The recent posts about Mr Middleton proved very popular, so I thought I’d follow them up with one about his successor at the BBC – Fred Streeter – a man who was full of gardening wisdom & impossible to dislike, and who many of us will remember since he was still broadcasting in 1975.
The Observer profiled Fred Streeter on his 95th birthday in June 1971. The article by John Heilpern explained how Streeter had established a unique reputation as a gardening broadcaster: “He has the gift of making the most complex subjects seem simple…and he is one of those rare personalities whose voice.. is instantly recognisable: even the most indifferent listener is attracted to Mr Streeter’s rich Sussex accent.” It also helped that Streeter was head gardener at Petworth House, working on the estate that Capability Brown had transformed two centuries or so earlier.
Such was his fame as a horticulturist and “the nation’s radio gardener” that two biographies of him were written during his lifetime. The first, And Here is Mr Streeter by Geoffrey Eley, was published in 1950. Lord Aberconway, President of the RHS wrote the preface which ended: “it is very gratifying to all garden lovers that such a career should be so fitly be recorded.” The second was Frank Hennig’s Cheerio Frank, Cheerio Everybody which was based on a series of interviews and came out just after Streeter died in November 1975,aged 98.
The son of a Sussex shepherd and his post-girl wife Streeter, like Frances Perry [see an earlier post] fell in love with gardening when he fell out of a window as a toddler, and landed in a bed of old-fashioned pinks in full flower. At school he was asked what he liked and after replying “Flowers sir” found himself put in charge of the headmaster’s private greenhouses.
He showed considerable academic ability – winning a national essay competition about alcohol and the human body which put him off drink for life. Despite that Streeter had turned down opportunities to stay on at school: But sir” he told the headmaster, “I should never grow anything”.
Instead, at the age of 12, he left to become a garden boy at Colley Lodge in Reigate. This meant working 12 hours each day for a 6 day week, all for the princely sum of 3s 6d [17.5p]. In his biography he recalls “my job in the greenhouse department was to see to the water, and the donkey and cow manure and the soot and the sand…and the fumigating of the greenhouse [which] was done by shreds of tobacco; and it was my job to stay in the house with a can of water in case the shreds caught fire. And that you cured me of ever wanting to smoke. So I counted myself a lucky chap, cured already wanting to drink or smoke tobacco!”
Other mundane tasks included washing flowerpots every day for 2 hours before breakfast, cleaning brass watering cans and leading the pony that pulled the mowing machine. This was tiring work for a child and on his first day he asked a workman to lift him onto the pony so he could ride it back to its paddock. The workman did so – but facing the wrong way. The pony bolted, dashed into some trees and Fred was knocked off “with a beauty on the back of the head.” He never got on a horse again.
In 1897 he moved to work at Reigate Priory, a 76 acre estate “tastefully laid out in well-ordered terraced lawns ornamented with pretty flower beds and choice shrubs. It was owned by Lady Henry Somerset who developed new garden areas , including the Sunken Garden and Monks Walk. [T.Francis Hamilton, Holmesdale Towns: A Handbook for Reigate, Redhill & neighbouring districts, 1899,p.51] Here he was in charge of the hothouses where figs, grapes and peaches were grown.
It was at Reigate Priory that, purely by chance, he took up another hobby. One evening out for a stroll in his best suit and a pair of brown canvas shoes Fred encountered “a lady”… in a tight-fitting out and a jockey’s cap” who was carrying ” a small cane to beat off the attention of ribald boys and dogs.” She was trying to win a wager by walking a certain distance every night at a pace of 4 miles an hour. Fred joined in even though he was wearing his best suit and a pair of brown canvas shoes. It was his rather strange introduction to walking as sport. He practiced every evening after a hard day in the garden ending up with a bath in the garden water butt since baths were unheard of in a gardeners bothy. He joined the Polytechnic Harriers and won walking races all over the country including completing a mile on grass in 6mins 33secs.
Making a career in gardening in the early years of the 20thc was difficult, and Fred Streeter often had to move to gain experience and promotion. After a spell working for Veitchs the famous nurserymen in Kings Road Chelsea for 12s a week, he moved to Straffan, a large estate in Ireland and from there he went, in 1901, to Basing Park near Alton as foreman. It was there that he met his wife Hilda.
