This post is a continuation of last week’s, and is the second half of the account of the trial of Charles Fairfield in 1795 on charges of the theft of rare plants from Daniel Grimwood’s nursery in Kensington…. and then I’ve also taken the liberty of adding some modern plant theft counterparts.
Witnesses testified Fairfield had been seen going into the hothouses shortly before some rare exotic plants were discovered to be missing. Yet even though the missing plants had apparently been found in his greenhouse was that enough to convict him or could his lawyer find a way of getting him acquitted?
They certainly tried. Expert witnesses debated whether a gardener could recognize a plant they had grown, and for how long, to determine if the plants found in Fairfield’s garden could be identified with complete certainty. Were these particular plants rare enough to make them distinctive and recognisable?
Read on to find out…and to discover whether the jury thought Fairchild was a plant thief>
James Colvill, the leading Chelsea nurseryman, was now called to give evidence. He verified that he had sold the Grimwoods two plants of ‘geranion mecanaton’, a red and a white, for 6 guineas. He also confirmed that he been to Fairchild’s house shortly after the robbery on a pretence, in order to assist Grimwood in tracking down the suspected thief. Fairchild had been a customer of Colvill’s too, although, given his continual shortage of money, only in a small way. “Mr. Fairfield was at home, and he took me down his garden, very fond of shewing me his collection, to my great surprise I see all the plants that the foreman described to me, that they had lost on Monday, much more to my surprise I see the plants which they told me they had lost in the spring.” Then, in response to specific questions assured the court that he had seen the red ‘geranium mecanaton’ there “at the further end of the hothouse.”
“Was that so particular a plant in its nature, that you was able to distinguish it so as to swear to it? – Perfectly…. I knew it, it was not actually in the same state as it was when I sold, because the leaves were getting yellow… [and] decaying.” It must have been a very small specimen or in a poor state because, he added, “there were only two leaves on it, it is not a fast growing plant, it is of a hairy texture.” The plant sold “was a cutting from one of my others, [but] it was an established plant, or else Mr. Grimwood would not have bought it.” Asked if “this is the only geranion of that kind in Europe?” Colvill replied “No, I have got several” and he had sold several others as well as those sold to Grimwood.
William Wykes, Grimwood’s foreman was now asked if he could swear that the ‘geranion mecanaton’ was the same ‘geranion mecanaton’ bought from Colvill. He was certain it was: “it had leaves on it when I found it, but by being pulled up, the leaves are falling off; they are gone; the day I lost it the leaves were in pretty good health; when I see it at Fairfield’s the leaves were yellow, from its being pulled up out of the pot, the breaking the roots; when I potted it again I observed the roots had been broke, it was taken away in his pot, but badly potted, and I have re-potted it since; I am sure it is the plant; it is alive now.”
And what about the ‘elica masonia’ [erica massonia] he was asked? Is it common? On the contrary it “is a very scarce plant, we cannot buy one under five guineas” and he was sure it was the one that had been stolen.”At first sight I knew it.” He also swore that the ‘mesembrianthimum’ – worth half a guinea -was Grimwood’s too, since he had only ever seen one other specimen.
Attention then returned to William Bird, the gardener, as he was asked if perhaps “With regard to this geranion, may not a man who has interest with his Majesty’s gardener, at Kew, have plenty of them?” but Bird remained positive that the plants he was shown were Grimwood’s: “I never see two plants alike in my life, exactly similar.”
This was immediately challenged: ” From your knowledge of botany you tell us that you never see two plants like; there are other gentlemen here who will tell you a different story. Are you sure that your knowledge of plants is such that you cannot be deceived in a plant? Bird reiterated what he had said. Colvill, when asked similar questions, claimed he could tell, even a month later, and even if a plant had been repotted, because “we can tell the face of a plant, especially of that scarce sort, as well as we can tell the face of a man.” So he had no hesitation in saying when “I see it first I knew it again immediately.”
Colville’s and Bird’s evidence was then challenged by the defence in a different way. They called a nurseryman and plant hunter named John Frazier [according to the court papers] who claimed to have travelled more than 50,000 miles in search of new plants and to “have discovered above three hundred new species, and fifty new genera myself”. [I can find no other references to a plant hunter named John Frazier, but it is almost certainly a misspelling of John Fraser.
