PUBLISHED: 19:53 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 23:25 29 July 2019
Edith Pretty inherited a fortune when her father died, and later bought a Suffolk estate near Woodbridge
She was the former Roedean schoolgirl who helped shine a light on the Dark Ages and showed us the “first page of English history” – illuminated by silver and gold. Oddly enough, though – considering her own place in history – Edith Pretty was for years an enigmatic figure few of us knew much about.
More than 12 years ago, Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant published a book telling Edith’s story. It was a project they embarked upon after realising just how little appeared to be known about this very private woman. As Chris put it, she was “off the edge of the page”.
Chris was a retired engineer who did some work for the National Trust, which cares for Sutton Hoo. Mary was then its visitor services manager.
As the three of us sat just before Christmas 2006 in what used to be Frank Pretty’s office, Mary explained that at one point it was “amazing how many of the visitors asked about Edith: what was she like and where she lived. We didn’t know much about her at all”.
Chris added: “Without a bit of digging, we didn’t even know simple things, like her maiden name.”
Gradually, they found the jigsaw pieces and put them together, and the remarkable story was told in Edith Pretty − From Socialite to Sutton Hoo.
Comfortable but caring
Edith May Dempster was born on August 1, 1883. Father Robert was an affluent industrialist in northern England whose own father had lifted himself out of poverty and become a factory owner.
Young Edith had a gilded life: family holidays to Egypt, Greece, Austria and other places; dancing and more. She went to school at Roedean in Sussex, where she was given the nickname Dempy.
The year of 1901 was memorable. First came an extended stay in Paris, honing her language skills. Later, a world tour with her mother and father. Christmas Day saw them at the Taj Mahal. Edith’s 19th birthday was enjoyed on a train to Salt Lake City.
In 1907 the family leased a big house in Cheshire called Vale Royal; so big it needed 18 gardeners. There were so many clocks that it took an expert four hours a week to wind them up.
It doesn’t sound as if young Edith took her good fortune for granted, for she did much work for charity and other causes.
During the First World War, the 31-year-old became quartermaster of the Red Cross military hospital at Winsford in Cheshire. In 1917 she served with the Red Cross in France.
While in France, Edith corresponded with Frank Pretty, whose family owned the William Pretty and Sons corset-making firm in Ipswich. Frank, brother of one of Edith’s school friends, had proposed on her 18th birthday and every year since – never successfully.
After the death of her mother in 1919, Edith devoted the next six years to her father, caring for his needs.
When Robert died in 1925, his estate was worth more than £500,000 (which, according to one inflation calculator, equates to about £30million today). It left Edith and her sister very wealthy.
Edith agreed to marry the patient Frank. They wed in Cheshire in 1926, in a high-society “do” with 200 guests. She was 42, her husband 47.
Edith ended the lease on the Cheshire estate. After a short spell in Ipswich, she bought 526-acre Sutton Hoo for £15,250.
It sounds a bit “Downton Abbey”. The Prettys belonged to the Essex and Suffolk Hunt and Edith was a magistrate in Woodbridge. She dispatched gifts to ill folk in nearby Sutton and threw parties for estate staff to welcome in the new year.
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Pregnancy… and tragedy
Edith was 46 when she found she was having a baby. Robert was born in 1930, but it appears the pregnancy put a strain on her health.
Then, in the summer of 1934, Frank became ill. Doctors said it was stomach cancer, and convinced Edith it was best he didn’t know. She kept the secret – something that must have been a great trial.
Frank died just after Christmas, on his 56th birthday. The Prettys had been husband and wife for less than nine years.
In 1937, Edith decided to commission an investigation of the strange earth mounds that lay about 500 yards from Sutton Hoo House. There were tales about spirits, too…
One theory about why Edith decided to have the mounds excavated is that a friend claimed to have seen a ghost on one of them.
Whatever the truth, in 1939 Basil Brown’s excavation of the biggest mound found an Anglo-Saxon ship burial “of heroic proportions”. The treasures also found were ruled to be Edith’s, and she gave them to the British Museum – and thus to the country.
The spiritualism link
When I went to Sutton Hoo to talk to the two authors, Mary showed me the small private chapel that led from Frank’s office. There used to be candles and a crucifix in the window. It was a space where the widow could “talk” to the husband she’d lost.
Edith was involved with spiritualism (when the living and the dead could communicate, allegedly) though Mary said there was always a Christian foundation to it.
It seemed to have its roots in her sister coming to Suffolk when Frank was ailing. Faith-healing might help, Elizabeth counselled. The book explained that spiritualist William Parish, based in London, offered some help and Frank’s condition was said to have improved for a while.
Edith established a strong friendship with Parish and his wife, and supplied financial muscle to help him set up a healing house in the Richmond upon Thames area.
Before too long, Edith was gone. She died suddenly of a blood clot on the brain – in Richmond Hospital, a week or so before Christmas 1942. She was not even 60.
Her estate was worth almost £400,000. Most passed in trust to Robert, who after school at Eton went into farming. The father of three died of cancer in 1988. At 57, he wasn’t even as old as his mother when she died.
Letter from Winston
The War Office used Sutton Hoo until 1946, for training. A few years after that, the estate was sold.
Chris and Mary reckoned Edith was an “extraordinarily generous and strong-minded, yet self-effacing”, woman.
Quite late in their fact-gathering campaign they’d been handed a gold-mine by Edith’s grandson David: a tin trunk of letters and other documents that had belonged to her.
One of the first things Mary pulled out was a letter from the secretary of Winston Churchill. Essentially, Edith was being offered a CBE to recognise her gift to the nation of the Sutton Hoo treasures.
But the landowner turned it down. Sister Elizabeth called her “a goose” for doing so!
* In 2006, the face of Edith Pretty looked down at Sutton Hoo. An exhibition ran there to complement Mary and Chris’s book, and its centrepiece was a restored portrait of Edith.
It had been painted by Dutch artist Cor Visser when she was 56. The portrait, which had been stored in a garage for about three decades, was given to the National Trust by David Pretty.