Sutton Village Hall

14th August 1939

It was now time for the Coroner to make the acquaintance of the local star of the excavation. “Mr. Brown, I believe you describe yourself as an Archaeological Foreman, and you live at Rickinghall, near Diss.”

Basil related how he had begun his work for Mrs Pretty at Sutton Hoo in 1938 by excavating a couple of the smaller mounds, which had convinced him that he was looking on the remains of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. Today it is all so obvious but then everything was unknown and only his extraordinary skill and determination that would ensure the finds would survive to be interpreted and enjoyed.

He explained how when he returned to the site in May 1939 he had the assistance of Mrs Pretty’s workmen William Spooner and John Jacobs. Once the prospect of a boat became apparent the wheels of the academic world started to turn and before long Ipswich Museum was heavily involved and through them the experts at the British Museum. Eventually, a team of specialists would be brought to Sutton Hoo and inevitably Basil saw control pass to others.

He told the Coroner: “By July 8th when Mr. Phillips arrived, I had carried out a good deal of excavating work – sufficient to indicate a ship had been buried there.”  It must have upset him, as he had developed a strong personal interest in the discovery and now saw it taken from him. It could have been worse, but Mrs Pretty appears to have insisted that he be retained. He no longer worked on the exciting elements of the burial chamber, but he continued to reveal the marvelous outline of “his” boat.

The final witness was Mr Guy Maynard the Curator and Secretary of the Ipswich Museum. If Basil Brown found the involvement of the British Museum team difficult to accept, Guy Maynard did too – and made his unhappiness all too evident. Meetings between himself and Phillips must have been very tense at times as they saw eye to eye on very few matters!

Maynard recalled the time when he made contact with the British Museum: “Mr Brown had reached the mid-ship portion of the vessel and had begun to find metal objects on the floor of it.”

As the full extent of the discovery became known Maynard can be forgiven for showing caution. He had reason to suspect the boat contained “an unrifled deposit”, making it a national treasure, requiring a perfect excavation technique. Such was his anxiety that he ordered Basil Brown to halt new work, and simply cover up the exposed areas. Fortunately, Basil chose to ignore this instruction and quietly carried on in the trench. It is only fair to add Maynard’s closing comment to the Inquest: “I would like to add at this point that Mr. Brown’s outstanding work on the excavations has earned him tributes from many people both as private individuals and in their official capacities.”

Now it was time for the Coroner to address the Jury. He began by telling them not to be influenced by gossip which assumed that if they decided in favour of Treasure Trove then the Crown would simply become that much richer! Should this be their verdict the full market price would be paid for all objects retained, and the rest would be returned to the finder. “It is impossible for the jury to oust the right of the Crown to treasure trove if indeed it is a treasure trove.” If the jury found it was not a treasure trove, and the Crown disagreed with their findings it could take steps to reverse the decision in the High Court. (So there!)

The Coroner now got to the heart of the matter. “If you are to reach a verdict of treasure trove you will need to believe the articles were hidden or concealed 1300 years ago by the owner, with the intention at some convenient time of resuming possession. To my mind, the evidence we have heard today conclusively indicates no such presumption. If you are of the same opinion your duty will be to return a verdict that the articles are not treasure trove.”

There was another point of law to be clarified. You might think Basil Brown is about to be named the owner of the Sutton Hoo treasure, but a previous case had decided: “The owner of the soil had a better case than the workman who actually found them.”

Finally, the Jury was asked to deliver their verdict. On all five points, they pronounced that the articles found at Sutton Hoo were not treasure trove. Mrs Pretty had just become one of the richest women in England!

A week later there was a short announcement in the EADT for August 23rd:

“The Trustees of the British Museum announce that Mrs EM Pretty has given to the British Museum all the antiquities, comprising articles in gold, gems, and enamel, silver, bronze, ironstone, wood, leather and textile fabrics, which were found recently in the burial ship of an Anglo-Saxon king on her estate at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.”

At the time it was the largest single donation by an individual to the nation. Sadly, she would never see the treasure in display cases at the British Museum as she died in 1942.

[The law with regard to buried treasure has been changed and no longer applies as it did in 1939.]

Mark Mitchels