His first head gardener’s position came ten years later when he accepted a post at Lavington Park, Petworth, Sussex, the seat of an immensely wealthy whisky magnate, James Buchanan. When Streeter later asked for a rise, Buchanan replied: :No gardener is worth more than 27s 6d a week to me” to which Fred retorted “well no employer who says that is worth it to me either” and he left.
Invalided out of the army during the First World War, he then worked in Hertfordshire at Wormleybury near Broxbourne, and then Aldenham House, near Elstree. Details of his time at each of these gardenscan be found in his biographies [details at the end of the post]
Finally in 1926 he was asked by Lord Leconfield to take over the gardens at Petworth. And at Petworth he was to remain for the rest of his life.
Fred’s work was not just maintaining and developing the garden. He had to keep the accounts, manage a team of over 40 staff, deal with things like wages, tax and national insurance, keep weather records, and organize garden fetes and open days too. And of course feed the household. For that over 400 varieties of vegetables were grown at Petworth, and some of these were exhibited at local shows.
Like other owners, Leconfield, was jealous of his estate’s reputation and ambitious to improve it. He responded very positively to Streeter’s suggestion that they begin to exhibit in earnest. Streeter proved immensely successful and prizes for flooded in for fruit, vegetables, flowers and even orchids from shows all round the country, including over 50 gold medals from the RHS. However, as Lord Leconfield is reported to have said “If all the gold medals you’ve won really were gold you’d be wortha fortune Streeter. But since most of them are just cardboard you’d better keep on working!” [ F. Hennig, ‘Cheerio Frank, p.175]
And work he did: he was offered a place on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit and Vegetable committee, to being asked to contribute to Gardeners Chronicle and eventually in 1935 to being asked to make his first radio broadcast by none other than Mr Middleton himself. The story of their friendship and rivalry is quite amusing and I’ll follow it up in another post at some point.
Apparently Fred was petrified before his first appearance on the radio, and walked up down outside Broadcasting House for hours before plucking up the courage to go in. But his nerves were not necessary since His first talk on In Your Garden – about runner beans – attracted over 200 appreciative letters. Lord Leconfield added his congratulations telling him “Only the aristocracy knows me Streeter. But after today the whole world knows you.” [ F. Hennig, ‘Cheerio Frank, p.96]
During the Second World War he worked with Middleton on the Dig for Victory campaign, as well as continue to run Petworth with just 6 staff. With Mr Middleton’s death in 1945 Fred Streeter found himself taking on more broadcasting and become the BBC’s main gardening voice. His direct approach to answering questions, based on his tried and tested experience, and his sheer enthusiasm for gardening made him popular with audiences of all kinds. As a result by 1948 he was on the regular panel for Any Questions then chaired by Freddy Grisewood and on Country Questions chaired by Ralph Wightman. He received the Victoria Medal from the RHS in 1945 and the MBE in 1973.
In 1949 he began television broadcasting from the garden that Middleton had laid out at Alexandra Palace, and he also started writing a weekly gardening column for the Evening Standard . He was inundated with correspondence – more than 7,000 letters in the first half of 1950 alone – which he dealt with without any secretarial assistance.
In the 1960s he worked with Frank Hennig on the BBC’s regional programme South East, and from the 1970s he had a saturday morning slot on the Today programme. His 95th birthday on June 2nd 1975 was celebrated in style and in a special Radio 4 programme about him called The waterlilies are as happy as sand boys.
His fame bought him advertizing opportunities both in the UK and abroad and spread is name worldwide.
His last broadcast which had been pre-recorded went out on the day of his death on the 1st November 1975. One of his producers, Marshall Stewart, was quoted in The Observer the next day saying that Fred Streeter “was one of the most successful natural broadcasters. His secret was that spoke to his millions of listeners and his flowers in the same way – as friends.”
Even years later his name was being invoked as an example of a lost broadcasting art, bemoaning “the absence of generalists like John Arlott and Fred Streeter who could be entertaining on any subject. The capriciousness of their answers was a delightful surprise. Perhaps there’s less time for whimsy these days?” [Russell Twisk, The Observer 26th November 1989)
The most fitting way to end this post is with a Fred Streeter story: ‘When I get to the gates of Heaven and meet St Peter, the Gate Keeper, I shall ask ‘is there any chance of me coming in?’ and he’ll say ‘what have you been in life?’ ‘Oh I’ll say, ‘I’ve tried to be gardener…’ And he’ll say ‘Come in, come in – we’ve plenty of weeds up here that want killing’… so cheerio Frank and cheerio everybody.”