Discovering the Sterns of Highdown
High Prices for Racehorses at Newmarket Sales. Flair bought for 15,000 guineas
The buyer was Mr. F.C. Stern a member of one of the richest families of foreign extraction in the country. He is a very young man and has only just begun to take an interest in the turf.
Shipley Times and Express, 16 July, 1909
This is the first time that Frederick Claude Stern appears in public in his new role as a millionaire horse race owner . Today, he is famous as a knighted horticulturist for his experiment growing rare plants in Highdown Gardens on the edge of the South Downs National Park in West Sussex.
In fact, Frederick’s first obsession was big game hunting (animal heads hanging in his house Highdown Tower) and his wife Sybil was involved with local politics (from Suffragettes to the Women’s’ Voluntary Service). They had an aristocratic lifestyle, with servants and a London house, supported by Frederick’s banking ‘job’ at Stern Brothers. They entertained leading politicians and the Royal Family. There were no obvious signs that they were Jewish.
Since autumn 2019 I have been on a remarkable research journey on behalf of Highdown Gardens and Worthing Council supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Despite the Covid lockdown, I networked with an army of librarians, volunteers and archivists and we found many clues. The key discovery, at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, was the Highdown Visitors Book. This green leather-bound book revealed signatures, VIP photographs and even two poems. The visitors included: Jewish aristocrats (Montefiore, Rothschild, Goldsmid), famous plant hunters Frank and Jean Kingdon-Ward, and important plant scientists such as the amazing E.K. Janaki Ammal.
However, it was the Sterns’ charity work, revealed online in the Jewish Chronicle which was a surprise. They were committee experts for: the Jewish War Memorial (Frederick was awarded a Military Cross in Palestine in 1917), the Jewish School for Deaf Children, the Jews College and the Anglo-Jewish Association. Frederick appears to be the only member of his family involved with the Jewish community.
Another surprise was the Sterns’ support for the London youth charity, the Oxford and St George’s Club. This was established by Sybil’s cousin, Sir
Basil Henriques, with his wife Rose. Every August, for almost 50 years, children and adults from the deprived East End descended upon the fields next to Highdown Gardens. Camping at Highdown became such a tradition in the Jewish East End that Rose published a special camp song book which features the Sterns and Highdown Hill.
When I contacted the Jewish Country Houses network I discovered that the Sterns’ obsessions were not unique amongst Anglo-Jewish aristocrats. The Sterns also preferred not to draw attention to their Jewishness. So well did they achieve this that when they died those stories disappeared. This historic jigsaw will now appear in a display at the new Highdown Gardens Visitor Centre and new website from Spring 2021.
Note: Highdown Tower is now a private Hotel. Highdown Gardens and fields are owned by Worthing Council. Highdown Hill summit is managed by the National Trust.
Hamish MacGillivray, freelance content developer