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Digging up the past at Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo

PUBLISHED: 14:16 14 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 20 February 2013

Edith’s portrait, donated by her family, hangs above the fireplace in the drawing room

Edith’s portrait, donated by her family, hangs above the fireplace in the drawing room

Paul Barnes looks back at the fascinating history of Sutton Hoo's Tranmer House and how it has been brought back to life for visitors to enjoy

Paul Barnes looks back at the fascinating history of Sutton Hoos Tranmer House and how it has been brought back to life for visitors to enjoy

Tranmer House crowns the rising ground above the River Deben, overlooking the town of Woodbridge. The situation is splendid, which is rather more than can be said for the house itself, built in 1910 by local contractor John Chadwick Lomax to the design of Ipswich architect John Corder. It may be characterful, but its not particularly handsome.
Offer this opinion to Elizabeth Rohde, the National Trusts visitor services manager, and her response is mildly indignant. It depends what your taste is, she says, a lot of people love the way this house looks. And she is one of them, but she is a little biased. It was her idea to open the house to the public, for the first time.
The Tranmers were the last family to own the place and in 1998 they made a gift of it to the National Trust, which was pleased to receive it, but not necessarily for any architectural merit. The real value of the gift stemmed from its connection to the Sutton Hoo story, the discovery just before World War II of the 90-foot Anglo-Saxon burial ship and its treasures, hidden from view for over 1,300 years.
The house was originally called Sutton Hoo, derived from the estate it dominates and in which the burial ship was found. In 1926, shortly after they were married, Edith Pretty and her husband Frank bought it. Their wedding followed a 14-year love affair during which Frank proposed to her on each of her birthdays, only to be declined because of her fathers opposition. After all, dad was the immensely wealthy owner of the engineering firm of R & J Dempster, whilst Frank was merely the son of a modestly prosperous Ipswich corset maker.
When her father died, she and her sister inherited about 500,000, the equivalent of 16 million at todays value, but the greatest legacy for Edith was the freedom to marry Frank.
The marriage was a happy one. In 1930, when Edith was 47 years old, a son was born. They named him Robert, after her father. But four years later, at the age of 56, Frank fell ill and died. Edith was desolate and would sit alone in the house, gazing for hours at the earthen burial mounds close by. By the summer of 1938, she had decided that the mounds should be investigated and asked the advice of the people at Ipswich Museum. They put her in touch with a local amateur archaeologist called Basil Brown.

When her father died, she and her sister inherited about 500,000, the equivalent of 16 million at todays value, but the greatest legacy for Edith was the freedom to marry Frank.

The first mounds he tackled revealed little, except that each of them had been dug out and robbed centuries earlier. During the winter the dig was suspended, but in the spring of 1939 he began work on the biggest of the mounds, uncovering the ship and its treasure.
But then heavyweight archaeologists from Cambridge and the British Museum turned up with their trowels and tried to elbow Brown aside. But Edith was fantastic, says Elizabeth. She said effectively, If Basil doesnt stay, you cant dig here any more. And it was her land so they had to play ball.
The dig yielded gold and silver jewellery, bits of a helmet and shield, a sceptre and a large silver dish. The house safe was too small to keep it all in and so, for one night, Edith slept with the remainder under her bed. An inquest held in the parish hall concluded that the whole lot was treasure trove, and the lawful owner was Edith Pretty. She decided to donate the whole lot to the British Museum.
A grateful nations offer to make her a Dame of the British Empire was graciously declined. Thats my favourite thing about Edith, says Elizabeth, she was so humble.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939 the dig had to stop. A primitive covering was placed over the excavation but it proved ineffective against the needs of the military. The grounds and the mounds were requisitioned as a training area for tank crews, and Nissen huts were built as accommodation for land girls.
In the house the teak-floored drawing room became a recreation centre. Holes can still be seen in the mahogany wall panelling, exactly where the dartboard was hung, and graffiti incised into the stonework of the fireplace confirm the odd wartime passion.
Until spring this year the house had been used by the Trust only as an educational and conference centre, but now its been returned as nearly as possible to its pre-war state, as it might have been when Edith Pretty lived there, with the dig on her doorstep.
Only two items of the original furniture remain, a sideboard and a charming clock, given as a wedding present. The rest has been imported from nooks and corners of the National Trust, much of it the sort of hefty reproduction stuff popular in the twenties and thirties, a faithful reflection of Edith Prettys own taste, a fact confirmed by her grandchildren.
There are no ropes round anything, or signs saying Dont touch. Visitors are encouraged to sit at the table in the window, or lounge in the easy chairs, leafing through magazines published at the time of the dig. Why Hitler will fall says a hopeful headline of June 20, 1939.
Elizabeth Rohdes involvement in Tranmer House could hardly be closer: she lives upstairs.
It took me a long time to get used to all the creaks and groans at night, she says, and the wind really whips around! Its Elizabeths home, but its Ediths house, and its Ediths portrait that gazes serenely down upon the drawing room. Would it be too fanciful to wonder if her shade floats about the quiet rooms? After all, she believed in life beyond the grave and attended a few sances in her time.
I havent had anything malevolent, says Elizabeth. I would like to think that shes happy, and that she would approve of everyone being a part of her story.


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