Edy Craig, Chris St. John and Tony Atwood – The Love Story At The Heart of Smallhythe Place

This week I am joined by Senior House and Collection Officer of Smallhythe Place, Susannah Mayor, to explore the relationship between creatives Edy Craig, Christopher St. John and Tony Atwood. It’s time for their love story to take centre stage…

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to Past Loves – the history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to add a touch of romance to daily life. I’m Holly, your true romantic host, and I hope that you are doing very very well today wherever you are listening from.

It’s hardly surprising that with the podcast I spend a lot of my time reading and immersing myself in love stories from across history! I mean I think I essentially attract them at this point. And a little while ago I came across the relationship that we’re going to discuss today, just in an article on the National Trust website – I don’t know what drew me there – but the title “Smallhythe Place: a creative ménage à trois” as simply the very best hook for me and as soon as I started reading, I knew that this was a story that I wanted to feature on the podcast. 

So today, I have been lucky enough to speak to Susannah Mayor, Senior House and Collection Officer at Smallhythe Place about the relationship between Edy Craig, Christopher St. John and Tony Atwood. They were christened Edith Craig, Christabel Marshall and Clare Atwood respectively but we’re going to refer to them by the names that they adopted themselves. 

Smallhythe Place was the early 16th-century house and cottage gardens in Kent of Victorian actress, Dame Ellen Terry from 1899 to 1928. It has been cared for by the National Trust since the death of her daughter Edy Craig in 1947 and is an oasis which celebrates an important aspect of the history of the theatre. Edy is quite the amazing character, forging her place in the world of theatre as well and the suffrage movement alongside Chris initially and then the couple were joined by Tony a little later into their relationship. The three of them created a fascinating life together which deserves to take centre stage… 

Welcome Susannah. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Susannah: You’re welcome.

Holly: So I thought because Smallhythe place is the home of Dame Ellen Terry that we will start with her daughter when we’re discussing this relationship. So Edith Craig, or Edy as she referred to herself, was born in 1869. And how would you describe Edy?

Susannah: Well, I think, as an adult, she was quite a formidable character. She knew her subject. She understood everything about theatre, and she did not suffer fools gladly. So I think people were often quite frightened of her in the theatre, to some respect. Everybody wanted her approval, but she was quite good at making young actresses cry just by being completely blunt and upfront with them and so there was that side to her character, and I think that was really based on her professionalism and her understanding of theatre. However, in her world away from theatre, people absolutely loved her and she was known to be really kind, and she loved children and she loved nurturing children and letting them play on the stage at the theatre here at Smallhythe. And so I think she was quite a mixed personality, really, but she certainly engendered a lot of love and respect and a lot of kind of friendship from all manner of people. But it was famously said by the two women she lived with that, on occasion, “Edy has bitten off more than we can chew.” So she had her little gang of all sorts of people around her who helped her out all the time.

Holly: She sounds absolutely fascinating. And I mentioned her mother, so maybe we can go back to a little bit earlier and talk about what her childhood was like, who her parents were, and the kind of environment she would have grown up in.

Susannah: So Ellen Terry has a very complicated life, and we’d need hours to talk about that. But she did become the most famous Victorian actress of her day and was adored by everybody from the working classes to royalty. She had been a child actress and she had met, Edward Godwin whilst she was still married to a much older man who she married when she was 16. And the marriage had been a disaster. So that was G.F. Watts. They were separated, but she met Godwin and she eloped to the country with him. Her family had no idea where she’d gone. She just left. And during the next seven years, she had two children. So Edy was born, followed 18 months later by her brother Edward Gordon Craig. So they were living in Hertfordshire in a house that Godwin had built for them. He was an aesthetic, so everything was beautiful. The children weren’t allowed gauche toys. Everything had to be wooden. And if Edy was presented with a garish book, it would be thrown on the fire. So she grew up with this sort of slightly isolated but privileged aesthetic understanding of beauty kind of childhood. I think they were probably fairly spoiled, both of them and they lived this sort of idyllic life in the countryside with their mother. But their father, Edward, left them – the relationship with Ellen Terry broke up and he left the family. And Ellen Terry was really forced to go back to the stage. She left the children in the countryside for a while and so actually they didn’t see a lot of their mother once she’d gone back to the stage. They were almost hidden away because, of course, to the Victorian legitimacy was about as bad as you could get and so they had this sort of hidden away childhood. And then when Ellen Terry was eventually divorced from Watts and remarried, she brought the children back to London and suddenly they were legitimate and could be presented. But Ellen was very keen that they have good educations because she was born up in this theatrical family. Her father taught all the children and he taught them all how to be actors. And she was keen that Edy went to school, got proper education, and she sent her to Mrs Cole’s School. Mrs Cole was quite a sort of progressive educationalist. Edy started life, with quite a lot of privilege, and then her mother became hugely famous and she was the daughter of the most famous woman in England.

