The woman with treasure on her doorstep

IT'S men who spring to mind at mention of Sutton Hoo - the dogged Basil Brown and Anglo Saxon king Raedwald, mainly - but, as Steve Russell observes, no anniversary should pass without remembering the woman who set the wheels in motionEDITH Pretty bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate in the 1920s for �15,250 - about �500,000 in today's money.

Steven Russell

IT'S men who spring to mind at mention of Sutton Hoo - the dogged Basil Brown and Anglo Saxon king Raedwald, mainly - but, as Steve Russell observes, no anniversary should pass without remembering the woman who set the wheels in motion

EDITH Pretty bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate in the 1920s for �15,250 - about �500,000 in today's money. Earth burial mounds lay about 500 yards from the house, but it wasn't until 1937 that she decided to have them investigated. There had been stories about people seeing ghosts near the mounds - or it could be that, as a widow with an energetic young son, Edith simply wanted something to take her mind off her situation.

Then, in May, 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown's excavation of the largest mound revealed an Anglo-Saxon ship burial “of heroic proportions”. An inquest jury sitting at nearby Sutton Village Hall ruled the treasure was Edith's, and a few days afterwards she decided it should be given to the nation.

The narrative of Sutton Hoo is, naturally enough, all about great finds - the artefacts that helped write the first page of English history. But behind the chronicle of what was found, and how, are the fascinating stories of people's lives - and Edith Pretty's is one of those that shouldn't be overshadowed by the gold and silver discovered on her doorstep.

A couple of years ago National Trust volunteers Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant wrote a book about “gentleman's daughter” Edith. Her life - which had generally been “off the edge of the page”, Chris told the EADT - turned out to be 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.

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Mary, a former tax lawyer, explained that when she was volunteering at the Sutton exhibition, it was amazing how many visitors asked about Edith: what was she like and where she lived. But - “we didn't know much about her at all.”

Chris, a retired engineer who in 2005 had published a biography of Basil Brown, admitted: “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. 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. Edith, by then in her 30s, 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. (More than �16million 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 April 1926, in a high-society affair. The bride was 42, the groom 47.

That year she gave up the lease on Vale Royal and the couple lived briefly in Ipswich before Edith bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate. She entered into local life, sitting as a magistrate in Woodbridge and joining her husband in the Essex and Suffolk Hunt. She hosted a new-year party for estate staff and would send gifts to sick folk in Sutton.

Then, at the age of 46, Edith discovered she was pregnant. Son Robert was born in 1930. It's thought the physical demands of being an older mother took their toll on her health.

In the summer of 1934, Frank fell ill. It was diagnosed as stomach cancer, but specialists persuaded his wife it would be best to withhold the truth from him.

Edith carried that burden and her 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.

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 - about �11 million today. Most passed in trust to son Robert, who went to live with his aunt. 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.

It was quite late on in their research that Edith's grandson, David Pretty, gave the authors a trunk of letters and other personal documents. “Some of it was incredibly moving, because there are letters from Frank Pretty home during the First World War,” said 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,” said Mary. “For me, it made me feel that Edith really loved him.”

There was interest at every turn.

“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,” said Mary. It offered Edith Pretty an honour, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her gift to the nation of the Sutton Hoo treasures.

“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.” A second letter made clear Edith's decision to decline - a decision for which sister Elizabeth called her “a goose!”

The view of Mary and Chris was that Edith was “extraordinarily generous and strong-minded, yet self-effacing”.

There was also, for Chris, a certain sadness. 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 hadn't married 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.

- Chris Durrant and Mary Skelcher's book Edith Pretty - From Socialite to Sutton Hoo is available from the National Trust shop at Sutton Hoo.

Was it really a nudge from a ghost?

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.

Perhaps the gossip was fanned after Frank's death by the small private chapel at Sutton Hoo House (now known as Tranmer House) that led off Frank's office. Mary Skelcher told the EADT 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.

Mary said there was always a Christian basis to Edith's involvement with faith-healing. 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 s�ance at which an apparition appeared of a man on a black horse and told her to plunge a sword into the mounds. This was 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 didn't believe that s�ances took place at Sutton Hoo House, said Mary and Chris.