A Scotsman, Fraser moved to London to become a hosier in Chelsea but soon discovered the Apothecaries’ Garden and befriended William Forsyth, one of the royal gardeners. Within a short while he changed career and was following in Mark Catesby’s footsteps as a plant collector in the Americas. Later trips were sponsored by the Linnean Society and William Aiton of Kew. Shortly after Fraser appeared as a witness in Fairfield’s trial he visited Russia and became “Botanical Collector” to Catherine the Great and Tsar Paul. He and his son also had a nursery in London and issued catalogues. Loudon was later to call him “one of the most enterprising, indefatigable and persevering men that ever embarked in the cause of botany and natural science.” [Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, 1838, p.122]
This was clearly a clash of heavyweights because Fraser’s evidence directly contradicted Colvill’s, especially with regard to small cuttings. He stated quite plainly that “It is impossible for you to distinguish a heath cutting from another of the same kind, not after they are gone out of your sight…. because there is so little difference that if I was to turn about I could not tell which it was.” And to back up his insistence he recalled that “last spring I was so foolish and hardy enough to swear to a plant, when I had a caution given me by Lord Coventry, which I shall never forget.” [Lord Coventry was the horticulturally knowledgeable owner of Croome Park in Worcestershire who had commissioned Capability Brown to lay out the grounds. See earlier post January 2014]
It might also be difficult simply because of the amazing number of Cape heaths that had become available – Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for 1795 lists about 90 being grown just by one nurserymanRichard Williams at Twickenham. And unless one is pedantic many of them look very similar to the untrained eye like mine.
Frazier then said that he had sold Fairfield the disputed ‘neamanthis multiflora’ but not the other rarities. [I have absolutely no idea what plant this might be, apart from the fact that it is a bulb from west Africa.] This backed Fairfield’s assertion that he had bought the plants, although he could not initially remember who from.
Other gardeners were called to make the same point: that they would not be able to tell, after a day or two, if a small plant had been grown and sold by them. But all of them dealt with plants of “the common sort” rather than unusual exotics.
The defence took a different turn asking about “persons discharged from Mr. Grimwood’s service for stealing of plants?” and Bird admitted that someone had been “discharged under the apprehension of stealing trees out of the nursery.”
Next they called an experienced botanical artist, Lewis Videll. I’ve been unable to trace any further references to him but he claims to have been working for 22 years at the time of the trial. Asked if he had ” been drawing a curious plant, and had been shewn that plant at the distance of a week, should you know it again?”, he replied ” I should know it to be the same kind, but not the same plant. I have found a difference between night and morning; I have drawn a plant by candle light, and the next morning I have been obliged to take a fresh drawing.” And even If particularly “told to take notice of the plant for the purpose of recollecting it at the distance of a week” he was adamant h.e wouldn’t be able to. “I may say it was the same sort, but not the same plant. It is not possible for any man living to swear to it.”
Finally Fairfield called four witnesses “who gave him a good character, and said, that he had been a painter to the King of France at six hundred pounds a year.”
And so having heard the evidence was Fairfield guilty of plant theft? To find out the the verdict of the Middlesex jury sitting under the direction of Mr. Baron Thompson look below the next image!
If you are interested in knowing more then you can read the surviving much fuller account of the trial in the records of the Old Bailey at:
But whether or not Fairchild was guilty or had got away with it, he [or the actual thief] wasn’t a rarity but simply the representative of an entire species of collector which probably includes most of us at one time or another. As Carlos Magdalena of Kew said recently: “It is the same rule that all gardeners have: What do you want to grow? What you cannot have.”
Of course the story has a modern moral because plant theft has not stopped – every garden open to the public suffers as a result and indeed plant theft is probably on the increase.
Hillier’s garden in Hampshire reported last year that they estimated between 10 and 20 rare plants every year were stolen. Barry Clarke their botanist said: “In reality it’s probably much more than this. I imagine 50% of those plants will die shortly after being taken.” Small bulbs and alpines are particularly vulnerable of course and now these are often unlabelled, hidden away or put behind glass. But larger plants are affected too. Even taking that surreptitious little cutting is more than problematic because “sometimes the mother plant is stripped to such a degree the plant is damaged beyond repair. We are of the opinion that unscrupulous nurserymen may be to blame for this kind of theft.” For more on the problems at Hilliers see:
Even more scary is the account of the theft of the world’s rarest water lily from Kew in 2014. Read the long Guardian interview with Kew staff and with any luck you’ll never take that sneaky cutting of that plant you MUST have again!