Gallery: Band of Brothers - Frank and Donald Pretty left family corset business to fight in the First World War but only one would return home
In 1914, two Suffolk brothers went off to war. They were from the Pretty family, famous for its corset business. One would return and live at Sutton Hoo, where Anglo-Saxon treasures lay beneath the earth. The other never came back – the first officer from Ipswich to be killed. Steven Russell hears their stories.
On November 21, 1914, Major Frank Pretty sent his sister Hilda words of comfort from the world war in which he and younger brother Donald found themselves.
“There is no need to worry about us – no good purpose can be served by so doing,” he wrote from France. “We shall probably both return home in due course, the better men for the experience.
“In any case it would be quite impossible for either of us to remain at home & expect to be treated as men under the present conditions. This is a big job – each man who is young, healthy & unattached must take a hand.”
Less than six months after that letter was written, Frank’s brother, Donald, was in Queen Mary’s Convalescent Home for British Officers at Nice, recovering from jaundice. There, he wrote to another sister – Elsie – about a day-trip to Grasse, where he bought perfume for his mother in Suffolk.
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“I dare say it could be bought just as cheaply in Nice, Paris, London or Ipswich. The bottle of Eau de Cologne 4 frs [francs], I think, but I’m not much of a connoisseur of scents, but it seemed a fair sized bottle for the money.”
A month later, on May 9, 1915, Donald’s regiment were defending trenches near Neuve Chapelle (west of Lille). A shell landed close. Lieutenant DS Pretty, of 4th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, died in Bethune hospital on May 11. Aged just 23, he was the first officer from Ipswich to be killed in the war.
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The attack also killed New Zealand tennis player Anthony Wilding, a captain in the military, who had won at Wimbledon from 1910-1913 and was four times a member of the Australasian Davis Cup-winning team.
The day after Donald was hurt – and before he died – Frank received a letter from colleague Hubert Ling.
“We all had lunch in a dugout in our trench, Capt Wilding the tennis player, Fison [another Suffolk name], Donald & myself. The next bombardment [a covering one, to support a British advance] began at 4pm & we all left the dugout and went into the trenches.
“At 6pm the bombardment ceased & apparently Donald went back to the dugout with Wilding. (A shell) burst on the top of it & Wilding and 2 men were blown to pieces & Donald was buried. We dug him out – he seemed to be fairly alright – one foot badly bruised but that was all.
“He was unconscious & I had him taken away on a stretcher at once. We all thought he was suffering from shock as he had a marvellous escape & we were horrified to hear that the Dr at the dressing station was afraid the poor lad had broken his back.
“I have heard nothing more & as we are still in action you know how difficult it is to get news of anyone. I am quite upset and feel I have lost a good friend as we were all such a happy party together & had been having such fun in the trenches. They have given me his wrist watch, which I will return as soon as I can.
“You know that trench we were in at Ypres. I think you saw it before you were wounded – in front of it were a lot of wounded men & Parry got hit getting a man in – after that I asked for volunteers to help me get them in and no-one would come except Donald, & after we got the first man in alright, the men followed…”
Donald had written to his mother just two days before, with a story of black humour in the trenches:
“I wrote to Father yesterday. I hope he passed you on the letter & let you know I was still alive.
“We had a good time this afternoon. Three of four people were outside old Ling’s (who now commands this company) ‘dug out’. I was inside with him. We were talking & joking & finally one of them shut the door & leant against it. So Ling, in order to get it open, got his Very pistol (the thing one sends star shells up with) & fired it off under the door. Of course the thing went off in their midst & smoked away. They departed with the greatest expedition in different directions & we were enabled to open the door!! I rather think they thought it was a shell or bomb or something. How we did laugh!!”
The fourth and youngest son of William Pretty, Donald had left Rugby School in 1908, spent some time in France, then studied farming at the Royal Agricultural College, Wye, in Kent, with a plan to take on Gulpher Hall Farm at Felixstowe. He was just completing the course when war broke out.
