Biography of Edith May Pretty

by Mary Hopkirk

Edith May Pretty was born ion 1 August 1883, at Elland, Yorkshire, where her grandfather had founded an engineering firm. She was the second child of Robert and Elizabeth Demster, who took her in infancy to Manchester, where, with his brother, her father founded another engineering works. She was brought up a Norwood. Broughton Park, and was educated at Roedean School, Brighton and in France.

Her father was a great believer in the educational value of foreign travel, and, as a child, she and her sister Elizabeth accompanied their parents to the Continent each year. Later, Edith travelled widely all over the world, In Egypt, she saw something of the excavations taking place in the Nile Valley early in the century, Professor Sayce, the Egyptologist, being the uncle of her lifelong friend, Florence Sayce, later Mrs Victor McQuade of Millbrook, New York.

In 1907 her parents moved to Vale Royal in Cheshire, which they rented from Lord Delamere; and soon after moving in, her father, who was intensely interested in archaeology, was given permission to excavate and expose the plan of the Cistercian Abbey church adjoining the house. While watching the work there, Edith acquired a further interest in archaeology and some understanding of excavation methods.

While living at Bale Royal she did much public and charitable work, both there and in Manchester. Immediately after the outbreak to war in 1914 she became Quartermaster of the local Red Cross military hospital and at the some time was running a house as a home for a number of Belgian refugees. In 1917 she served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois and Le Bourget. She was one of the first women magistrates.

Her life was by no means devoted entirely to public work, however. A keen horsewoman, she hunted regularly with the Cheshire Hunt. She was a very early woman driver, and enthusiastic theatre-goer, loved dancing and continued to travel extensively. Always ready to try anything new, and always ready to go anywhere at short notice, at the age of forty she went pony trekking with two nieces to Iceland and , although accustomed to living in great comfort. was quite unshaken by long days in the saddle on very rough ponies and by the extremely primitive conditions which prevailed there at that time.

Her mother died at Vale Royal in 1919, and she devoted the next six years to her father. After his death in 1925 when on a visit to Cape Town, she continued to live at Vale Royal until her marriage in 1926 to Colonel Frank Pretty, a very old friend, who during the war had served in , and later commanded, the 4th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.

In that year she bought Sutton Hoo. The 400 acre estate comprised a modern house build on a hilltop over looking the Deben, together with the original , much older farmhouse known as Little Sutton, lying in a more sheltered situation below it. A considerable proportion of the property consisted of sandy, windy heathland, which at that time was the habitat of millions of rabbits. On the edge of this barren waste stood a group of burial mounds, none of which, so far as was known, had been opened.

Colonel and Mrs Pretty often speculated as to their contents, and from time to time contemplated investigating; but, owing to her above- average knowledge of archaeology, she was aware that this must be done scientifically and under skilled supervision, and refused to allow optimistic amateurs to try their hand. After moving to Suffolk she soon became involved in social and charitable work as she had been in Cheshire, and this , and the birth of her son, Robert, in 1930, diverted her attention from archaeological matters.

After her husband's death in 1934 she relinquished many of her outside interests owing to her own ill health, and at the suggestion of friends and relatives decided in 1938 to begin an investigation of the burial mounds.An aged man living on the estate (*whose folk memory had proved strikingly accurate in other respects) assured her that a fabulous treasure lay under the tumuli; and her nephew, a dowser, had repeatedly diagnosed the presence of gold there, indicating the largest barrow as the sole source of radiation.After being taken from the site under the watchful eye of the local constabulary (for whose presence Edith Pretty herself paid) the bulk of the treasure, being too large to go into the safe, spent its first night above ground for 1 300 years under her bed.

Owing to the outbreak of war, although there was a good deal of notice in the world press, the find did not receive as wide attention as might otherwise have been the case. And this was fortunate, for within a few months the heathland, taken over by the military, became a tank training ground. it was considered unwise to draw the attention of the military to the site by asking for it to be put out of bounds. lest some enterprising fortune hunter should decide to excavate the remaining unexcavated mounds. The tumuli were therefore purposely left unmarked and unprotected throughout the war tears, at the mercy of tanks and rabbits. The treasure from the ship-mound lay snugly in the Aldwych Tube.

After the Coroner's inquest Edith Pretty in 1939 gave it to the nation - with the stipulation that replicas should as far as possible be provided for display in Ipswich, so that Suffolk people should always be able to see locally authentic representations of this rich treasure of one of their first rulers.

Unhappily she did not live to see the hoard taken from its wartime hideout, restored to something of its former nature and beauty and exhibited in its place of honour in the British Museum. She died at the end of 1942, and her ashes lie beside her husband in Sutton churchyard.

She was extremely kind and generous, many of her considerable benefactions, both to causes and individuals, remaining unknown in her lifetime, Among other things she gave the screen to the Regimental Capel in Bury St Edmunds Cathedral in memory of her husband and those who served with him. Of an unassuming and retiring disposition, she lived in great seclusion towards the end of her life. Even had the war not intervened, she would certainly have shunned all publicity connected with the Sutton Hoo treasure.

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