Sir Frederick & Sybil Stern: Horticulturalist and Captain

Sir Frederick and Sybil Stern of Highdown Tower, Goring by Sea, West Sussex were Anglo- Jewish aristocrats. Frederick’s parents came from Germany and established The Stern Brothers Merchant Bank in London. Sybil’s parents, Sir Arthur and Juliana Lucas, were artists and on her mother’s side, the Montefiore’s were merchants, activists and poets.

Frederick Stern is known as a renowned horticulturist and plant scientist. Author of several gardening books, as well as a supportive member of the British Jewry and for his participation to WW1 and WW2.

Frederick Stern was born on 18th April 1884 in Knightsbridge, London. His father was James Julius Stern. His mother was Lucie Biederman Stern and siblings were: Henry Julius, Elsa and Violet. Little is known about his early life other than that he studied at Eton College and attended university at Christ Church, Oxford. He acquired Highdown in 1909.Frederick Stern was born on 18th April 1884 in Knightsbridge, London.

His father was James Julius Stern. His mother was Lucy Biederman Stern and siblings were: Henry, Albert, Elsa and Violet. He studied at Eton College and attended university at Christ Church, Oxford. As a wealthy playboy his first passion was big game hunting in Africa and Americas. He rented Highdown in 1909 to train racehorses. After he married Sybil in 1919 they lived in London in Montagu Gardens and ‘commuted’ to Highdown for the Goodwood races and gardening.

Sir Frederick Stren. Image sourced from highdowngardens.co.uk

Highdown is an 8.5 acre plot of land that were neglected old chalk pits in the South Downs National Park, near Worthing. It is mostly chalk with little soil and poor conditions for plant growth except for small wild plants.

Horticulturalists at the time believed nothing of beauty would be able to grow on chalk. This began a mission for Frederick: to prove these critics wrong. Frederick co-sponsored plant hunters, along with other collectors such as the Rothschilds and Messels to China and the Himalayas. Plants in these areas thrive in alkaline chalk soil. Frederick had minor success in horse racing until 1914.

Frederick served first as a Second Lieutenant in the Westminster Dragoons at the start of World War One, seeing action in Gallipoli, Palestine and the Western Front. It was in Palestine now as a Captain that Stern was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 (and in 1918 the OBE and promoted to Major) for bravery in the Battle of Beersheba, now an important part of the story of the creation of Israel. During World War Two Frederick became a respected commander of the West Sussex Home Guard and was promoted to Colonel.

After this wartime experience, Stern campaigned to improve the provision of Rabbis on the front line, providing services for soldiers. The Jewish Chronicle on 9th May, 1919, reports that Stern spoke with young Jews serving in the army, all of whom complained about the lack of Rabbis. This provoked Frederick to act to raise the status of Rabbis, attracting more men to join the ministry and improve the education of British Jews. 

Source: The Jewish Chronicle, 9 May 1919.

After serving in the war, Frederick contemplated a career in politics. While pursuing this goal, he served as secretary to Prime Minister Lloyd George at the Paris Peace Conference 1919. 

Highdown Mill, Image courtesy of West Sussex Record Office

Most work on the gardens ensued after 1919 when Frederick married his fiancee Sybil in the same year. Sybil was the daughter of Arthur Lucas, a portrait painter.

Lady Stern painted by Lance Cattermole. Photo credit: Worthing Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lady-stern-70107
Mrs Frederick Stern mentioned in the Palace Papers 1920
courtesy of Jewish Chronicle

Sybil shared her husband’s love of horticulture, and the couple worked together to introduce new plants, create hybrids and cultivate novelties. 

Sybil Stern in 1930s with an Iris plant. Source: https://twitter.com/acmemuseum/status/1215931596701937665?s=12
Letter sent by Worthing WVS organiser Sybil Stern in the early months of the war
Courtesy of Wartime West Sussex 1939 – 1945 WOMEN AT WAR – VOLUNTEER WORK WVS call for volunteers 

Stern was knighted in 1956 for his services to horticulture. Frederick also made considerable contributions to the Jewish community. Each year from 1920s until his death, Frederick and Sybil invited boys and girls from the Oxford and St. George’s youth clubs in Stepney, to camp on their land during the summer months.

He served as a member of the councils of Jews’ College and the Anglo-Jewish Association. He was President of the Jewish School for Deaf Children in Wandsworth, and served as Honorable Secretary of the Jewish War Memorial Fund and its successor body, the Jewish Memorial Council.

A Jewish Chronicle article from 23 January 1925 reports Stern calling upon readers to ‘be proud that they were Jews, and proud of their glorious traditions and great history.’ Frederick encouraged British Jews to read their history and be proud of their British identity.

Source: The Jewish Chronicle, 23 Jan 1925

Sir Frederick received the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour (VMH) in 1940/41 and received his knighthood in 1956 for ‘Services to Horticulture’.

The Gardens were created during a period when many expeditions were going out to China and the Himalayan regions collecting rare and beautiful plants. Many of the original plants from their early collections can still be seen in the Gardens today, particularly plants collected by Reginald Farrer and Ernest Henry Wilson.

Together, Frederick and his wife Sybil created a famous garden which remains an exceptional site today. Many of the original plants from Frederick’s early collections are still in the gardens. A memorial plaque is in place in the garden to Sir Frederick and Lady Stern.

On the death of Sir Frederick in 1967, aged 83, Lady Stern carried out his wishes and left the Gardens to Worthing Borough Council for the enjoyment of local people and visitors. 

You can watch a 38 minute film about the couple and their home here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-xB1Nnc9Lc#action=share

Image source wikipedia.org

References:

See Highdown Visitor Centre panels by Hamish MacGillivray, 2021.

http://www.highdowngardens.co.uk/about/history-of-highdown/
http://www.worthingheritagealliance.org.uk/WHT_Trail12_HGD.pdf

The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History edited by W. Rubinstein, Michael A. Jolles and Hilary L. Rubinstein. Biography of Frederick Stern can be found on pg 958.