Edith Pretty

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Edith Pretty
Edith May Dempster

(1883-08-01)1 August 1883
Died17 December 1942(1942-12-17) (aged 59)
Richmond, Surrey, England
Occupationlandowner, benefactor, magistrate
Spouse(s)Frank Pretty (married 1926)
ChildrenRobert Dempster Pretty
  • Robert Dempster
  • Elizabeth Dempster (née Brunton)

Edith May Pretty (1883–1942) was an English landowner on whose land the Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered after she had paid Basil Brown, a local archaeologist, to find out if anything lay beneath the mounds on her property.

Early life[edit]

Edith Pretty was born in Elland, Yorkshire on 1 August 1883,[1] to Elizabeth (née Brunton, d. 1919)[2] and Robert Dempster (b. 1853).[1][3][4] She and her older sister, Elizabeth, were the Dempsters' only children. The Dempsters were wealthy industrialists who amassed their fortune from the manufacture of equipment related to the gas industry. Robert Dempster's father, Robert Dempster, had founded Robert Dempster and Sons at Elland in Yorkshire in 1855 for this purpose.[5][6]

In 1884 Edith's father, Robert, moved his family to Manchester, where he founded the engineering firm of R. & J. Dempster with his brother, John.[7][2] Edith and her family travelled extensively abroad, visiting Egypt, Greece, and Austria-Hungary. After finishing her education at Roedean School, Edith spent six months in Paris in 1901. Later that year, the family embarked on a world tour that included visits to British-India and the United States.[1]

From 1907 to 1925, Edith's father took a lease on the large country house of Vale Royal Abbey, near Whitegate, Cheshire, the family seat of Lord Delamere. Here Edith grew up with an indoor staff of 25 and 18 gardeners. She engaged in public and charitable works that included helping to buy land for a mission.[1][4]

Later life[edit]

During World War I, Edith served as quartermaster at the Red Cross' auxiliary hospital at Winsford, and helped to house Belgian refugees.[2] By 1917 she worked with the French Red Cross at Vitry-le-François, and also at Le Bourget in France.[1][8]

After her mother's death in 1919, Edith cared for her father at Vale Royal.[2] When he died in Cape Town during his visit to South Africa in 1925,[9] Edith and her sister inherited "an estate valued at more than £500,000" – about £16 million in 2006.[1]

In 1926, Edith married Frank Pretty (1879-1934) of Ipswich,[10] who had first proposed on her 18th birthday, and had corresponded with her during the War. Pretty was the son of William Tertius Pretty (1842-1916), owner of a corset-making and drapery business in Ipswich.[1] Pretty had been a Major in the Suffolk Regiment's 4th (Territorial) Battalion[11] and had been wounded twice during the War. His participation in 1915 in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle was captured in a 1918 painting by the artist Fred Roe.[12][failed verification] After the War, Pretty continued to serve the Suffolk Regiment, obtaining the rank of Lt. Colonel and commander of the 4th Battalion[13] in 1922,[9] while also working in the family business.[1][11]

Edith gave up the lease on Vale Royal after her marriage and bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate along the River Deben, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. She served as a magistrate in Woodbridge,[1] and in 1926 donated the Dempster Challenge Cup to Winsford Urban District Council, her former Red Cross posting. The Cup has been awarded annually for most years since to a plot-holder on Winsford's garden allotments.[14][15][16][15][17]

In 1930, at the age of 47, Edith gave birth to a son, Robert Dempster Pretty. Frank Pretty died in 1934 on his 56th birthday, having contracted stomach cancer earlier that year.[1]

Edith became interested in Spiritualism, visiting faith healer William Parish and supporting a spiritualist church in Woodbridge.[18]

Archaeology at Sutton Hoo[edit]

Edith had become acquainted with archaeological digs early in her life through her travels; her friend, Florence Sayce's Egyptologist uncle, Archibald Sayce; and her father's excavation[19] of a Cistercian abbey adjoining their home at Vale Royal.[20][18][8][4]

Around 18 ancient burial mounds lay on the Sutton Hoo estate, about 500 yards from the Pretty home, Tranmer House.[20][10] At the 1937 Woodbridge Flower Fete, Edith discussed the possibility of an excavation with Vincent B. Redstone, a member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, and Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society as well as the Society of Antiquaries.[21][22] Redstone and the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, met with Edith in July regarding the project, and self-taught Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown was subsequently invited to excavate the mounds.[8] Promising finds were made, and Brown returned in the summer of 1939 for further work on the project. He soon unearthed the remains of an enormous burial site, containing what was later identified as a 7th-century Saxon ship, which may have been the last resting-place of King Rædwald of East Anglia. A curator of the British Museum described the discovery as "one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time".[18][1]

The excavation was then taken over by a team of professional archaeologists which was headed by Charles Phillips and included Cecily Margaret Guido and Stuart Piggott.[8]:99–100 In September 1939, a treasure trove inquest determined that the fabulous grave goods unearthed from the ship were Pretty's property to do with as she chose. Within days, she had made the greatest donation to the nation made in a donor's lifetime, giving the treasure to the British Museum. In recognition of this, prime minister Winston Churchill later offered Pretty the honour of a CBE, but she declined.[1]

After Edith's death, Sutton Hoo was used by the War Office until 1946, before it was sold. Currently the burial site is in the care of The National Trust.

