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Streeter, Frederick [Fred]free

(1877/9–1975)
  • Janet Waymark

Streeter, Frederick [Fred] (1877/9–1975), gardener and broadcaster, was born in Pulborough, Sussex, the eldest of three sons of James Streeter, a farm worker, and his wife, Dinah, née Sayers, a postgirl. There is conflicting evidence about his year of birth: by Streeter's own account he was born on 25 June 1877 (his ninety-third birthday was celebrated in June 1970), but his mother registered his birth date as 25 June 1879, which is consistent with census returns from his childhood. The family moved to Dorking in Surrey, and he attended North Holmwood School, before a further move to Reigate, where he passed the entrance examination to Reigate grammar school. Having at the age of five been given his own plot of land to look after in the family's cottage garden, he wanted to become a gardener, and although his headmaster at Reigate thought he had the ability to train as a teacher, he left school at twelve to pursue his ambition.

Streeter's first position was at Colley Lodge on Reigate Heath, where he worked as a gardener's boy for a twelve-hour day and a six-day week, earning 2s. 6d. He checked the temperatures in the greenhouses at 6 a.m., and washed flowerpots until breakfast, cleaned brasswork, learned about fumigating the greenhouses with tobacco smoke, and burying a dead bullock close to the vinery to produce bonemeal for the grapes. He spent three years at Colley Lodge, briefly worked at Reigate Nursery, then went on to his first country house position, at Reigate Priory, the home of the temperance activist Lady Henry Somerset, where he cared for the hothouses, vineries, peaches, and figs, and learned about pruning.

In 1897 Streeter was taken on by the firm of James Veitch & Son of Kings Road, Chelsea, one of the leading nurseries where ambitious young gardeners sought experience. Here he would toil overnight, filling pots, finding flowers for the Strand or Drury Lane theatres, or for society parties. Later he cared for new plants from the euphorbia and dracaena families. His next move was to Straffan, a 5000 acre estate in co. Kildare, Ireland, owned by the Hon. Mrs Barton, where he learned much from the old-style head gardener. There were spacious flower beds and soft fruit to care for, a vinery to rescue from decay, and skills to develop in the care of orchids.

In 1901 Streeter became foreman at Basing Park near Alton. There he met a schoolteacher, Hilda Sarah Florence (1880–1966), daughter of Charles Burden, the head gamekeeper. They were married on 10 January 1906, at Privett church near Alton. But there was no honeymoon. Throughout his life Streeter never saw the point of holidays, even for his wife's sake, claiming that a healthy life, with plenty of free vegetables and a lovely bunch of flowers now and then, was sufficiently restorative. As a married man he needed to secure a head gardener's position, which he succeeded in doing in 1911 at Lavington Park, Petworth, Sussex, the seat of the whisky magnate James Buchanan. Refused a pay rise, he left in 1913 and was employed at Caldecote Towers, a girls' boarding school near Watford.

During the First World War Streeter served as a private in the Royal Fusiliers, and was sent to France in 1915, where he was badly wounded in a bayonet attack and contracted an infection. Invalided out of the army, he spent a year in the Middlesex Hospital. At the end of the war Streeter and his wife, who had served as a VAD nurse, returned to the Barton family estate at Straffan in Ireland, but in 1923 the violence of the Irish civil war brought them back to England, where he took up posts in Hertfordshire.

In 1926 Streeter was invited by the third Baron Leconfield to be head gardener at Petworth House, Sussex. He remained there for the rest of his life, on the estate where his mother's parents had been tenants. Over time he made a sunken garden, renovated the kitchen garden, which fed the lavish house parties at Petworth, developed the growing of fruit such as peaches, nectarines, and quinces, produced bright flowers for the house, and brought discipline to the gardeners (he was remembered as a stern taskmaster). Visitors included Queen Mary and the crown prince of Japan. He won over fifty gold awards for exhibits at the Royal Horticultural Society's shows.

Streeter's career as a broadcaster began in 1935 when the horticultural journalist Cecil Henry Middleton (1887–1945) invited him to take part in the BBC radio gardening programme In Your Garden. Streeter's first talk, about runner beans, delivered in his enthusiastic, rolling Sussex burr, brought 200 letters of appreciation. Lord Leconfield told him afterwards: 'Only the aristocracy knows me, Streeter. But after today the world knows you' (Hennig, 96). He continued his broadcasts with Middleton during the wartime Dig for Victory campaign, advising women on how to wield a spade, and other listeners on how to get the best from their allotments. The Second World War transformed the gardening life of Petworth, where only six gardeners remained from the pre-war total of thirty-five, cultivation shifting from flowers to vegetables.

Following Middleton's death in September 1945 Streeter became the radio gardener in his place, receiving the Royal Horticultural Society's highest award, the Victoria medal of honour, in the same year. His ability to answer the questions of ordinary people with clarity and enthusiasm, never recommending anything he had not tried himself, made him popular and he was soon on the panel of Any Questions with Freddie Grisewood after 1948 and on Country Questions with Ralph Wightman. After Alexandra Palace reopened in 1949, with its fenced off garden, he entered the world of television, his first broadcast being on geraniums and fuchsias. Television led to journalism, and the editor of the Evening Standard engaged him to write weekly articles. In the 1960s the broadcaster Frank Hennig invited Streeter to join him on the BBC regional service's programme South East, which continued until the 1970s, when Streeter transferred to the Today programme on Saturday mornings. As his age advanced, and he became more frail, the gardening programme was recorded from his kitchen. He died at his home, Petworth House Gardens, Petworth, Sussex, on 1 November 1975. His last broadcast, pre-recorded, went out on that day.

Sources

  • F. Hennig, ‘Cheerio Frank, cheerio everybody’: the gardening world of Fred Streeter (1976)
  • P. Donovan, The radio companion (1992)
  • census returns, 1881, 1891
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, 18 June 1935, LP 019 7440
  • BL NSA, interview with D. Cameron and F. Meing, 22 June 1972, C 1168/79
  • BL NSA, interview with F. Hennig, 25 June 1974, C 1037/365
  • BL NSA, interview with D. Rowan, c.1974, C 1037/365

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1948, Popperfoto
  • photograph, 1952, Popperfoto
  • double portrait, photograph, 1959 (with Avice Landone), Getty Images, London
  • I. Tyas, photograph, 1970, Getty Images, London
  • C. Ware, photograph, 1971, Getty Images, London
  • photograph, repro. in The Times (3 Nov 1975)
  • photograph, repro. in The Times (25 June 1970)

Wealth at Death

£13,397: probate, 22 Dec 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales