-century shoe-buckle fragment, many (many!) pins, buttons, and a post-medieval disc weight. The pottery, meanwhile, included a mixture of locally made glazed red or buff earthenwares, as well as regional imports from the Surrey–Hampshire Border ware industry, from London (notably London stoneware and tin-glazed wares), from Essex (Essex-type black glazed earthenware), and from the Midlands (Staffordshire combed slipware and white salt-glazed stoneware). Some products had come from even further afield, however, as represented by sherds from the German Frechen industry, as well as a German stoneware Westerwald mug.

A post-medieval copper-alloy disc weight, discovered during the 2021-2022 excavations. IMAGE: National Trust/David Fletcher

As for more substantial remains, a small trench in the southern corner of Smallhythe Place Garden revealed our only evidence for surviving waterlogged timbers, in the form of the corner of a structure made of oak, comprising two vertical posts and a plank with a ‘broad arrow’ mark. This symbol is believed to have been used from the 14th century onwards to mark government property within a specific naval or military context. As the plank does not appear to have been part of a ship, it is plausible that it could have come from a government shipbuilding facility – or at least a facility with access to official supplies.

Unfortunately, dendrochronological dating for the find was unsuccessful, but the presence of the broad arrow mark, combined with the evidence of sawn conversion for the timbers, suggests an early post-medieval date, which we hope we will be able to refine through the dating of pottery recovered from surrounding layers. As for what the structure was, it could represent part of a waterfront revetment or jetty, or possibly a bridge caisson. The origins of the broad arrow mark are somewhat obscure, but there does seem to be an explicit association of the symbol with both royal and naval interests – for example, an early 17th-century document records the requirement for all trees meant for naval use to bear ‘the sovereign’s mark’. It is extraordinarily tempting to wonder whether this tradition was established earlier, and whether medieval- and Tudor-period timbers at Smallhythe were ever marked for the monarch’s use.

The only evidence for surviving waterlogged timbers uncovered by the recent project. They are thought to be possibly early post-medieval in date. IMAGE: National Trust/Nathalie Cohen

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 410. Read on in the magazine or on our website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyAncient Egypt, and Military History Matters.

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