The Great Geranium Robbery…


The figure of justice on the Old Bailey

It’s not everyday that plant theft gets prosecuted or even really hits the headlines. BUT in 1795 there was a fascinating case that reached the Old Bailey and pitted a leading London nurseryman who dealt in exotic new imports against a plant collector who was accused of stealing from his nursery…..and the target plants included a rare geranium!

Pelargonium mucronatum from Robert Sweet's Geraniaciae, 1820/Users/davidmarsh/Library/Application Support/Evernote/quick-note/drdavidmarsh___Evernote/quick-note-Rmrk8O/attachment--oAj4G0/screenshot.png

Pelargonium mucronatum from Robert Sweet’s Geraniaciae, 1820/




The Geraniaciae, or geranium family includes several genera, notably Geranium [the cranesbills], pelargoniums [which confusingly are still commonly called geraniums], and erodiums.   Pelargoniums are indigenous to South Africa and, although a few species had reached western Europe because of the Dutch settlement at Cape Town, pelargoniums remained largely uncollected and unknown until the very late 18thc. So in 1795, despite the fact that most species propagate really easily, they were still rare and so highly prized and collectible – and  thus, of course, very expensive.

Read  the prosecution and defence evidence for yourself and decide whether the jury got the verdict right –  and in the process see what the court evidence reveals about the way that a nursery was run.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Old Bailey, from The Microcosm of London, 1808. © London Lives

Thomas Rowlandson, The Old Bailey, from The Microcosm of London, 1808. © London Lives

The nurseryman was Daniel Grimwood, who in his day was of some considerable repute but who nobody these days will have heard of [not even many garden history fanatics] but he was the successor to the nursery once run by Robert Furber, the Kensington plantsman, who raised growing & selling plants from a simple horticultural level to a publishing phenomenon. [A post about Furber himself will, I hope, arrive in the next few weeks].

Not only did Grimwood have a large nursery ground in Kensington [close to the palace and where De Vere Gardens now stands] but  London directories between 1779 – 1789 also show him having a partnership in  a seed and plant shop on the corner of fashionable Arlington Street and Piccadilly called Grimwood & Hudson, and then after 1790 Grimwood, Hudson & Barrett.  At least one catalogue of his survives from 1783.

White Provence Rose P. J. Redouté, Les Roses I, 1817

White Provence Rose
P. J. Redouté, Les Roses I, 1817

He is known to have imported very large quantities of seeds and plants from North America, and amongst his many other introductions were a white Provence rose – Unique or Unica Alba -which he discovered as a sport, and which unlike most introductions of the period, is still available today.  He (or his son, another Daniel) also propagated the Grimwood Royal George Peach. which features on Portmeirion pottery.

So what happened that ended up at the Old Bailey?

Lets start with witness statements in the trial. But remember this is late 18thc language and late 18thc taxonomy/plant names and they are often incomprehensible!


I want to stress that I am not a botanist, and certainly not a taxonomist. That maybe why I have been [so far] completely unable to work out exactly which plants are being referred to. In some cases the trial record is the only source of the  plant name used, and thus may have been misspelt or confused by the court notetaker, an editor or the printer. With so many new plants being imported nomenclature was erratic anyway, and names unfamiliar and frequently changed. Unfortunately, for some plants mentioned nor is there anything similar-sounding  in any of the contemporary  lists of plants such as William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis, the most comprehensive account of plants being grown in England at the time, or in the commercial catalogues of James Colvill, one of the nurserymen most closely involved in the case.

Given that Aiton lists 31 geraniums, 102 pelargoniums, and 17 erodiums and Colvill’s 1827 catalogue, 26, 401 and 7 respectively perhaps that is not surprising. As someone else in the case comments …the other plants were presently ‘unnamed’. This  says something about the scale of introductions from the Cape particularly in the 1790s, thanks largely to the work of Francis Masson.  [He too deserves a post of his own one day soon] And of course, if anyone can throw light on any of the plants mentioned please don’t hesitate to let me know!

