The Pineapple Thief – A Georgian Tale

Alexander Frazer swore, the assistant gardener looked at him in surprise, Mr Frazer never swore. Then he looked through the glass and gasped, it was terrible, he looked back at his master and was really shocked, there were tears in his eyes, the stern Scotch gardener was weeping.

“Go and get the constable, I will tell the rector.”

The reverend Stephen Bale was sipping a cup of coffee when his manservant told him that his gardener wanted to see him. When Frazer entered the room he was shocked, he sprang to his feet.

“Good Lord, what is it man?”

“The pine house, the pineapples?”

 

They looked at the ruin of the pine house, the pineapple plants that had stood in neat rows on either side of the path were in ruins. Pots were overturned, plants broken, and nearly all the fruit had gone.

“He got in here sir.”

The rector looked to where the young gardener was examining the door, the lock had been prised open and the wood splintered.

“When did you last visit the house?” He asked the head gardener.

“I checked on the house at about ten last night sir, everything was well. Two were ready to cut and I was thinking of asking your cook if she wanted one today.”

“How many have gone?”

They walked down the path, the under gardener had cleared some of the plants from their way, as he did so he said.

“Look sir, he must have caught his legs on the thorns!”

They looked down at the spiky leaves of the pineapple plants, sure enough there were threads and even a smear of blood.

“Good, the plants got him.” Said the head gardener.

“Very true,” replied the rector, “now I think we have lost thirty fruit.”

“I reckon thirty-two sir, including the double one.”

As they left the house the village constable arrived.

“Terrible sir.” He said to the vicar, “but I have found something which might bear on this. On the Forest road just as it leaves the village, I found these.” He showed a few crushed grapes.”

“I didn’t know we had lost any.” Replied the rector as he led the party to the neighbouring hot house, here the vine looked undamaged, but the under gardener was able to point out where three or four bunches had been roughly cut away.

“At least we know which way the villain went.” Said Mr Frazer,.

“And at Forest Gate he will be on the London Road.” Added the Rector.

“You think he is going to London sir?”

“Yes, he has thirty pineapples to sell, where better than Covent Garden.” The rector paused, “And he must only have a few hours start on us. If we leave now we might catch him, Frazer will you accompany me?”

“Anything to help get that villain, after what he did to those beautiful plants.”

 

The local inn supplied the chaise and very soon they were on their way, across the heathy common land outside Withyham, then over the wilder land that fringed Ashdown Forest, until they met the London Road. All this way they had looked out for any trace of the thief, but saw nothing. Turning north they continued to enquire at every toll gate they passed. After a while the Rector said.

“I fear this is a wild goose chase, we have seen no trace of the thief.”

“I think we may still catch him.” The gardener replied, “For the first few miles across the heath I think he must have gone on foot, there were no recent wheel tracks. But on this road there are carts passing all the time, it would be easy to get a lift.”

Shortly afterwards they discovered their first trace of the thief. As they were changing horses in East Grinstead they heard a postilion call out.

“Keep your eyes open, there are pineapples on the road today!”

The rector dashed across to stop the chaise leaving, a few words of explanation to the passengers of the coach, and he learnt that a workman had found a pineapple on the road just beyond Caterham. There was no further news until they reached the Caterham gate when the gatekeeper pointed out the house of Mr Lloyd where the pineapple was, his wife was at home she was very concerned that she might have purchased stolen property, but the rector reassured her. The gardener examined the pineapple,

“That’s curious.” He turned the pineapple over, “look how it’s been cut. The stalk has been cut off flush at the bottom, just as you would for serving it on a table, not as you would cut a green pineapple for sending it to market. Then it needs the stalk two or three inches long. This way it could rot before it ripens.”

“So whoever took it didn’t know anything about pineapples?” The Rector said.

“Or had only seen them cut for the table.” Replied Mr Frazer.

They left Mrs Lloyd and had only been travelling for a couple of miles when they met a horseman coming the other way, as they had done several times before they asked if he had seen someone carrying pineapples. To their amazement he replied.

“Oh yes, only just this morning.”

He happily turned round and rode beside them telling his story as they went.

It was about nine and I was three miles from Croydon when I overtook the man, he was on foot and looked very tired. He had pine apples in a flag basket and a handkerchief, with a cabbage leaf inside of it, and some grapes. I carried the basket and the handkerchief for him. I came three miles with him on the high road, then just as we came to the pay gate near Dubble Hill he left me.”

“Do you remember anything else about the man?” Asked Mr Frazer.

“Oh yes, his stockings were torn, he said it had happened getting over Dubble Hill.”

As the chaise passed the next gate the Rector said.

“I think that was the man, his stockings were certainly torn by the damaged plants.” He paused and added, “And I think I know who it is too.” The gardener looked amazed.

“Do you remember John Godding?”

“Yes, the under gardener, I dismissed him for drunkenness.”

