Priceless bond that unearthed Britain’s ship of gold: Film reveals widow and archaeologist’s story


Edith Pretty is neither a household name nor considered a national treasure. But had it not been for her — a wealthy, idiosyncratic widow with a ferocious sense of civic duty and patriotic pride — Britain would have been denied one of its greatest national treasures.

A new Netflix film, The Dig, to be released later this month, tells the compelling story of how a lavish Anglo-Saxon ship buried in the grounds of Sutton Hoo, the Pretty family’s estate in South-East Suffolk, was unearthed just before the outbreak of World War II.

Or at least, the movie explains as much as can be squeezed into a little under two hours.

Edith is played by Carey Mulligan in an exquisite performance, while Ralph Fiennes is superb as working-class Basil Brown, an amateur astronomer and self-taught archaeologist.

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty in a new Netflix film, The Dig, which tells the compelling story of how a lavish Anglo-Saxon ship was unearthed just before the outbreak of World War II

It was Basil to whom Edith gave the precious job of excavating the strange low mounds of earth on her land that she was convinced were worth proper investigation.

The connection between Edith and Basil was made at the 1937 Woodbridge Flower Show, where she mentioned the mounds to a local historian, Vincent Redstone.

He put her in touch with the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Gus Maynard, who in turn suggested a quirky character, a former tenant farmer from the village of Rickinghall — not overly fond of authority but, in the words of a colleague, ‘extremely attached to his rather disreputable trilby hat’ and ‘somewhat moist and bubbling pipe’ — who might have the required expertise.

Basil duly cycled to Sutton Hoo, just as he cycled all over the county on his digs, to meet her. Edith said he could lodge with her chauffeur and offered him 30 shillings a week, for what was originally thought likely to be a fortnight-long project.

He then began the highly skilled, painstaking work which in due course, to their mutual astonishment, uncovered the 90ft skeleton of a ship, almost certainly buried to mark the death of an Anglo-Saxon king. Interred with it were many priceless, perfectly preserved gold and silver artefacts from the early 7th century, the products of breathtakingly deft artistry that even today, with precision tools and artificial lighting, cannot easily be matched. So much for the so-called Dark Ages.

In August 1939, a treasure trove inquest at Sutton Parish Hall determined that the astounding find — which would entirely revolutionise historians’ understanding of the Anglo-Saxons — belonged not to the Crown but to the landowner.

Nevertheless, Edith promptly donated the entire haul to the nation, and in 1951, having been stored in Aldwych Tube station during the war, it went on display in the British Museum — albeit with no credit, not a single namecheck, for Basil Brown.

Alas, Edith was no longer around to object. Basil was almost 90 when he died in 1977. But after suffering a blood clot on the brain, she had died in 1942, aged just 59.

Ralph Fiennes as working-class Basil Brown, an amateur astronomer and self-taught archaeologist, in The Dig, which is due to be released later this month

Ralph Fiennes as working-class Basil Brown, an amateur astronomer and self-taught archaeologist, in The Dig, which is due to be released later this month

Two years earlier, Winston Churchill had offered her a CBE in recognition of her extraordinary generosity. But she declined the honour — almost certainly on the basis, according to Laura Howarth, the archaeology manager at National Trust Sutton Hoo, that she had ‘merely been doing her duty’.

In a way, The Dig — based on the 2007 novel by John Preston — is not just about duty or even archaeology, but also about love. It was an unlikely and entirely platonic love but Edith and Basil, although separated by class and wealth, were kindred spirits. That comes across powerfully in the film, yet it only scratches the surface of Edith’s beguiling story.

She was born in 1883, the second daughter of a rich Manchester industrialist, Robert Dempster, whose own father, a penniless Scotsman, had parlayed a humble job in a gas-meter factory into a gas and engineering empire of his own.

Edith was sent to Wimbledon House School in Brighton, soon to be renamed Roedean — now one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in the country — where she became known as ‘Dempy’.

The nickname stuck. It was used by friends and even family for the rest of her life.

Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty. In a way, The Dig is not just about duty or even archaeology, but also about love, writes Brian Viner

Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty. In a way, The Dig is not just about duty or even archaeology, but also about love, writes Brian Viner

Happily for Edith, her father believed firmly that travel, especially to see great antiquities, broadened the mind. In 1900 the family visited Pompeii, Athens and Egypt, where Edith and her sister climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world.

It’s not hard to understand where her fascination with archaeological excavation came from, and to appreciate the serendipity that took her to Sutton Hoo.

A year later the Dempsters set off on an even more ambitious tour, this time to Egypt, India, Ceylon, China, Japan and the United States. In 1905 they toured South America.

But Edith didn’t need her family around her to pursue adventure. In June 1904 she had helped crew a racing yacht, Vol-Au-Vent, in a King’s Cup race from Dover to the German islands of Heligoland. King Edward VII and his nephew, the Kaiser, jointly presented the prizes.

In 1907 the Dempsters moved to a huge house in Cheshire, Vale Royal, seat of the aristocratic Cholmondeley family, from whom it was leased.

A short 2006 biography of Edith, by Mary Skelcher and Chris Durrant, records that they were attended there by a large retinue of servants and owned four chauffeur-driven cars, with a page-boy employed just to open the doors.

But Edith had an open-top car she preferred to drive herself. She also took a ‘flip’ in a biplane.

Duty calls: Edith Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo estate and who arranged a dig of the burial mounds, pictured standing on the veranda of Tranmer House, formerly Sutton Hoo House

Duty calls: Edith Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo estate and who arranged a dig of the burial mounds, pictured standing on the veranda of Tranmer House, formerly Sutton Hoo House

However, the fun-loving spirit of this lively socialite was always tempered by an acute sense of duty.