Ailsa Craig | Credit

Holly: Yes. My question would be where does her surname come from?

Susannah: Okay, So the children couldn’t call themselves Terry because it would be clear their mother wasn’t married. They couldn’t use their father’s name because he wasn’t married to their mother. And so they really didn’t have a name that they used until a point when they were on a holiday with Henry Irving in Scotland and they sailed round this rock, which is called Ailsa Craig. Ellen Terry thought this would make a glorious stage name for Edy. So Edy became Alisa Craig. But then Edith’s Uncle Fred met a prostitute in London called Alisa Craig and wrote to Edy and said, “you really must do something about this.” So Edy then changed her Christian name back to Edy and became Craig. And then her brother, Edward Gordon Craig, changed his name by deed poll as well. So actually, it was plucked out the air and entirely eccentric.

Holly: I mean, that doesn’t sound that surprising, really, for them as a family does it?

Susannah: I’d say fairly typical

Holly: So you mentioned that Edy was going to go on stage. So how did her mother influence the beginning of her career?

Susannah: I think her mother had decided that Edy was to be a musician and she was sent to Berlin to study and was, by all accounts, a good pianist. But she had rheumatism even at a really young age and it kind of put pay to her playing. I think there might be more to that because it became clear that Edy also suffered with stage fright really. So anyway, Ellen got her some small parts at the Lyceum and she performed there for some years walk on parts, small talking parts. But I don’t think she really enjoyed it. It wasn’t her thing. And that’s when she became interested in costumes and sets and design really 

Holly: so more backstage rather than centre stage. 

Susannah: Yeah. And I mean, there was her mother, the most beautiful, talented actress in the world. I don’t know if there’s a thing called famous parent syndrome, but if there is, I think Edy and her brother probably suffered from it.

Holly: Yeah, it’s quite a lot to live up to isn’t it?

Susannah: But Ellen was determined that they would both work because she had worked since she was a child and she was determined that they would make their own living. How wrong she was…that’s not fair. But financially, Edy was not that tuned in or switched on.

Holly: Well, we’ll forgive us for that.

Susannah: Yeah.

Holly: So do we know how or when or where she crossed paths with we’ll refer to them as Christopher St. John, but born Christabel Marshall, do we kind of know anything about the beginnings of their friendship/relationship?

Susannah: Yeah, we know a little now. What we do know for sure is that Chris St. John became obsessed with Ellen Terry sometime around 1890. She was a very passionate woman and she would bombard people with letters and communications. And she wrote to Ellen Terry for some years, I think, and was eventually invited to come and meet Ellen, probably after a show in her dressing room, which is what she did. She had so many adoring fans and that’s when she met Edy. However, it has to be said that a lot of things that are now used as fact in biographies, etc come from a book called Hunger Heart, which Chris St. John wrote as an autobiography. Well, it’s supposed to be a fiction, but it’s taken as an autobiography. So what’s true and what’s not quite true within that fiction is not clear. But the story is that Chris St. John arrived to meet Ellen and Ellen was busy and said “I’ll let my daughter entertain you.” And they shook hands and Edy was sewing at the time and she pricked Chris’ hand. And Chris sort of interpreted that as being Cupid’s bow piercing her hand. But this is Chris’ version. Now, if Edy were around to tell us her version, it might be quite different.

