Saturday, 8 November 2014

MRS PRETTY and SUTTON HOO
A little about the lady who gave the nation the greatest Saxon treasure trove ever found


Edith as a Bridesmaid at my Great Grandparents' Wedding

                            The emblem of the Dempster family firm


Edith May Pretty was my Great Grandmother's cousin and an important lady in our family. She was known by my Grandmother as 'Aunt Edith' and was my Great Grandmother's favourite cousin. As she did not have her own family till late in life, my Grandmother, her sister and cousins meant a great deal to Edith. She was always a kind, encouraging and welcoming figure in their lives. My Grandmother was 'Flower Girl' at Edith's wedding to Colonel Frank Pretty at Vale Royal in  1926 and Great Aunt Barbara was one of her bridesmaids. Their two cousins, Mary and Anne Perkins (daughters of Edith's sister Elizabeth) were the other two bridesmaids.

Edith was a classic Edwardian society lady; she was well-educated, articulate, public spirited and kind. Her family had reaped the rewards of the Industrial Revolution and were able to bring her and her sister up in a grand way. Edith would later find and bequeath unimaginable treasures to the Nation, which were dug up at her home, Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk.

Edith with, on her left, my Great Great Grandfather (her Uncle) John Dempster and her first cousin, his son, Charles Dempster. Taken at Methven Castle, her Aunt and Uncle's Perthshire home.


Edith was born in 1883 at Elland in a house close to her family's engineering business. Her Grandfather, Robert Dempster, had set up the business in 1855 and was, by 1881, employing one hundred and thirty eight men and sixteen boys. He was, with his new found wealth, able to quench his thirst for travel and took with him his family, accompanied often by small armies of guards to protect them in these far flung places. Edith's Grandfather had left his native Cupar with little more than his intellect and youthful energy to enquire about a job in Dundee. The young man reached the works in Dundee just as it was to close. The manager asked him to return in the morning. Robert Dempster waited by the light of a gas lamp post for the whole night on the pavement. The manager returned in the morning with a job offer for the hungry young Scot. Later Robert would use the gas lamp post as part of his own emblem for his works. Robert Dempster was one of the earliest members of the British Association of Gas Managers and was present at the first General Meeting of the Association at Manchester in 1864.

By the time Edith was seven her Grandfather's original one acre site had grown to more than twelve. In the late 1890's Robert moved from Elland to Eden Hall at Penmaenmawr, where he created a magnificent garden and studied astronomy, using a large telescope in his sitting room for observations. Edith and her sister and cousins often visited their Grandfather there. 


Dunnichen House, Angus - seat of the principal branch of the Dempster family


The Dempster family were originally from Brechin, where one was a Burgess in the Seventeenth century and another Secretary to Queen Mary of Modena. The Dempster family were also related to the Earls of Panmure and the principal family estate was Dunnichen. Robert's direct forbears were far less glossy - his Great Grandfather had married Catherine Hodge at Brechin in 1769, then his son, Robert, married Elizabeth Finlay in Cupar in 1796.

Robert Dempster, Edith's Grandfather, as a young man

Robert Dempster's humble childhood home in Cupar



 Robert's father had married Sarah Laurence in Cupar, where he worked as a Slater. When Edith's Grandfather, Robert, was just two years old in 1830, his Father was apprehended for the murder of a Mr McDonald, a flax-dresser. A drunken brawl had ensued after McDonald hit Robert Dempster with a stick across the shoulders and the back. Robert struck McDonald on the head with his slate hammer and, soon after, handed himself in to the police. McDonald died. Robert was jailed and in 1831 he was received aboard the prison ship 'Justicia' and died on another, 'York', in 1839 bound for Bermuda. A great time of hardship ensued for Mrs Dempster, but she brought her family up as best she could and Robert, her son, attended Cupar's famous Grammar School.

Edith's father was born in Dundee in 1853, where his father was Meter Inspector at Dundee Gasworks. Her Father, Robert, married Elizabeth Brunton, daughter of William Brunton of Bradford, who owned a successful building and joinery business which employed around twenty five people by 1851.

Edith's Grandfather, Robert Dempster's, new business and home at Rosemount, Elland in 1855

     Eden Hall, Edith's Grandfather Dempster's house in Penmaenmawr, Wales

Edith's first home was at Elland, next to the family business at the Rosemount Works. Here her Grandfather had built himself a villa and another for his children. From Elland Edith's parents moved to Broughton Park, Salford, former parkland now adorned with the mansions of the newly rich. Norwood became the family home. Edith's Aunt and Uncle, John and Mary Dempster (my Great Great Grandparents) lived nearby at Park Lea and my Great Grandparents, her cousins, close by at Letton Lodge. Like her sister, Elizabeth, Edith was educated at Roedean (formerly Wimbledon House) in Hove and then at finishing school in Paris.

The Dempster's business in 1900. Edith's Grandfather's house is on the left of the entrance and her first home is on the right


Edith's childhood home at Elland, which her Grandfather had built for her parents



The Dempster business, covering twenty-six acres and employing over one and a half thousand people in 1955

Travel was something in the veins of the Dempster family. Edith's Grandfather had travelled to Jerusalem and in 1880 took all his children and their spouses to Switzerland, via Paris on board a boat down the Rhine and home through Holland and Belgium. Each year Edith's parents would take her and her sister to the continent. Edith's father and Uncle would often travel together with their families. On one particular trip Edith and her cousin, Mabel (my Great Grandmother) were in Palermo and Messina, accompanied by Edith's great friend, Florence (Flossy) Sayce. Floss' uncle was the famous Egyptologist Professor Archibald Sayce. Edith was never far from excavations throughout her life!