In 1913 she paid for a Mission Hall to be built in Manchester, near her father’s factory in the industrial area of Newton Heath (the original name of Manchester United).

When war broke out the following year, she quickly became quartermaster of the Red Cross military hospital in nearby Winsford, before insisting on leaving the safety of Cheshire to serve in France.

In 1922 she became one of England’s first women magistrates, and was even invited to stand for Parliament in the safe Conservative seat of Northwich.

She would have become only the third ever female MP but she refused, citing her responsibilities to her now-widowed father. That obligation was also why she stayed single, despite the persistence of the enraptured Frank Pretty, the brother of a Roedean friend, who was said to have proposed to her on her 18th birthday and every year thereafter.

But in 1925, Robert Dempster died and a year later Edith did marry Frank, by then a lieutenant-colonel in the Suffolk Regiment, whose family owned a long-established corset-making business in Ipswich.

The couple soon moved to the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate, with its 15-bedroom Edwardian house and mysterious earth mounds.

Edith and Frank bought the estate for £15,250, which didn’t make much of a dent in the fortune she had inherited from her father.

The famous Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon helmet highly decorated with warrior motifs

A gold buckle with an intricate snake design

Treasure trove: The famous Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon helmet highly decorated with warrior motifs (pictured left) and a gold buckle with an intricate snake design (right)

In Suffolk, true to her nature, Edith immersed herself in more good works. But at the age of 47, much to her amazement, came the happy distraction of pregnancy. In September 1930 she gave birth to a son, Robert Dempster Pretty.

Frank, who had waited 25 years to marry Edith and then become a first-time father at 52, tragically died of cancer just four years later.

It was Robert’s birth, so swiftly followed by Frank’s illness and death, and her own developing ill health, which appear to have pushed the mounds to the back of her mind.

By 1937, however, she was ready to find out more — and it is here that the film takes up her story.

‘We meet her quite close to the end of her life,’ Moira Buffini, who wrote the screenplay, tells the Mail. ‘I wish we could have illustrated more, for instance her complete and utter fascination with spiritualism.

‘She was very involved with it, as a lot of people were after the First World War. There had been so much loss and death and there was this huge upsurge in spiritualism, as if people who couldn’t believe they’d lost loved ones in that way were trying to contact them.

A delicate silver bowl found at the Sutton Hoo site. In August 1939, a treasure trove inquest determined that the astounding find belonged not to the Crown but to the landowner

A delicate silver bowl found at the Sutton Hoo site. In August 1939, a treasure trove inquest determined that the astounding find belonged not to the Crown but to the landowner

‘We wrote and shot a couple of scenes in which Edith goes to see a psychic lady in the village but they just didn’t fit into the finished film.

‘That digging down to disinter the dead, though, does fit in with her interest in spiritualism. Because of Frank’s death and with her own mortality in sight, she knew about the fragility of life.

‘She was asking really big questions. And of course it all happened in a world about to fall into the Second World War. None of the people in the story know what’s in front of them, which actually I think resonates with the (pandemic) situation now.’

Certainly, England in that summer of 1939 was in the grip of a terrible foreboding, with war looking more inevitable, and that intensified the need to press on with the dig.

The ship had been uncovered the summer before, but excavations restarted in May 1939. Increasingly, Basil was having to fight a class war, against Cambridge University archaeologists who had moved in on the project he’d begun and kept trying to relegate him to mundane work. But Edith would have none of it.

Then, on July 21, came the real eureka! moment. Peggy Piggott, a young archaeologist played in the film by Lily James, and the aunt of novelist John Preston, unearthed with her trowel a small gold and garnet pyramid.

Strikingly vibrant Anglo Saxon shoulder clasp covered in enamel with inlaid garnets and glass

Strikingly vibrant Anglo Saxon shoulder clasp covered in enamel with inlaid garnets and glass

It was the first exciting glimpse of bejewelled treasure. ‘Well done, my dear, many congratulations, what a wonderful discovery,’ said Edith, who’d been watching — as we know from photographs — from her Lloyd Loom chair on the edge of the excavation pit.

At any rate, that’s how Preston records her response in his lightly fictionalised account, perhaps informed by his late aunt’s recollections. Dozens and finally hundreds more dazzling objects appeared after that, a wondrous, staggering haul. And if they didn’t dazzle before they received a quick blast from Edith’s bellows, fetched from the house to blow away the sand, they did afterwards.

‘The scale and symmetry of the craftsmanship is incredible,’ says Laura Howarth. ‘There have been notable Anglo-Saxon finds since but nothing like this, a fully furnished, undisturbed ship burial. We know of only three Anglo-Saxon ship burials, two at Sutton Hoo and one near by at Snape. So it was a very localised practice.

‘Mrs Pretty wasn’t the first person to investigate — we know about graverobbers and antiquarians digging in the 16th and 19th centuries, and there are reports that in 1860 a lot of iron screw bolts were found.

‘But those attempts at excavations didn’t yield much. People gave up quite quickly. Mrs Pretty was the first person aware of the need to investigate properly, with the means to do so.’

In 1965, a BBC documentary called The Million-Pound Grave interviewed many of those who worked on the original dig, including Basil Brown. The contrast in accents between the broad Suffolk brogue and clipped received pronunciation, is striking.

Sadly, the most important voice is missing, although it seems entirely likely that, had Edith lived into old age, she would have downplayed her pivotal part in revealing what was described by newspapers at the time as England’s answer to the Valley of the Kings.

After all, she was that kind of woman. A national treasure.

The Dig is due for release on Netflix on January 29.

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