Holly: Yeah. I mean, it’s terribly romantic, isn’t it as an idea? But, yeah, maybe a pinch of salt.

Susannah: I think what is true that Ellen asked her home for supper after she met them. And I think Edy and Chris just got on really well and became friends very quickly.

Holly: Do you have any idea what may have attracted them to each other?

Susannah: I think that is a really interesting question. I mean I think from Christ’s point of view, there was Edy in this sort of – well, I mean, the theatre world wasn’t necessarily glamorous, but Edy was someone. Her mother was certainly someone. And Chris’ initial attraction had been to Ellen. So perhaps she put that onto Edy. But I think the thing that people always said about them was they were both very intelligent and so they would talk and debate and argue and like any love affair or any friendship, that’s kind of the important bit.

Holly: Yeah.

Susannah: I think they were probably intellectually drawn to each other.

Holly: Yeah. I mean, that makes sense when we think about where their life went from then. But maybe we should pause for a second and just talk a little bit about who Chris actually was. So you’ve kind of hinted at what they might be like, but can you describe them a bit more for me, please?

Susannah: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know a great deal about Chris’ background. She came from a very upper middle class home, as you might have called it back then. Her mother was a writer. She, I think had very much struggled and again, the only information we really have is from her fictional autobiography. But, for example, she talks about the horror and struggle of coming out as a debutante and being in the company of young men and being supposed to look at one and choose them. And obviously at that point, she was well aware of her own sexuality, or at least was understanding that she wasn’t comfortable in her skin at that point, so I think she probably didn’t have the easiest of adolescent times, I suspect. She went to work for Churchill’s mother and she went to Oxford – very unusual for women in those days. She was a very intelligent woman by all counts.

Edith Craig & Chris St. John

Holly: Yeah. Clearly quite driven, but constrained by the society she was born into. So it is very special to know that her and Edy found this place together at Smallhythe Place. Can you describe me the home they made where you are now and why they decided to settle there?

Susannah: Ellen Terry was quite a collector of country cottages. And she saw this house which was then called The Farm, which is now the museum, Smallhythe Place. She’d seen it over the years and had fallen in love with it and decided she would have it. And she actually sent Edy and Chris on bicycles from London down here to buy it at auction. I think they had to stay overnight in Ashford. 

Holly: That’s amazing!

Susannah: I know, they were great cyclists. Very liberating pastime. Anyway, Edy and Chris came and purchased the house for Ellen. They had to encourage Ellen to come down here because having bought it, she wasn’t really interested. But Edy and Chris made it nice, got Ellen down here and she fell in love with it. The tranquillity and the ruralness of it was such a contrast to her life in London and the theatre. So Ellen fell in love with it and she started living here. And then the house next door, the Priests’ House was actually two little cottages and she rented half of it for Edy to begin with, so that when Edy came to visit, she had somewhere to stay. Then she bought the whole house for Edy and by that time, Edy and Chris were living together in Smith Square in London – known as the Smiths they were – and they came down here and themselves found this sort of tranquil place where they could be whoever they wanted to be. They were completely left alone. Ellen Terry was a huge celebrity and the locals were very protective of that. And Ellen had bought all the fields to the front and the back of her house. It was almost like a little estate here. And to get to the Priests’ House, you walk from the garden of Smallhythe Place up a beautiful sort of English country garden, and you come to the Priests’ House, which was built in early 1500. Very romantic, black and white Tudor tumbling down house. So I think it appealed to all their aesthetic kind of wants, really.

Holly: It sounds quite hard not to fall in love with it. So is it quite a little house that they shared together?

Susannah: No, it’s quite big, but I’ve seen…So it has three rooms on the ground floor and three bedrooms. But I’ve seen photographs of it when they first had it, or actually spanning the whole time they had it, and it was really very ramshackle, bits of plaster falling off the walls, compared to the way they lived in Covenant Garden in their Victorian mansion flat, it was very rustic and very romantic.

Holly: Very romantic. Do we know much about their flat in Covent Garden, what life was like for them there?

Susannah: Well, obviously that was kind of their city life. So they had two lives going on. So in London, they were very involved in political theatre, suffragette movement, etc. When they were down here, it seems to me it was a more of a creative life.

