Beetles told 'let it be' with actress Dame Ellen Terry's dresses in Tenterden
by Tricia Jamieson
The most famous dress worn by Shakespearean actress Dame
Ellen Terry was one made from beetle wings.
So it is ironic that beetles have nearly been the downfall of
200 of her costumes.
Staff at Smallhythe Place, Tenterden - once Dame Ellen's home
and now a National Trust property - discovered the
insects had attacked her dresses that were in storage.
A rescue operation swung into place, involving freezing the
outfits to kill the beetles and then gently cleaning them with
The work is now coming to an end with volunteers finishing off
the final dresses.
Susannah Mayor, house steward at Smallhythe Place, said: "We
don't know how the carpet beetles got into the clothes store where
we have around 200 costumes, some of which are fabulous.
"The dresses are so precious that doing nothing was not an
"Getting them professionally cleaned was too expensive, so we
took advice from clothes conservationists and textile experts and
did it ourselves."
As freezing was the only way of getting rid of the insects, the
freezer in the venue's Barn Theatre restaurant was pressed into
service and another one was bought and housed with a
Ellen Terry as Lady
The theatre's freezer temperature of -36 degrees meant the
costumes only had to be in there for 72 hours, but as the other
freezer only got down to -22, they had to spend two weeks
Susannah said: "All the costumes are carefully stored in long
boxes with tissue inside to keep their shape.
"We removed some of the tissue before vacuum packing each one
and putting them in the freezer – it was quite rewarding when we
took them out and saw the dead beetles.
"After freezing, each outfit was left for 48 hours then
carefully cleaned with a museum vacuum to make sure all the eggs
had gone, and repacked."
Dame Ellen's costumes are not on show at Smallhythe Place, but
that might change. "The collection is so significant we are
considering opening up the costume store in a small way," said
Susannah Mayor and Steph
Poyton working on a dress worn by Ellen Terry while paying
Guinevere at the Lyceum Theatre in 1895
Dame Ellen, who died in 1928, wore the beetle wing dress when
she played Lady Macbeth. After her death, her daughter, actress and
theatre director Edith Craig, converted the barn at Smallhythe
Place into a theatre.
In 1929, she staged a Shakespearean event in her mother's
memory, which has continued every year since, apart from breaks for
the Second World War, on the nearest Saturday to Dame Ellen's
Smallhythe Place is now owned by the National Trust. It reopens
on Saturday, March 2, after being closed for the winter.
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