Saturday, 8 November 2014

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:

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


  1. I’m really amazed with your posting skills as well as with the layout on your blog site. Is this a paid style or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the pleasant quality writing, it is rare to see a great site such as this one these days.I recently came to know about, their House Removals Wimbledon are very effective.
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  2. Luego de mirar la peli en nexflix me interesó la historia. Es realmente asombrosa. Saludos desde argentina.

    1. What a rare treat The Dig is. I watched the movie as well on Netflix. What a Wonderful Surprise Movie It was. Very Good Movie I must add.
      I than Googled it. What Is Amazing is the history That I found On The Dig. I applaud the writers on the movie.
      Must see Movie.
      Hello From Iowa,United States

  3. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. Just finished watching the Dig and really enjoyed it. What a truly remarkable woman Edith was!

  4. Thank you for this account. Just watched The Dig and appreciate this incredible story of your family

  5. Ellen van den Heiligenberg the Netherlands also just watched the dig and was really amassed by this blog, so much of the background story and pictures. I love it! Thnak you so much.

  6. I have one more question: who took care of her son?

  7. I would like to know what Robert Pretty chose as an occupation. Did he end up in any of the sciences? I just finished watching 'The Dig', also and found the people and the story fascinating. Thank you.

    1. Eu também tenho curiosidade pela vidafo filho de Edith.

  8. E una bella sensazione potere vedere queste foto-documenti, pezzi di storia che ci fanno conoscere le personalità e l'impeto di questi personaggi !

  9. En efecto, desconocía de tan importante hallazgo y sus descubridores Edith May Pretty y el arqueólogo Basil Brown.
    Una Historia impresionante e inspiradora, muchas gracias por enriquecer la historia.

  10. I have the original photograph of my grandfather Leonard Ernest Pretty (second left of your picture at the Goldrood)

  11. I have only recently discovered my true ancestry and that Edith Pretty was my aunt!!
    What an amazing discovery and what a fabulous film!!

  12. Thanks for taking the time to share Edith's and your family's story. She sounds like an incredible woman!! It's no surprise that she lived such an interesting life and contributed to the world in such a generous manner. Very inspiring story.

  13. Netflix "The Dig" brought me here. Thank you for your site.

  14. I have always loved the Sutton Hoo treasures, and to find out the history behind it, is fascinating.

  15. Watched the Netflix movie and then took to the world wide web to learn the historical details. Well done. The movie gives new life to this event.

  16. I am a history buff and this page is just what I love. I saw the video at youtube and this is how I found this page. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing your family history!

  17. What an incredible piece of history. Edith Pretty sounds like an amazing woman and Mr. Brown a wonderful human. I am saddened that he would not have seen his name at the British Museum in relation to the excavation as the BM representative did not follow thru on the promise to Mrs. Pretty (if she did ask to have Mr. Brown's name acknowledged in the find). But what a beautiful story. Thank you for all the photos and stories above. Such an interesting and enlightened approach to a historical find during a worrisome time in history.

  18. Thank you for sharing this information. My husband and I just finished watching the Dig which we found amazing.

  19. What a very special lady Edith was. Wonderful.

  20. What wonderful family history. e have just watched The Dig this evening. My 11 year old son wondered if Edith's son Robert ever became a pilot or what his job was?

  21. Я тоже про мальчика хочу узнать

  22. I've actually been in Vale Royal, about 14 years ago. It was a golf club, And I believe still is. Thank you so much for your excellent story. Like many others here, I watched The Dig and while refreshing my former reading of the events I came across your wonderful historical insight. Thanks again.

  23. I live in Richmond, Surrey and would be interested to know why Edith died in Richmond Hospital when it seems that she was still living at Sutton Hoo. Was she perhaps visiting relatives or friends?

  24. Watched The Dig and was fascinated and resolved to visit Sutton Hoo as soon as Lockdown is over. So feel thrilled to find that Edith was born in our home town of Elland.

  25. I took a portion of this afternoon off from the "aways tasks" and watched the Dig. When it is movie based on real events I always look to discover the true events. Your accounting is not at all disappointing and it was good to discover Mrs. Pretty did not die in her 30's and had a full couple of decades in her life. The Dig would have been very interesting to have her age appropriate as the real Mrs. Pretty for it would bring more truth to the interpersonal dynamics in the film. Particularly regarding the actual dig.

  26. I would be interested in learning more about Edith Pretty's son Robert and his three children; that is, whatever you can tell us without violating their privacy, perhaps including their education and occupations?

  27. I'm looking for information about son Robert and what his profession was. He had so many interests in the movie.

  28. Acabo de ver La excavación* realmente conmovedor ver cómo esas piezas fascinantes del pasado se unen con nosotros a través de esos seres apasionados por la historia, excavadores arqueologos con academia o sin, sólo nos acercan y nos hacen sentir no sólo espectadores. Edith y Brown seguramente no imaginaron que su historia fuera vista por medio de un teléfono, que fuera hallada con gran velocidad por estos medios digitales en pleno siglo XXI. Gracias a todas esas almas que excavan y hallan para el mundo.

  29. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you in giving an insight to your family history. I have bought the book "The Dig". I have missed the series and hope it is being made as a film.

  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. Just saw THE DIG, and loved all the info you published. Wow, also a wonderfull lesson of British history. Regards from Argentina and waiting to go to the British Museum ASAP.