Women of Discovery

Tranmer House at Sutton Hoo, the home of Mrs Edith Pretty

The modern-day story of Sutton Hoo begins at Tranmer House – an Edwardian building that stands on a spur of land (a ‘hoo’) overlooking the River Deben near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

In 1926, Edith Pretty bought Tranmer House (then known as Sutton Hoo House) and the surrounding estate as her first married home with her husband Frank.

Frank and Edith had known each other for many years but married late in life when Frank was 47 and Edith 42. Four years later, then aged 47, Edith gave birth to their only son, Robert, in 1930.

Unfortunately, Frank died a few years later, on his 56th birthday in 1934. He left behind Edith and their then four year old son.

Edith became a keen spiritualist - where it is believed that the dead and the living can communicate with one another - a popular belief at the time. She made regular trips to London to see a medium and got to know like-minded people closer to home.

The mounds seem to have long interested Edith. One theory as to why she had the mounds investigated is that in the late 1930s, one of her friends was said to have looked out from the house and claimed to see a ghostly vision on one of the burial mounds that lay on her estate.

Sunrise over the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo
Sunrise over the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo
Sunrise over the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo

Edith, however, had travelled extensively and had seen excavations of the Nile Valley whilst out in Egypt. Her father, Robert Dempster, was a keen amateur archaeologist and had himself revealed a Cistercian abbey in the grounds of their family home at Vale Royal.

Edith must have been intrigued by the strange mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo. She may have drawn on her early experiences with archaeology and recognised the need to have the mounds expertly excavated. 

Keen to know if anything lay beneath the mounds, Edith spoke to local historian, Mr Redstone at Woodbridge Flower Show in 1937. He got in touch with the Curator of Ipswich Museum, Mr Maynard, who recommended local archaeologist Basil Brown. 

Basil started work in June 1938. He was assisted by Sutton Hoo estate labourers, Ben Fuller and Tom Sawyer during the day and the under-gardener’s son, Leslie Buckle in the evening. They excavated three of the mounds - which he had called tumuli A, D and E - discovering the remains of a ship burial in one, but all three had otherwise been completely robbed of everything else. We now know that ship burial as Mound Two.

The following spring, Basil, this time assisted by William Spooner the gamekeeper and gardener John Jacobs, started excavating again – this time, on the biggest mound in the field, now known as Mound One. A few weeks later, they found iron rivets from the hull of a 27 metre long Anglo-Saxon ship, becoming the second of only three known Anglo-Saxon ship burials in England, with the third located just down the road at Snape.

Peggy Piggott extracting the silver dishes in the burial chamber
Peggy Piggott extracting the silver dishes in the burial chamber
Peggy Piggott extracting the silver dishes in the burial chamber

At that stage, expert Charles Phillips from Selwyn College at Cambridge University took over. Archaeologist Peggy Piggott (later know as Peggy Guido) was called back from her holiday along with her husband Stuart to excavate the burial chamber. Peggy was to be the first to find gold.

Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, two amateur photographers arrived after the burial chamber had been excavated. They carefully documented the impression of the ship left behind in the acid soil of Sutton Hoo; Lack and Wagstaff’s photos make up the majority of the photographic collection of the excavation, truly capturing a moment in time. 

Photo Albums from the Lack and Wagstaff Collection

Historic image digitisation at Sutton Hoo

Find out more about the recent digitisation work carried out on archive images taken at the time of the excavation of the Great Ship Burial by Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, and how you can explore them today. These images, captured in 1939, helped record this fascinating moment of discovery.