The woman who gave us Sutton Hoo
00:01 21 December 2006
MARY Skelcher was like a girl on Christmas morning. She'd been handed a tin trunk full of letters and other personal documents that once belonged to Edith Pretty - the woman who unlocked the treasures of Sutton Hoo. Mary was writing a book on this “gentleman's daughter”, about whom little was known. What secrets lay inside?
She had travelled down to the south-coast home of David Pretty, Edith's grandson, to pick up the collection - and hadn't left his living room before giving in to temptation. Her first peek inside brought instant results.
“One of the first things I saw was a letter that had 10 Downing Street on the front. It was a letter from Winston Churchill's secretary.” It offered Edith Pretty an honour, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her gift to the nation of the treasures found on her estate overlooking Woodbridge.
“That was something we'd heard from the family - that she was offered an honour but turned it down - which is a nice story but, until then, without any firm evidence,” explains Mary. Here, in black and white, was proof.
A second letter made clear Edith's decision to decline - a decision for which sister Elizabeth called her “a goose!”
Sutton Hoo, it's said, marked the first page of English history. As Suffolk fretted about the dawning of a new world war, ornate items of gold and silver were found beneath and earth mound on Edith's estate. The treasures, crafted by people creative and cultured, shed light on the so-called Dark Ages.
It's believed the ship-burial was for Raedwald, the king of East Anglia, who died early in the seventh Century. Most of us have heard of him and the Anglo-Saxons, thanks to the discovery in 1939, but the woman whose money and desire made it happen has a much lower profile.
As Chris Durrant puts it, she was “off the edge of the page”.
That's a shame, because the life of Edith Pretty is the stuff of which movies are made, featuring nouveau riche ambition, the glamour of foreign travel, the self-sacrifice of duty, the ghastliness of war, unrequited passion, and - most poignantly - love and lives cut short.
That colour is captured in Edith Pretty - From Socialite to Sutton Hoo. Co-author Chris last year published a biography of Basil Brown, the archaeologist charged to investigate the mounds, but he credits Sutton Hoo visitor services manager Mary Skelcher for the idea of a book on Edith.
“She twisted my arm to become involved,” he smiles, “and I'm very glad I did.”
Mary worked as a tax lawyer before deciding on a change of direction and getting involved with the National Trust, which has owned the Sutton Hoo estate since 1998 and opened the impressive visitors' centre in the spring of 2002.
“When I was volunteering in the exhibition, it's amazing how many of the visitors asked about Edith: what was she like and where she lived,” explains Mary. “We didn't know much about her at all.”
Chris, a retired engineer who lives near Saxmundham and now does some work for the National Trust, confirms: “Without a bit of digging, we didn't even know simple things, like her maiden name.”
Gradually, the jigsaw pieces came together. Edith's husband, Frank, had been in the Suffolk Regiment, so there were military records to explore. Somehow, they found out Edith had been at Roedean, and the school supplied information that added colour: such as details about her sports teams. It was there she acquired her nickname: Dempy.
Help came, too, from Edith's grandchildren; and an article in the EADT brought a response from two former housemaids with rich memories of life at Sutton Hoo House.
Edith May Dempster was born on August 1, 1883. Her father, Robert, was a rich industrialist in northern England whose own father had clawed his way out of poverty to become a factory owner.
Journals tell of extensive family expeditions to Egypt, Greece, Austria; a love of dancing; giggling with teenage friends; spending the first half of 1901 in Paris, to polish her language skills.
Later that year came a world tour with her parents. Christmas Day saw them at the Taj Mahal. After sailing from the Bay of Bengal, she had to endure cockroaches in the ladies' cabin! Edith celebrated her 19th birthday on a train to Salt Lake City.
In 1907 the Dempsters leased the imposing Vale Royal in Cheshire. There were 18 gardeners and so many timepieces that it took a specialist four hours to wind them each week. However, Edith wasn't frivolous. She carried out public and charitable work, including buying land for a mission hall.
Life changed dramatically with the First World War, when Edith was 31. She became quartermaster of the Red Cross military hospital at Winsford, and then in 1917 served with the Red Cross in France.
During this time she exchanged letters with Frank Pretty. His family ran the William Pretty and Sons corset-making business in Ipswich. The brother of one of her school friends, he had apparently proposed on Edith's 18th birthday and every year afterwards - without success.
Her mother died in 1919 and Edith, the unmarried daughter, devoted the next six years to her father.
Robert Dempster died in 1925, leaving an estate valued at more than £500,000 (£16 million today). It made the two sisters wealthy women.
The following year Edith agreed to marry the devoted Lt Col Frank Pretty, then living in Stone Lodge Lane, Ipswich. They married in Cheshire in the April of 1926 - a high-society affair with 200 invited guests. The bride was 42, her groom 47.
That year she gave up lease on Vale Royal and the couple lived briefly in Ipswich before Edith bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate for £15,250 (about £480,000 in today's money).
There, she entered into local life: sitting as a magistrate in Woodbridge, joining her husband in the Essex and Suffolk Hunt, sending gifts to sick folk in Sutton, and hosting a new year's party for estate staff.
