Basil Brown: Beyond Sutton Hoo – A Wartime Role

In this second article in a series of four by guest writer, Sarah Doig, we look at what Basil Brown did on the eve of the Second World War, immediately after the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure. In each blog, Sarah draws on Basil Brown’s notebooks and other papers, the majority of which are held by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service and Suffolk Archives.

My dear May

Hope you are alright in all this bother, of war being declared. I am today filling in the ship with Bracken etc and hope it will remain alright. Then if war does not last too long, it may come out alright for people to see. If not it must take its chance. I don’t know where I am at present. Mrs Pretty even now thinks the war will fizzle out in a short time, but while Hitler is alive anything may happen, and air raids are the danger. They are telling everyone in this village today to take gas masks with them when they go to work or anywhere. This is a worrying time. I may be home anytime or perhaps stay here a few days until I know what I am going to do as everybody’s plans are upset. Am sending Postal Order.

                                                                                                                           Best Love                                                                                                                                  Basil    

It is hard to imagine what an anti-climax it must have been for Basil Brown returning to his home in Rickinghall in September 1939. He had seen the Sutton Hoo magnificent treasure, found in the ship burial he had first uncovered, transported off to the British Museum. Basil wrote the letter above to his wife on the first day of the Second World War when he was facing an uncertain future, like many others across the nation.

photo of warrant card with basi's name and address.
Basil Brown’s Special Constable’s warrant card (reproduced by kind permission of National Trust, Sutton Hoo)

A year before Basil Brown’s first excavations for Mrs Pretty at Sutton Hoo, he had become a Special Constable. On returning home, Basil would have, no doubt, resumed this role, which was essentially unpaid apart from payment of out-of-pocket expenses. When the 1939 Register of the Population of England and Wales was compiled in late September, it was noted that Basil was also undertaking a role as an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Warden in Rickinghall from which he would have derived some income. In July 1940, Basil Brown obtained a full-time position as a counter hand at the NAAFI in Bury St Edmunds and when this was closed, he found employment as a live-in stoker at Culford School, cycling home to Rickinghall every two weeks. Basil took every opportunity whilst at Culford to dig in the grounds and at nearby West Stow, assisted by two boys from the school.

black and white photo of basil standing in a trench holding pottery fragments
Basil Brown excavating at West Stow

At this point, we can turn to a typescript account by Basil Brown himself about his early West Stow discoveries:

At West Stow in the spring of 1879, Roman pottery was discovered and described in the ‘Journal of the British Archaeological Association’ Vol XXXVII, and various other publications and though no scientific classification of pottery types seems to have been carried out we may be thankful that so much was done, for as will be seen its importance lies in its being one in the line of Roman potteries which extends along a belt of clay from Needham (near Harleston) to Icklingham. The site as usual for potteries is on rising ground or what is termed a slight ridge on West Stow Heath and there were certainly five kilns described but it is probable that systematic exploration would reveal others for the site appears to have further possibilities judging from what I have seen.

The kilns excavated are described as follows:

Kiln 1 was circular with an internal diameter of 3ft. 6ins with the stoke hole or furnace on the east. The walls were 3ft.6in in height of puddle clay intermixed with chalk pebbles. The thickness of the walls is given as 4 inches.

Kiln 2 was situated 8 feet from No. 1 and smaller with a diameter of 3 feet with furnace walls having an outward splay. Remains of the baking floor lay in the kiln consisting of perforated tiles 1 ft 1 in long by 8 inches wide and 3 inches thick each perforated with two circular holes 2 ½ inches in diameter, and the floor was supported by circular bricks 6 ½ inches in diameter and about 4 inches thick which were found in the kiln with the perforated tiles.

Kilns 3,4 and 5 were similar in construction.

The pottery found near kiln 1 is noted as fine ware ruddy in colour and remains of little bowls of light ware with machine made markings. While that from Kiln 2 was in greater variety with urns and jars in black ware ornamented with burnished lines. Fragments of a jar with broad bands dots in slip and also pieces of a ware showing a micaceous glaze. Skeleton burials were also discovered, and these burials were made with the bodies lying north and south.

handwritten notes and sketches of a flaggon
Basil’s West Stow excavation notes

From September 1942 onwards, Basil Brown served with the Royal Observer Corps which had an observation post in Botesdale. After the war, Basil resumed his paid, casual employment as an excavator for Ipswich Museum. In 1947, he returned to West Stow, re-excavating the kilns alongside Dr Stanley West and it was Basil Brown who noted early Anglo-Saxon artefacts and features in a sandpit on the site. However, further excavations on what turned out to be an early Anglo-Saxon settlement were not carried out until ten years later.

sketch showing soil profile of Saxon hut
Basil Brown’s notes on his West Stow dig includes this evidence of an Anglo-Saxon hut

Find out more about the West Stow excavations on the Suffolk Heritage Explorer.

Visit West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village and Museum to see Basil Brown’s original notebook, with sketches and notes from his excavations.

In Sarah’s next article, she will investigate Basil Brown’s passion for local history, as well as taking a closer look at one of Basil’s digs on his doorstep in Rickinghall.

Sarah Doig is an independent historical researcher, author and speaker ( She is also Chair of Quatrefoil (, a small group of local historians who research, write and publish on all aspects of the history of the Suffolk villages of Botesdale, Redgrave and Rickinghall. Sarah Doig is currently writing a book for Quatrefoil on Basil Brown which will hopefully be published in late 2021.

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