She was the subject of a play by Karen Forbes performed at Sutton Hoo in 2019,[23] and features in a novel The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007.[24]


Edith Pretty died on 17 December 1942 in Richmond Hospital at the age of 59 after a stroke, and was buried in All Saints churchyard at Sutton. A portrait of a 56-year-old Edith was painted by the Dutch artist Cor Visser and donated to the National Trust by David Pretty, her grandson.[1][25]

Most of her estate of £400,000 was placed in a trust for her son, Robert, who was now cared for by his aunt, Elizabeth. Robert died of cancer at the age of 57.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "The woman who gave us Sutton Hoo". East Anglian Daily Times. 21 December 2006. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d "Biography of Edith May Pretty". Sutton Who? Sutton Hoo – An Anglo Saxon Ship Burial. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  3. ^ "Robert Dempster M, #356332". thepeerage.com. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Gerrish, Oliver (8 November 2014). "Mrs Pretty and Sutton Hoo". ArchMusicMan. Retrieved 18 June 2017.
  5. ^ "Robert Dempster and Sons". Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  6. ^ Dempster Elland: 100 Years The record of a Century of Progress. 1855 to 1955. Dempster & Sons.
  7. ^ "R. & J. Dempster". Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d Bloch, R Howard (2009). A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. Random House. ISBN 978-0307497017.
  9. ^ a b "Obituary". The Chemical Trade Journal and Chemical Engineer. 76: 643. 1925. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
  10. ^ a b Pitts, Mike (16 June 2010). "A tale of silver bowls". Bawdsey Radar and Sutton Hoo – Visit on Wednesday 19 August 2009. Felixstowe Society. Retrieved 13 June 2017.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ a b "PRETTY, Frank, 1878 – 1934". Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  12. ^ "Territorial Army". The London Gazette. 32774: 8614. 1922.
  13. ^ Frank Pretty's father, W.T. Pretty, had also risen by 1911 to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Suffolk Regiment, in which he raised the 6th (cyclist) Battalion. See Wickham Market, Suffolk: The Cyclist Battalion at bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0232mf7.
  14. ^ "The Dempster Challenge Cup". Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  15. ^ a b Katie Durose (19 May 2010). "Cup mystery solved". Winsford Guardian. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  16. ^ Katie Durose (5 May 2012). "Mystery of community award". Winsford Guardian. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  17. ^ Pitts, Mike (16 June 2010). "A tale of silver bowls". Mike Pitts – Digging deeper. wordpress.com. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  18. ^ a b c "Edith Pretty's gift of Saxon gold in the British Museum". Daily Express. 30 March 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  19. ^ The actual excavation was carried out under supervision of Basil Pendleton, assisted by J.H. Cooke; see Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological, and Historic Society, 1913, vol. XIX, pp. 236, 243.
  20. ^ a b "The Royal Burial Mounds at Sutton Hoo". National Trust, UK. Retrieved 13 June 2017.
  21. ^ Weaver, Michael (1999). "In the beginning..." (PDF). Saxon – The Newsletter of the Sutton Hoo Society. 30: 1–2. Retrieved 14 June 2017.
  22. ^ "Obituary: Mr Vincent Burrough Redstone" (PDF). Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archæology and Natural History. XXIV.1: 61. 1946. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
  23. ^ "New play casts Edith Pretty as the visionary who 'saw the past' at Sutton Hoo". East Anglian Daily Times. 24 July 2019. Retrieved 20 June 2020.
  24. ^ "There's gold in them thar Suffolk fields". The Guardian. 13 May 2007. Retrieved 20 June 2020.
  25. ^ "Edith May Dempster, Mrs Frank Pretty (1883–1942)". National Trust Collections. Retrieved 13 June 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Durrant, Chris (2004). Basil Brown: Astronomer, Archaeologist, Enigma. The National Trust.
  • Hopkirk, Mary (1975). "Edith May Pretty". In Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (ed.). The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Volume 1: Excavations, Background, the Ship, Dating and Inventory. London: British Museum Publications. pp. xxxvi–xxxviii. ISBN 0-7141-1334-4.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Skelcher, Mary; Durrant, Chris (2006). Edith Pretty: From Socialite to Sutton Hoo. Leiston Press. ISBN 978-0955472503.