Then, at the age of 46, Edith discovered she was pregnant. Son Robert was born in 1930, but there is a suspicion the pregnancy left its mark on her health - and, in the early summer of 1934, Frank fell ill. It was diagnosed as stomach cancer, but specialists persuaded his wife he shouldn't know the truth. Edith carried that burden; and her own health seemed to ebb and flow in parallel with her husband's.
He died three days after Christmas, on his 56th birthday. The couple had been married less than nine years.
It was quite late in the day - last August, probably - that David Pretty gave the authors the trunk of documents.
“Some of it was incredibly moving, because there are letters from Frank Pretty home during the First World War,” says Mary. Frank was wounded twice; his brother was killed.
Meanwhile, letters written by Edith's sister Elizabeth - a frequent visitor to Sutton Hoo during Frank's illness later on - were illuminating.
“I'd always thought this notion of dying of a broken heart was romantic nonsense; but actually, when you read Elizabeth's letters, Edith's illness matched Frank's. So suddenly it doesn't seem quite as silly,” says Mary. “For me, it made me feel that Edith really loved him.”
For nearly 45 minutes we've been talking in what used to be Frank's office, but we've barely mentioned the treasures . . .
“Almost incidental,” says Chris. “People know her because of that, but the story stands very well without them.”
The earth mounds lay about 500 yards from the house, but it wasn't until 1937 that Edith decided to have them investigated. There are stories about people seeing ghosts near the mounds. Mary and Chris suggest it could simply be that the landowner, now on her own, simply wanted something to occupy her mind.
In May, 1939, Basil Brown's excavation of the largest mound revealed an Anglo-Saxon ship burial “of heroic proportions”. An inquest jury sitting at Sutton Village Hall ruled the treasure was Edith's, and a few days afterwards she decided it should be given to the nation.
Edith Pretty died suddenly in Richmond Hospital on December 17, 1942, of a blood clot on the brain. She was 59. Only two weeks earlier, she'd been sitting as a magistrate in Woodbridge.
Her gross estate was valued at nearly £400,000 - approaching £11 million in today's money. Most passed in trust to son Robert, who went to live with Elizabeth. He went to Eton and then into farming. Robert died in 1988 of cancer, aged 57, leaving children Penny, David and John.
The War Office used Sutton Hoo until 1946. A few years later the estate was sold.
The view of Mary and Chris is that Edith was “extraordinarily generous and strong-minded, yet self-effacing”. She was, too, a game soul.
There's also, for Chris, a certain sadness. Edith was a product of her upbringing and her own ambitions undoubtedly took second place.
As a young Victorian, she was constrained in many ways. “We see that 'picture' in her diaries of a happy-go-lucky schoolgirl - the sheer joy of messing about in Paris for six months with her school friend and all that - but her society had her in an iron grip.
“She would have been expected to do the good works. . . Her life was channelled in a way a young woman today could not conceive of; not being allowed to have free choice but being constrained by the views of her parents and her society.”
The sense of duty to her widowed father could have been why she didn't marry earlier. Also, it was likely her parents had harboured ambitions for her to marry into aristocracy, rather than choose the son of a draper from lower down the scale.
Mary unlocks the small private chapel that leads off Frank's office. It used to be carpeted in blue, and have a crucifix and candles in the window - somewhere the widowed Edith could “talk” to her husband.
You can breathe the history - and feel a film scripting forming. All the elements are here: the emotion of a period story, the original set, and wonderful light and views.
Chris smiles. “Another role for Helen Mirren . . .”
Edith Pretty: From Socialite to Sutton Hoo costs £8.99. ISBN 978-0-9554725-0-3
ONE of the legends attached to Edith Pretty is her involvement with spiritualism.
It seems to have started when her sister came to Suffolk. Frank was ill and Elizabeth suggested faith healing might help. London-based William Parish worked from a distance, as it were, and both Frank and Edith did seem to perk up for a while.
Mary Skelcher says there was always a Christian basis to Edith's involvement.
She formed a strong friendship with William Parish and his wife, giving the financial backing that allowed him to set up a healing house in East Sheen.
There's also a tale that Edith, helped by Parish, held a seance at which an apparition appeared of a man on a black horse and told her to plunge a sword into the mounds. This is pooh-poohed by Sheila Norman, whose father ran the spiritualist church in Woodbridge that Edith supported financially but which she didn't attend. Sheila Norman also doesn't believe that seances took place at Sutton Hoo House, say the authors.
AN exhibition complementing the book is running at the Sutton Hoo visitors' centre until the spring. The centrepiece is the restored portrait of a 56-year-old Edith Pretty that was painted around the time of the excavations by Dutch artist Cor Visser.
It was donated to the National Trust this year by David Pretty, her grandson, after it had been stored in a garage for about 30 years.
The two authors travelled to the Bournemouth area to collect the painting. They dare not leave it in the car, so it rested overnight in Mary's room at the Express by Holiday Inn.
“I hope Edith saw the funny side,” says Chris Durrant. “In the same way that the Sutton Hoo treasures allegedly spent their first night under Edith's bed, her portrait spent a night in Mary's hotel bedroom.”