Holly: I will come to the political side of them. But I read that Ed did actually receive a marriage proposal from a composer, Martin Shaw, and I was just quite fascinated if we knew what happened there?

Susannah: Well, I’m not entirely sure, but from what you can, you’ll hint some things from letters that you can pick up, is that Martin Shaw was a great friend of Edward Gordon Craig, Edy’s brother, which is probably how she met him. And of course, Edy had a great interest in music and Martin Shaw was a well respected musician. I don’t know what their relationship was, but what we do know is that Ellen was quite horrified when she found out about this proposal because Martin Shaw had a birthmark covering most of his face and I don’t know if that was Ellen’s problem. I’d find that hard to believe because she was a very empathetic person. But the fact is, I think by that point, Ellen had become very reliant on Edy to manage her on tour, manage her emotions and I think the thought of Edy disappearing with a man might have been what was actually at the heart of it.

Holly: Right. Yeah.

Susannah: And also she was living with Chris at that point because I think Chris took an overdose I think of an opium based medicine and had to be and there was a huge drama and she was in hospital and that was her reaction. So I don’t know. So much of their private lives are hazy because although they would have existed in diaries and letters, that was something that was always burnt after someone died or burnt to protect their reputation. The thing about working in a place like Smallhythe Place, the museum, there are little clues here and there and you have to work hard to piece them together.

Holly: I think that was why I so wanted to include their story on the podcast, because it isn’t just like the one we all know, it needs piecing together and their lives deserve being told completely and not just kind of hidden away in certain hints of different diaries and things. So that’s why I’m so pleased that we’re kind of starting to unpick things.

Susannah: It makes you wonder about Chris and Edy’s relationship as well. We know that Chris was a hugely passionate woman. She had crushes on other women throughout her life, most notably Vita Sackville-West, which Edy knew all about and kept telling her to get over, basically. And I think Chris referred to Edy as not as being cold towards her, but who knows how Edy’s sexuality will be described now. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.

Holly: No, exactly. And it’s very difficult to talk about relationships in the past with modern language that was just not used at the time. And so, yeah, it’s another puzzle piece of how we talk about their relationship and their lives together.

Susannah: I know Chris referred to them as being like, when they first moved in together in London, as being like a newly married couple, but she didn’t know who was the wife and who was the husband. It’s quite interesting. But she still saw it in terms of a man and a woman.

Holly: Yeah she still saw it in those binary terms. I mean, the world she lived in very much was that.

Susannah: Yes it was. But also, they were quite young when they first met and I think over time, she might not have said that 30 years later.

Holly: Yeah. So something that they did do that was slightly more public was their involvement in the suffrage movement and with the Pioneer Players. So can you explain to me who the Pioneer Players were, what their roles were with that, and how that contributed to the movement? That’s a long question for you.

Susannah: I’ll try and give you a shortage answer. Okay, so it was clear that Edy was having trouble finding her place in English theatre. But, as well as being a costumer, she was actually really understood about how theatre worked. And so her talent as a director needed an outlet, basically. She and Chris formed the Pioneer Players in about 1911. And it was to be a company that performed plays that were plays of ideas. So, not kitchen sink dramas, not farses, um, but new and interesting political plays. And Chris was important in this because she helped to source plays and also to translate plays from other languages. So they were doing some quite avantgarde things early on in the century. And so Edy knew because of working at the Lyceum, because her mom, she knew lots of actors and actresses who she could call upon. She couldn’t really pay them. I don’t think anyone ever really got paid. But people like Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans, in the beginnings of their careers, were in the Pioneer Players. So what they would do was rehearse wherever they could, someone’s sitting room or at village hall or whatever. And then they would hire a space in London and perform the plays, usually on a Sunday night when actors weren’t performing in other plays. So yes, Edy was able to surround herself with all sorts of people who would help her create these productions. But the idea behind producing the suffrage plays was that Edy was able to communicate with women, to communicate with the working classes. So she would put on plays in which very ordinary people appeared and they were funny. And so they encouraged women to go and see these plays and then afterwards someone would speak up and maybe there will be a suffrage meeting that then these women would then go along to. So as a way of getting the suffrage message to women who were so busy bringing up children and working who might not have accessed or understood the movement as it was. So they were brilliant political play. Some of them are hilarious.

