Cecil Henry Middleton, known to the nation as simply ‘Mr Middleton’, was born on 22 February 1886 in Weston-by-Weedon, Northamptonshire. The son of a gardener, Middleton’s first job was as a garden boy at Weston Hall, the home of politician and horticulturist Sir George Sitwell.
He trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew before moving onto the Board of Agriculture and then later teaching horticulture for Surrey County Council, having moved to 17 Princes Avenue in Tolworth in 1929. This experience, combined with his relaxed and unassuming manner, led him to be hired by the BBC, with his first broadcast airing on 9 May 1931. The British public quickly took to Middleton’s informal yet informative approach, whereby he would speak to his audience as if they were his friends, blending practical advice with the sharing of his own personal burdens.
A Ministry of Agriculture inquiry in 1942 found that 72% of the sampled owners of wireless sets listened to gardening radio programmes and, of these, 79% tuned in to Mr Middleton's In Your Garden. Aside from radio, Middleton wrote newspaper articles, delivered lectures around the country, opened and judged horticultural shows, and wrote numerous gardening books, including Mr Middleton Talks About Gardening, Mr Middleton Suggests, Your Garden in Wartime, and Digging for Victory. He even appeared on a 1943 episode of Desert Island Discs. Considering his celebrity, Middleton’s broadcasts naturally became a key aspect of the wartime Dig for Victory campaign, despite his tendency to veer away from the scripts that had been carefully prepared for him.
On 18 September 1945 at the age of 59, Middleton suffered an unexpected and fatal heart attack outside his home. His funeral, held in Surbiton at St Matthew’s Church, was made into a film by British Pathe entitled The Passing of an Old Friend. With the church reported to be full with family, friends and representatives from the gardening world, the streets were lined with members of the public wishing to pay their respects.
“In a tribute, the vicar said that kindly, humble, friendly Mr Middleton was never spoilt by a success as great as that of any who had reached millions of people through the wireless. Generous in his impulses and ready to support any good cause, he was a man who made friends wherever he went, and gave himself unstintingly.”
Surrey Comet 29 September 1945
Additional learning resources about Mr Middleton are available by following the links below: