Sir Frederick & Sybil Stern: Horticulturalist and Captain

The Stern family of Worthing, West Sussex were a Jewish family whose ancestors came from Germany and established The Stern Merchant Bank with subsidiaries in Britain.

Frederick Stern is known as a renowned botanist and author of
several gardening books, as well as a supportive member of the British Jewry and for his participation to WW1.

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.

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

Our knowledge about Frederick begins in 1909 when he purchased the land that was to become Highdown Gardens. This 8.5 acre plot of land began as an old chalk put which overlooked the South Downs. This area had little soil and poor conditions for plant growth.

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. Expeditions of specialist collectors were sent out to China and the Himalayas, as plants in these areas thrive in alkaline chalk soil. Frederick himself worked from 1900 to 1910 collecting plants. Work on this site began slow and was further delayed as war broke out. 

Frederick served as a Captain during World War One, seeing action in Gallipoli and Palestine and even being awarded the Military Cross in 1917. He is also mentioned as a Major in the newspaper report below from 1919, and the Highdown history site says he ‘eventually became a 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 invited a group of boys from the Bernhard Baron St George’s Jewish Settlement Club, Stepney, to camp on his 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

Sources: 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.