Holly: They did seem to do a lot of plays. They seem to be very prolific.

Susannah: Yeah, they were very prolific indeed.

Holly: So were they performing in non-traditional spaces as well? 

Susannah: Yeah, they were, yeah. I mean, if they could hire a theatre for the night, they would. But they would really put on a play anywhere that could see an audience and have a slightly raised platform. I think Edy particularly saw theatre as belonging to the people and not just to the elite.

Holly: Yeah. That’s very interesting and especially interesting thinking about all the different ways in which women could be political at that time.

Susannah: Yeah. So this was Edy’s contribution to the suffrage movement. And they used to have big fairs, suffrage fairs, and Edy would decorate them all. She’d also help choreograph the great marches that took place through London. So she sort of staged managed a lot of those. Whereas Chris was more militant and she set fire to a letterbox and got arrested one night and was a lot more vocal in her private life.

Holly: Right. Do we know, because it was kind of around the beginning years of the Pioneer Players that Tony Atwood, who was christened Claire, started to be visible in their life. So do we know how or when or where Tony entered their relationship?

Susannah: I don’t know. But from what I can kind of gather is that she was certainly in their circle of friends in London and Edy talks about going to visit her studio, which overlooked the Thames. So they were, um, clearly friends. But how they actually met, I don’t know.

Holly: Yes. It makes sense that they were kind of in the circle together because Tony was that kind of similar creative artist. Can you describe them as a person?

Susannah: Tony? Well, she’s described by other people, so that’s why I can relate to. Vita Sackville-West described her as ‘the peacemaker.’ So I think, actually Chris and Edy’s relationship was quite volatile. We have someone’s memoirs here who worked for them as a handyman, and he says in his memoirs, “Face slapping did take place.” So I think, I suspect they were both capable of being quite dramatic, both Chris and Edy. And along comes this calm force who just sort of calms everything down a bit.

Holly: Yeah.

Susannah: And I think that’s the impression that you get from Tony moving in with them is that she became their peacemaker.

Holly: Yeah. I liked that Vita Sackville-West commented that “she restores the balance” which is a nice place to be if you’re the person going in there.

Susannah: Interestingly, when she did move in, Edy said to Tony “If Chris doesn’t like you, then out you go.” So there was obviously a trial period where they had to get on or else it would all been over, but I think almost immediately, she just fitted into the household, both here and in London.

Holly: Yeah. Do we know much about their childhood or their parents kind of the environment that they grew up in?

Susannah: No. Again, I think Tony was from a fairly, um, well-off middle class, uh, background. The fact that she studied at The Slade, I think, is interesting. That wasn’t a normal past time a woman around then. So I imagine she was nurtured and allowed to follow her dream.

Holly: Yeah. Her paintings are incredible. One of my favourites is the painting she did of Edy in bed with loads of papers all around her and looking. Oh, there it is. Do you have a favourite of her paintings, then?

Susannah: I love her paintings. She is a well-known artist, and they’re painting hers in The Tate, but she really deserves more recognition. My favourite painting of her, I think is the painting she did at the back of the Priests’ House with Ellen sitting very casually and Edy and Chris inside the house writing. And it’s just really homely, but beautiful. And Clare Atwood has a fabulous way with light and the back of the house is just dappled, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I noticed a lot of visitors to the museum will always comment on it. It’s such a beautiful picture, but I love all her work. And when lockdown happened and I was the only person here, I got all her paintings and put them in the office just to cheer me up. And I love them all.

Edy, Chris and Tony at Smallhythe Place | Credit

Holly: That’s very lucky. What a nice place to be working! So am I right in thinking that they were still having this kind of dual life between London and the Priests’ House when they were together?

Susannah: Yeah, they were. Because a lot of what they did took place in town. There’s lots of letters about them going up and down to town, and I think sometimes they wouldn’t come down here from months on end. It was their holiday cottage. A bit like Smallhythe Place was Ellen Terry’s holiday cottage. And yet, as they all got older, they ended up living here full time. 