The trial records started with Grimwood’s son, Daniel junior, taking the stand and outlining the initial discovery of the theft:

A green house and exotic house, from Tod, George / Plans, elevations and sections, of hot-houses, green-houses, an aquarium, conservatories, &c., 1823

A green house and exotic house, from George Tod,  Plans, elevations and sections, of hot-houses, green-houses, an aquarium, conservatories, &c., 1823

“On Monday, the 17th of August past, I was taking up in the nursery some plants to take into the country, there was a shower of rain, which occasioned me to go with our foreman into the house called the great stove; as soon as we went into the stove we sat ourselves on the curb, and the foreman in looking round missed a plant from a pot, he looked along the shelf and missed other exotic plants; he then looked into the bark pits, he missed another plant out of the bark pit, I see a vacancy, the earth was turned out of the pot, and put under a sheet of paper… the pot that was so emptied was partly hid by some other large pots, standing on the curb. We then left that house and went to a house called the geranion  house, and there we missed other exotic plants, having been pulled up by the roots, and the root of one plant left in the pot, broken off, one of those plants so missed, was one that we has bought of Mr. Colvill, a nursery man in Chelsea.”

Pelargonium ignescens from GEraniaciae by RObert Sweet, 1820-22

Pelargonium ignescens from Geraniaciae by Robert Sweet, 1820-22

“Mr Colvill” was James Colville,(c. 1746-1822), another extremely well-known  London nurseryman and florist.   He had a remarkable collection of plants, many of which were the subjects of plates and descriptions by Robert Sweet, in The British Flower Garden (1838).

In 1795 Colvill was singled out in a guide to London as carrying on a very extensive business in Chelsea for the sale of scarce exotic plants, particularly geraniums, the culture of which had ‘been brought to very great perfection'[ Lysons, Environs of London, II. 71 n.] His collection of the genera also featured extensively in Sweet’s Geraniaciae of 1820-22.

Daniel junior then said that after talking to his father “I got a search warrant on Friday the 21st; we went to Bow-street, and Mr. Bond sent a man with our foreman to the premises … to the house of the prisoner, Fairfield, at Chelsea”

The accused was Charles Fairchild who “was not a gardener by business”  but “an artist I believe.”

Indeed he was: almost the stereotypical impoverished painter living almost hand to mouth.  The original Dictionary of National Biography talks of his “great merit” but despite this, as his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1805 noted: “he was never in easy circumstances, and for a great part of his laborious life was under the clutches of the griping and unconscientious picture-dealer, who gathered the fruits of his labours by practising deceits upon the world”.

What is not noted anywhere is that he also  clearly loved plants….. and so now back to the trial.

After gaining admission to Fairfield’s house his accusers had asked  “if he had any plants of mine, he answered no..[and so] we went into his garden” where some of the plants were found in his little stove that he had got there, and… part were in his little out house, and part in his garden; when we found all we could see belonged to us; we put them in a basket and took them to the public office. The plants are in court.”

Erica massonii L.f. Botanical Magazine, vol. 10: t. 356 (1796) [n.a.]

Erica massonii L.f.
Botanical Magazine, vol. 10: t. 356 (1796)

But did Fairfield cry ” you got me banged to rights guv”?  Far from it. First of all his attorney, Mr Moore, claimed that anyone could have stolen the plants, after all, “the nursery in which this [hot] house stands is tolerably open, a public place, and a gentleman has liberty to walk in the nursery to look at such plants as he wants for his own use? Have not persons of every description access to this place? do you stop any body from coming in? …Is there not a path through it?”

But Fairfield had been seen there by William Bird one of the gardeners. “On the 17th of August, about half past nine in the morning, I came from breakfast, and went into the stoves, where I particularly remarked two small plants in the long stove, in pots, the elica masonia [which I assume is erica massonia a newly introduced Cape heath] and the mesembrianthimum.”   Nor was it mistaken identity because Fairfield was clearly a regular visitor and had chatted to Bird. Later “as I was going with the hand barrow the prisoner followed me, when I turned to go up the walk, I observed the prisoner to go to the door of the stove house, open it and go in.”

Turnera ulmifolia from the Linnean herbarium, Swedish Museum of Natural History

Turnera ulmifolia from the
Linnean herbarium,
Swedish Museum of Natural History

Half an hour or so later “we were going to take up some more plants from the front of the stove of our beautifulls; there came a heavy shower of rain that hindered us from going there; we went into the houses where the plants were, on the curb of the bark beds; Mr. Wicks, the foreman, cast his eye on the shelf where these plants stood; the first plant I observed was a Botany Bay plant, called the banksieur gone, and the two plants I mentioned before; a turneria ulmiformia, and a Botany Bay jessamine to be gone out of the pots also, standing on a shelf in the front of the stove; the elica masonia had a glass over the pot; I had took the glass up to look at it, and put the glass over it again;

Mesembryanthemum aitonis Jacq. Jacquin, N.J. von, Hortus botanicus Vindobonensis, vol. 3: t. 207 (1776)

Mesembryanthemum aitonis Jacq.
N. von Jacquin, , Hortus botanicus Vindobonensis, vol. 3: t. 207 (1776)

the mesembrianthimum was on the same shelf, but no glass over it. Then we went to the other house called the geranion house….we observed one plant gone which I called a geranion becanaton, which was purchased of Mr. Colvill about a month before….for about 3 guineas….that was taken out of the pot together with some others which have no specific name that I know of.”