He immediately obtained a commission in the Suffolk Regiment and crossed to France with the 4th Battalion in November, 1914, taking part in the battles of Givenchy, Neuve Chapelle and the Second Battle of Ypres. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in the March.
Donald and Frank were among six children born to William Pretty (1842-1916) and second wife Anne Sherington. The family home was The Goldrood, a large, early 19th Century, white-brick house in Belstead Road. Today, the grade II listed building is used by St Joseph’s College as boarding accommodation.
The Ipswich corset-making company of William Pretty and Sons was started in 1820 by Frank and Donald’s grandfather. It was taken over by William in the late 19th Century. Later, it made silk underwear.
Pretty’s employed hundreds at its Tower Ramparts factory in Ipswich, a landmark with its tall chimney. But times and fashions changed. Pretty’s went into liquidation in 1930, with the factory bought by another company and, in the late 1960s, passing to Courtauld’s.
The historic building was eventually shut just over 30 years ago and demolished in the 1980s. It stood where the car park is today, behind Marks & Spencer.
A 2006 book by Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant called Edith Pretty: From socialite to Sutton Hoo (See panel) gives a history of the family.
It tells how Frank and Donald’s father joined the Ipswich Volunteers in 1865 and how the National Reserve for Suffolk were launched in the grounds of The Goldrood.
Frank was commissioned into the Army Volunteers (later the Territorial Army). He started as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1900, was promoted to captain in 1903 and became a major in 1912.
In 1926, Frank married long-time sweetheart Edith Dempster and they bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate for £15,250 – about £780,000 at today’s prices. Sadly, Frank died in 1934 – five years before the discovery on estate land of the Anglo-Saxon treasure buried with a man believed to be the king of East Anglia, Raedwald, who died early in the seventh century.
The letters of Frank and Donald worked their way down the generations and have been preserved by retired biology teacher Mark Shephard and his sister Theresa. They are happy to share the wartime insights of their great-uncles.
“The letters are not all ‘misery memoirs’ – all blood and mud,” says Mark. “While there are a few graphic battle descriptions, much of the material is about the lighter side of trench life – perhaps an important corrective to other accounts that will appear.
“The letters from Frank span the whole length of the war. Those from Donald go up to two days before his death in May, 1915.
“There are 34 letters from Frank and 21 from Donald. They are mostly to their oldest sister Hilda or youngest sister Elsie, with a few to brother-in-law Harry Paul (of the Ipswich malting firm R & W Paul). There are also a couple from Elsie herself, who joined a nursing group in France towards the end of the war.
“Hilda and Harry Paul had no children, and Elsie was unmarried, so the letters passed to my mother (Sylvia) and thus to me and my sister. Frank in particular had a very laconic sense of humour. Most letters are in their original envelopes, with ‘Passed by censor’ stamped on.”
One is even on notepaper commandeered from a German prisoner from Leipzig.
Frank and Donald’s other sisters were Bertha (Mark’s grandmother) and Mildred. William Pretty also had three children by his first wife, who died young.
“I know very little of Frank’s career before the First World War,” says Mark. “He may have had some role in the corset business and I know that he travelled extensively, including to South Africa and Australia, where he had cousins.
“As well as the letters, there are photos, newspaper cuttings, letters of sympathy after Donald’s death etc, which all help to convey the atmosphere and context of the war.”
Mark, 71, obviously did not know his great-uncles, and Frank’s wife, Edith Pretty, died in 1942 but though Mark knew their only child, Robert, “a delightful guy” who died in his 50s.
Mark was also very familiar with the Pretty family seat, The Goldrood, in Ipswich.
“I used to go there for holidays as a child. In the drive, rather than having a sign saying ‘The Goldrood’, there were yew trees, each cut to a letter – T, H, E, G, O...
“No-one knew quite who was going to inherit it. When William Pretty died, it eventually went to Hilda’s husband, Harry Paul.
“I knew Uncle Harry until I was about eight – he died about 1950 – then Hilda carried on there: a widow, in this big house with a servant. Rattling around.”