Holly: You’ve mentioned a couple of their friendship circle, people like Virginia Woolfe and Vita Sackville-West. And so did they manage to create an environment for these creative, passionate women at Smallhythe Place, at the Priests’ House?

Susannah: I think Smallhythe is very significant for the way in which they were able to do that, so.

Holly: Right.

Susannah: Smallhythe became a place clearly, where they had lots of house guests, lots of weekend parties. They obviously had a lot of fun here. We must never overlook the amount of fun that was had here. I think Smallhythe is really significant in the way which people could come here and be themselves at a time, particularly for men, when they had to be very careful what would be Oscar Wilde scandal not far behind them. And so Edy had grown up in the theatre. She was from an unconventional, nonjudgmental background, I think Smallhythe became a very comfortable place for Edy’s circle to be. The majority of her friends were from the LGBTQ community, and here they could just be themselves. And actually quite interestingly, there are a lot of photographs of her friends and various guests here, and they’re all wearing, like, country smocks. And I wonder if you almost handed one on arrival. Is it very level?

Holly: It’s a uniform.

Susannah: Yes, it’s very levelling, isn’t it? You know what I mean? But it’s interesting. Unless they all bought a smock before they came because they thought that’s what Edy wanted. But there’s a lot of photographs of people in the 1900-1940s wearing smocks, which is interesting, but I think it was a very freeing place. There was no one to judge them, and they had great fun here.

Holly: I mean, it sounds like it. I would have quite liked to have attended one of their weekends away in the countryside.

Susannah: Yeah, me too. The other thing that is very significant, really here. After Ellen Terry died, Edy created the theatre, which was very rudimentary to begin with. But because she knew so many people in the theatre, she was able to put a production on very quickly with John Gielgud and all manner of people because she knew everyone and Gielgud was her second cousin. But in theatre are the original chairs, which are hugely uncomfortable, but each one of them has been sponsored, so each one has a name. So there are the famous ones. There’s Sybil Thorndike and John Gielgud and Edith Evans. The list goes on, but there are a lot that meant nothing to us, really. And my colleague a couple of years ago decided to do some research. And they were mainly women – not exclusively, but mainly women – and the company, as it were, if all those women were to be in those seats, would be amazing. I believe there’s the first woman oncologist, there are all manner of suffragettes and suffragists. It would be the most amazing collection of women would meet anywhere on the planet and this was Edy’s circle of friends. 

Holly: And I’m interested to know a bit more about how Edy decided to preserve Smallhythe Place for future generations in the memory of her mother. What steps did she take once and Ellen Terry had died?

Susannah: Well, almost immediately that Ellen had died, Edy set about making this into a museum. However, I think the word shrine might be more applicable. Ellen Terry was adored and she was 81 when she died in 1928, which was fairly elderly, and she’d been acting since she was about 7. So she had enormously long career. And when you look at the circle she moved in, everyone wanted to work with her. Oscar Wilde wanted to write plays for her, Bernard Shaw did write plays for her. Everyone wanted to design for her. Singer Sargent painted her. She was at the centre this really interesting kind of ripple effect. And so Edy really felt it important to preserve her memory. And because Ellen had collected things all her life, she had left Edy this house full of amazing artwork, costumes, jewellery, theatrical memorabilia, books – an amazing collection. So, anyway, Edy decided she would get a couple of rooms ready to open to the public. And so she worked very hard at it, meticulously recording everything and placing it. And it’s quite interesting because, I’m not sure there are many other museums in the country that have been curated by a woman about another woman. That’s quite an interesting topic in itself. So Edy spent a year getting the place ready and then opened it for people to come and see. And so she, Chris and Tony pretty much ran it between them. But if they didn’t like the look of somebody, they wouldn’t let them in. If a bill arrived, they wouldn’t open it. And so she created this wonderful memorial, that actually was, for all her artistic talent, was incapable, really, of running it in any viable manner.

Holly: Formalising its place as a viable museum 

Susannah: It wasn’t her best talent. 