Edith Pretty, Mabel Heywood (my Great Grandmother) and Florence (Floss) Sayce at Palermo

A close up


The Pyramid of Sakkara

Earthquake ruins at Messina

The ladies at an hotel

Edith also raced twice on my Great Great Grandfather's yacht, Vol-au-Vent, in the Kaiser Cup yacht race, which John Dempster won in 1903. Edith, probably due to her frequent jaunts abroad, had very good sea legs and did not succumb to sea sickness, unlike many of the other society girls taking park, some of which 'turned green'. Edith, with her Aunt and Uncle, attended a reception hosted by the Kaiser at Heligoland.

John Dempster's yacht 'Vol-au-Vent'

Never one for showiness Edith also managed to cope with the ordeal of being presented at Court in 1908 - I think her expression says it all!

Edith (left) at Buckingham Palace in 1908

In 1907 Edith's parents left the comfort of their modern house, Norwood, in Broughton Park and moved in to the vast and ancient pile, Vale Royal. This is an enormous house, now a golf club, and must have been great fun to live in. Edith's parents employed about twenty five indoor servants and the gardens were looked after by eighteen gardeners. This was country house life on the grandest scale. Here the family would hunt, shoot, fish and become part of Cheshire society. Beside the house, covered by mountains of mossy grassland, were the foundations of the enormous Abbey church, which Robert Dempster, at huge personal expense, excavated in 1912. This must have been a fascinating time for the 29 year old Edith who, unmarried and unattached, spent much time at her Father's side. The Cistercian Abbey, which the excavations showed to be the largest in the country, had been around four hundred feet long and boasted a chevet with thirteen radiating chapels. The Great House itself had been built around the old cloister and refectory of the Abbey. 
All of this must have just served to increase Edith's fervour for exploration and history and the sheer scale of the undertaking must have made her happy to undertake Sutton Hoo later on. Her father's discovery of this very biggest of Cistercian abbeys was almost as notable as her later discoveries at Sutton Hoo.

Vale Royal, as excavated in 1912 by Robert Dempster

Robert Dempster at Vale Royal 

A plan of the first floor of Vale Royal when the Dempsters lived there

The south front of Vale Royal with Robert Dempster


Vale Royal - The Saloon when the Dempsters lived there

The Library

Edith's Mothers' Boudoir

Edith's sitting room, crammed with trinkets from around the World

The Tivoli gardens at Vale Royal created by Robert Dempster

The Dempster carriages and cars in the stable yard at Vale Royal

The west front of Vale Royal

Edith (left) served as a Red Cross nurse in both England and France during The Great War

Robert Dempster, with his huge wealth and standing, had hoped for his daughters to marry in to the aristocracy, so he was not happy with Edith's infatuation with Frank Pretty. Frank is reputed to have proposed to Edith on every birthday after her eighteenth. The Prettys were a well respected family in Suffolk and ran a successful corset-making business, which was one of the largest in the country. Evidently Robert was not sufficiently impressed and it was not until after his death in 1925 that Edith felt able to accept Frank's hand and marry at the age of 42. At her Father'a death she and her sister Elizabeth inherited all of his fortune (over five hundred thousand pounds, the equivalent of which would be enormous now) and Edith decided to buy the Sutton Hoo estate, near Woodbridge in Suffolk. 
In 1930, at the age of 47, Edith gave birth to a son, Robert Dempster Pretty.

Frank Pretty (second from the right) outside his parents' house, The Goldrood, Ipswich

The wedding of Edith Dempster to Major Frank Pretty at Vale Royal in 1926. My Grandmother, Diana Heywood, is the little girl on the left and her sister, Barbara, is on the far left.


Life at Sutton Hoo was bliss until 1934, when Frank died and Edith was plunged in to mourning. Over the next years Edith's own health began to deteriorate. 

In 1938 Edith decided to excavate some of the mounds around her house and she enlisted the help of Suffolk archaeologist Basil Brown. Despite much cynicism from 'experts' and assurances the mounds had already been excavated, Brown, in the summer of 1939, unearthed the remains of a colossal ship from the Seventh Century and other extraordinary objects from a Saxon Royal burial. It is now believed that this was the last resting place of King Raewald of East Anglia.

Shock waves from this momentous find reverberated around Britain and beyond. In September 1939 a treasure trove inquest determined Edith was the owner of the grave goods, which included huge quantities of gold and precious materials. The trove was priceless. 
Within days of this Edith made the greatest donation to the Nation made in a donor's lifetime and gave the treasure to the British Museum. Churchill wanted to make her a CBE, which she declined. Magpie Queen Mary had wished to make a visit to see the trove which, mercilessly for the trove, she did not due to the War. 

Edith died in Richmond in 1942. She had been a socialite, a great traveller, philanthropist, one of the first female magistrates, and she found and gave to us all the greatest Saxon trove discovered on these shores. 

Hollywood star Cate Blanchett is in talks to play Mrs Pretty in the upcoming movie 'The Dig'...


watch this space!

Edith Pretty arrives at my Grandparent's wedding with her cousin Mabel, my Great Grandmother, at Church Eaton in 1939 at the time of the momentous find at Sutton Hoo










With thanks to Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant and the late Mary Hopkirk, Edith's niece for some of the information images.


For more information on Sutton Hoo please go to: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/






The information and images in this blog are the property of Oliver Gerrish and other private parties. Please ask before using them, thank you.

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