“Hilda was a great Girl Guide – she was the county commissioner. We had the run of the place until she died in 1962. She would make a big fuss of us and get quite excited when we came.”
Hilda, who also went to Girton College, Cambridge, “was chauffeured around Ipswich in a 1937 Rolls Royce until almost the day she died.”
The contents of The Goldrood were left to Mark’s mother and her siblings, “because they were like substitute children, as Hilda and Harry had none.”
Today, a fair amount of the furniture in Mark’s Hertfordshire home once graced the big house in Belstead Road.
Mark has spent many hours transcribing the brothers’ mail. There are frequent references to Suffolk, such as the Garrett family which ran the engineering firm at Leiston.
“Some of it is trivia… a Fortnum & Mason parcel. Then serious: more severe losses. Stephen Garrett is killed… Insight into trench life; burying dead by the hundreds. The front line.”
And all allowing us, 100 years or so later, a glimpse of a family so much a part of the commercial, social and civic fabric of Ipswich.
We’ll be printing a number of the Pretty brothers’ letters over the coming weeks, starting today.
The war years brought their tragedies for Frank Pretty, but peacetime brought him a short but intense period of joy.
A family story has it that he proposed to Edith Dempster on her 18th birthday and every year thereafter. Finally, in 1926, they married – he aged 47 and the bride 42. They had a son about four years later, but sadly Frank died of stomach cancer in 1934.
Edith was born in 1883, the daughter of a rich industrialist in northern England. Wealth gave her the chance to travel extensively and enjoy a glittering social scene, and in the early 1900s the family leased a home in Cheshire with 18 gardeners and so many clocks it took an expert four hours to wind them each week.
Edith, however, was no spoiled woman. She did charitable work and when the First World War broke out – by now in her 30s – became quartermaster of a Red Cross military hospital. In 1917, she served with the Red Cross in France.
During this time she and Frank Pretty wrote to each other. They’d quite likely met when “Dempy” was at school at Roedean, where one of her friends and fellow pupils was Frank’s sister Mildred.
Their life together is detailed in Chris Durrant and Mary Skelcher’s book Edith Pretty – From Socialite to Sutton Hoo.
Frank, they say, was educated at The Leys, a prep school in Cambridge, and was a champion skater. He’d also long ridden with the Essex and Suffolk Hunt.
Following her mother’s death in 1919, unmarried daughter Edith devoted the next half-dozen years to her father. When he died, Robert’s estate – valued at more than £500,000 (the equivalent of about £25million today, perhaps) – made his two daughters wealthy.
The following year Edith finally agreed to marry Lt Col Frank Pretty, the man who had waited. A director of William Pretty and Sons, he was then living in Stone Lodge Lane – near The Goldrood.
Chris and Mary suggest Edith’s sense of duty to her widowed father is one possible reason why she didn’t marry earlier. It was also possible her parents nurtured ambitions for her to marry into aristocracy, rather than choose the son of a draper, and that this had kept hopes and desires in limbo.
Anyway, the couple finally married in Cheshire in 1926 – a high-society affair with 200 guests. Mark Shephard’s mother, Sylvia, was a bridesmaid.
The newly-weds lived for a time in Ipswich before they bought the Sutton Hoo estate.
Edith was 46 when she fell pregnant. Robert was born in 1930. Then, in 1934, Frank was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died three days after Christmas, on his 56th birthday. The couple had been married less than nine years.
In 1937, Edith decided to investigate earth mounds about 500 yards from the house. In the early summer of 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown excavated the largest and found the remains of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, complete with gold and silver artefacts.
These shed light on the so-called Dark Ages, demonstrating the creativity and craftsmanship to be found in the early centuries AD.
Edith donated the treasures to the nation. They’re cared for by the British Museum.
A week before Christmas, 1942, Edith died of a blood clot on the brain. She was 59.
Her gross estate was valued at nearly £400,000. Most passed in trust to Robert. He went to Eton and then into farming, but died in 1988 of cancer, aged only 57 and leaving three children.