This led them to check all the other houses and “out of the bark bed a pot had been taken, the mould scattered on the bark, covered with a paper, and a pot thrown behind some other plants that stood there on the curb…. we missed another plant taken out of the pot, and the pot still remained in the bark bed, a plant called neamanthis multistora.”

Banksia serrata L.f. red honeysuckle, saw banksia The botanist’s repository [H.C. Andrews], vol. 2: t. 82 (1799-1801) [H.C. Andrews]

Banksia serrata L.f.
the red honeysuckle or saw banksia
The botanist’s repository [H.C. Andrews], vol. 2: t. 82 (1799-1801)

So its all fairly straightforward you might think. Fairfield was seen entering the stove house, then shortly afterwards the plants were discovered to be missing, and by that time he was nowhere to be seen. But maybe not quite so straightforward after all, as his counsel started a new line of defence. He asked simply “Shall you be able to identify the plants when they are produced?” and Bird answered  “Yes, I shall.”

Mr Moore then started asking about Grimwood’s nursery and its collection. It became clear that it was “very considerable” with “a very large assortment” of plants, but “your master, however large he deals, has not monopolized all the exotics in Europe?”  Clearly he had not although Bird said there were “some I have never seen any where else.”

Pelargonium pinguifolium, raised from Cape seed by Colvill, in Geranici'ae bly Robert Sweet,

Pelargonium pinguifolium, raised from Cape seed by Colvill, in Geraniciae bly Robert Sweet,

His evidence was then backed up with more detail by the nursery foreman, William Wykes. He listed the missing plants and those that had been lifted out of their pots or broken off….”a Botany Bay plant, what we call a banksieur…a little elica masonia…a plant called the mesemorianthimum…a sierra leona bulb pulled out of the pot called the neamanthis multiflora…a Botany Bay jessamine…

Jasminum Botany Bay Etienne Denisse, 1814 from The Journal of Pierre Bernard Milius

Jasminum Botany Bay
Etienne Denisse, 1814 from The Journal of Pierre Bernard Milius







I missed a geranion mecanaton, which was bought about a month before of Mr. Colvill of Chelsea; there were several other geranions taken, but they were of the bulbous kinds, they were dead down to the pots; one was a geranion penatum.”Asked “What were the others?” Wyke’s answer showed how Grimwood must have been at the forefront of the  import trade from the Cape since they were  “new kinds, without any name, any further than geranions”

Banksia ericifolia L.f. heath leaved banksia Natural History Museum, London, The Endeavour Botanical Illustrations, The Endeavour Botanical Illustrations, (1773) [J.F. Miller]

Banksia ericifolia 
Natural History Museum,  The Endeavour Botanical Illustrations,  (1773)

Wyke had been one of the search party at Fairfield’s house where  “I found twelve plants, the same that we had lost the Monday before, and on the premises I found four other plants, two in the garden and two in the green house, that we had lost before that time”  Clearly plant theft was a more common occurrence than might be expected. Five of the plants were produced in court. Pressed to say that they were actually common enough plants he responded that “This sort of bankfieur is not a very common plant, there are more sorts of bankfieur than one.” Indeed there were. James Colvill’s catalogue listed 24 banksia species  for sale.

Now it was time for Colvill himself to give evidence, but since I’ve already used up my usual word allowance for the week, you’ll have to wait for the next episode to find the result of the trial!

"A Range of Hot Houses executed for John Anthony Rucker, Esq" from George Tod Plans, elevations and sections, of hot-houses, green-houses, and aquarium, conservatories, &c, 1812

“A Range of Hot Houses executed for John Anthony Rucker, Esq” from George Tod
Plans, elevations and sections, of hot-houses, green-houses, and aquarium, conservatories, &c, 1812



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1 Response to The Great Geranium Robbery…

  1. Pat Webster says:

    A great story, so far. I’m eager to read the next instalment.

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