Holly: I find it really interesting that she chose Smallhythe Place to be the place that she created this museum and invited more of the public to this space that had been so special for her and her mother and her relationship with Tony and Chris.

Susannah: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of interesting kind of things around memorials and memorialism, if that’s a word. For example, probably the same day that Ellen Terry died, a death mask was taken off her face, which was quite an unusual thing in the 20s. It had been quite a Victorian thing. And that’s about so many famous men had death masks made. There are few women’s death masks, but somebody decided to have that done, whether it was Ellen or Edy. But this is all about remembering and somebody who had been so famous staying up there, as it were. And an actor’s work is very ethereal. What do you leave behind, really, except reviews of your shows or Ellen Terry…we’ve got lots of her scripts which are written all over, so we understand her attitude to her acting, but we can’t see it.

Holly: Yeah.

Susannah: Um, I think that was probably also in Edy’s his mind. How do you keep hold of something so special when it only exists in things?

Smallhythe Place | Credit

Holly: Yes. And so Edy died in 1947, after having created Smallhythe Place as a museum for her mother. So what was it like for Chris and Tony being left behind?

Susannah: I imagine it was very bleak for them, really because Edy had been at the heart of everything here. If she was producing a play in the barn, they’d all be making props. And she was definitely the central kind of pivot here. She had trouble with the museum for some time, which is why Vita Sackville-West suggested she gifted it to the National Trust, which was actually the best thing she could have done, because it took care of it and means it’s still here now. So that was 1939, so it was only eight years later she died. I think the picture you referred to earlier of her sitting in bed with all her papers around her, I think that was painted late on in her life because she had a bad heart, and she did spend a lot of time in bed and all those papers is work she was getting on with. So I think when she died, there was a great sadness. The story of her death is quite interesting as well, because Chris St. John writes about it in very Catholic terms that they were all standing around Edy’s bedside and Edy sat up or laid back and said “who put out the lights?” And they were all there with the candles, etc. However, according to the handyman’s memoirs…

Holly: I very much like this handyman.

Susannah: We love the handyman. Charles Brind he was called. Anyway, he was in the garden doing something and I think they had like a housemaid or a daily maid of some kind, they came running out into the garden apparently said “Can you come and have a look at Ms. Edy? She looks awful queer” – her words. And so he went in and found Edy dead on her own in bed and he had just come back from Second World War and sort of was used to such scenes. So he tied scarf around her jaw to keep her jaw closed and then went and found Chris and Tony. So actually this is what sometimes makes me doubt quite a lot of what Chris has written in the past that has been taken for fact because you’ll find this story in all the biographies. But I’m quite apt to believe the memoirs of a man who was 24 years old at the time. Why would he make that up?

Holly: Yeah, especially when Chris was so devout. I mean, literally chose the name St. John, St John because of her connection to Christianity. So, yeah, it’s interesting that she might have chosen to mythologise that moment a little. 

Susannah: And so I think they sort of just carried on living in utter chaos after Edy had died. I know that the house was supposedly ridden with rats, at least under the floors – I don’t know if in the house. The place really smelt and they didn’t open the door to anybody. And Vita Sackville-West kept an eye on them. She’d always know them as the Trouts. She would call them the Trouts, which was her kind of nickname for them. And she employed a young man to look after the garden and tried and helped them out. But they became extremely reclusive and I think pleaded poverty and in the end both had to go into various kind of homes. But when Clare Atwood died, she had…I don’t know how much, but some thousands of pounds, like £30,000 in her bank account. So they had just sort of fallen into this eccentric kind of um, life. And I think without Edy they didn’t really have a compass perhaps.

Holly: No. And I read that Tony and Chris are buried next to each other but the Edy is somewhere else?

Susannah: Yes. They’re buried in the churchyard just through the gate from the garden at the Priests’ house.

Holly: Right.

Susannah: Edy…I think don’t really know. But it seems to me that Edy’s ashes were rediscovered by her niece Olive Terry in a biscuit tin in a cupboard. But they had a great friend, the trio had a great friend called Vera Holmes or ‘Jacko’ – hugely interesting in her own right – and when she died, her great nephew was going through her things and found a little tin that said ‘Edy’s Ashes’ on it. So he took them to Vera’s funeral, meaning to throw them in with her coffin. But he was too embarrassed. He was only a young man, so he ended up throwing them in a loch somewhere. But it suggests that, I don’t know, there was obviously confusion about Edy’s Ashes, and maybe they were and I don’t know…So we don’t know where they are. But having said that, about ten years ago, a woman who’s a great friend to Smallhythe Place, a great Ellen Terry collector, she had a stone cut for Edy. So actually the three of them are together if only a name.

Holly: Yes, in spirit together.

Susannah: In spirit yes for sure.

Holly: What do you think is their legacy as a trio?

Susannah: Edy’s great legacy is this museum for sure. We have a huge collection here, most of it belonged to Ellen Terry, but a lot of it has come to the museum over the years. Henry Irving, for example, with whom Ellen Terry acted for 20 years, he also had a huge collection. But when he died, it was auctioned and it disappeared in one afternoon. It was gone. Whereas this has been kept together. So for theatre researchers, costume researchers, people who are interested in old buildings, there is so much here. So I think Edy’s legacy is not just that either. It’s the way she arranged it. It’s the feeling behind it. It’s the theatre. I mean, that is a huge legacy. And we still have theatre all the time. It’s the most atmospheric building you’ll ever walk into. So this whole place, I think it’s remarkable. I’d like to think she knew it would still be here all these years later, I expect she did.

Holly: Full confidence.

Susannah: Yeah. I’m sure she would have expected us all to be looking after it.

Holly: How would you like Edy and Chris and Tony and their relationship to be remembered?

Susannah: I think in two ways. There’s this massively creative side to them, the three of them. Hugely creative in their own worlds and in their own rights and they came together and created something amazing, really, which was this museum and the productions they put on at the Barn Theatre here as well as the Pioneer Players. So I think this hugely talented, artistic side to all of them but also I think I like to think about the fun they had. I mentioned it earlier. There are photographs of them here messing about in the theatre, dressing up as all sorts of things and having a really good laugh and welcoming their friends into this good time that they were having. So I think it’s easy to look back and not really think about what joy people took in life just because they had a serious side to them.

Holly: Yeah, I think it’s lovely to think about them creating a life with so much joy in it for themselves at Smallhythe Place. So I think that’s a lovely place to end. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

Susannah: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.

Holly: And thank you for listening! I hope that you enjoyed this episode as much as I enjoyed speaking with Susannah – I am very jealous of her office filled with Tony’s paintings! I mean what an amazing place to work Smallhythe Place sounds like and with such a rich history.

I think why I am really intrigued by this relationship though is that there is so much more to discover about the love story between Edy, Chris and Tony. There are so many avenues of research that would flesh their story out in glorious detail. The fact that they managed to create this space for themselves, and their circle of friends, which allowed them to love on their own terms, to be creative and passionate and to just have the most fun is to me an extraordinary story. Edy, Chris and Tony designed their own lives within the constraints of society and their love story is one that’s really going to stay with me. 

You can visit Smallhythe Place in Kent, find out more about the property on the National Trust website or follow all of the wonderful work of the museum over on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). I will leave all of their links in the show notes.

If you have enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. This week we actually hit 10,000 downloads which is just incredible to me. As a little lockdown project, the podcast continues to grow in such a joyful way. I really couldn’t be more pleased with how well it has been received – and it is all because you are listening. If you leave a review it will help other true romantics with a love of history to find the podcast which would mean that love stories such as that between Edy, Chris and Tony can be heard by as many people as possible. 

I will be back in a couple of weeks with another new episode – actually about the love story between two people who were briefly mentioned in this episode…so you might take a guess at who could that be? In the meantime, in season one I spoke to Matthew Sturgis about the love story between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas – of course Oscar was also mentioned in this episode too. It’s one of my personal favourite conversations so if you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend it. Of course, I might be slightly biased.

And then, if Past Loves has become your current love, you can also follow me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where the conversation continues – Until soon!

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