“And worse.” The two men nodded as they remembered the reputation the young gardener had gained locally in the few weeks he had been with them.

“Well, I recalled as we were speaking to Mr Shales, he once told me that had family at a place called Dubble Hill.”

 

It was late afternoon when they finally arrived at Covent Garden. Some of the stalls in the market had already been cleared, but the wooden shops that ran along one side of the square were still open. They walked along them, several had pineapples in their windows. Suddenly they both stopped in surprise, in the window of Mr Bentley’s shop were five green pineapples. The middle one was raised on a small plinth, it was twisted and had two bunches of leaves on top.

“It is the double one.”

Frazer went to enter the shop but his master put his hand on his arm.

“No, stop.”

“But it’s the double pineapple, I swear it.”

“I know, and swear to it we will have to do, but not here. We must go to Bow Street, to see the magistrate there.”

“Aye, the Runners, they need to be set on Godding.”

As they left the market the Rector looked at his gardener in surprise, the dour Scotsman was smiling.

“Godding wasn’t much of a gardener, but a gardener he was, and we gardeners usually have different sorts of runners to deal with.

Stephen Bale was smiling as he entered the gloomy portal of Bow Street court. At first the clerk was dismissive of a theft of fruit, but as soon as the value was mentioned, in excess of thirty pounds (which was more than he earnt in a year), he took them straight to the magistrate.

“And you can swear to the pineapple?” He asked in surprise.

“Well a shepherd knows his sheep when they look all the same to me, so I don’t doubt that a gardener would know his own pineapples.” Said a man who was sitting in the corner.

“Very true.” Said the magistrate turning to the man, “Return with Mr Frazer to Covent Garden, see what you can find out about this curious fruit.”

As they left he turned to Rev Bale and said, “Mr Carpmeal will soon get to the bottom of this.”

Back in Covent Garden Mr Bentley was at first very defensive but when Mr Frazer began to describe the peculiarities of the pineapple he looked pale and sat down.

“It was sometime between three and four o’clock, that the man came here and offered me five pineapples, I told him they were too green, and they were not cut as they usually were when they were brought to market. He said they were just upon the turn, and if they were put in the window they would ripen in a day or two.

“Did he say where he got them?”

“Yes, he said he came from Croydon, just by Haydon park. He said he was a gardener and that his master was a very good kind of a man, and never said anything so long as he kept the table well supplied.”

“And you believed him?”

“Yes, I gave him fifty-five shillings for them. I told him as I bought the pine apples of him, and they were not ripe, he should give me the refusal of the other fruit when he came to town. He said that he should in the course of the season have two or three dozen of peaches.”

They left the fruiterer with the pineapples in a basket, Mr Carpmeal turned to Mr Frazer and said.

“Do you grow any peaches?”

“We have a peach house, but the fruit isn’t ready for cutting yet.”

“Then you are lucky, if we don’t get the thief soon, you should keep a watch out, he may well want to pay you another visit.”

They then visited two more fruiterers, and heard a similar story. Mr Larkin had bought two, but had already sold them, whilst Mrs Bailey had refused to buy them as they had been cut off so tight to the base of the fruit. All of the people at Covent Garden described the same man, a description that matched the description that Mr Frazer had given of John Godding.

 

That evening Alexander Frazer came to his master.

“Sir, I know you wish to remain here to see if the Runners can catch Gooding, but may I return home tomorrow. I am concerned.”

“About the pineapples, yes I understand.”

“And also the peaches, we know the rogue had designs on them as well.”

“Of course,” he paused, “Alexander Frazer you are a good and faithful servant, you will leave tomorrow morning and go post. You will be back in Withyham shortly after noon.”

As he left, the rector smiled and said to himself, “The Runner was right, as a true shepherd cares for his sheep a true gardener will care for his pineapples. That might make an entertaining sermon.”

The following day Mr Frazer left for Withyham, and the Runner made a quieter journey to Dubble Hill. He found John Godding in his house, surprised to see him and denying he had been to Covent Garden in months. Then as the village constable was about to take his side and suggest that Mr Carpmeal had made a mistake, the Runner asked John Godding to pull down his stockings and show his legs. John Godding went pale as his did so – to reveal the red scratches that the pineapples had made.

 

  Withyham Church and Rectory 1783, a few years before Steven Bale was rector (Sussex Record Office)

I came across this story when looking for some pineapple stories for my previous blog. It is based on the trial of John Godding which is recorded in the records of the Central Criminal Court. Incidentally it is the only case of pineapple theft ever tried there. All the named people are real, as are all the incidents. Such as the lost pineapple found on the road and the threat made to Rev Bale’s peaches. I have only corrected the location. The trial says that the Stephen Bale was rector of Wineham in Sussex, whilst in reality he was rector of Withyham, I assume an error was made by the court clerk.

As for John Godding – he was transported for seven years.

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Georgian, Historical tales, Regency

One response to “The Pineapple Thief – A Georgian Tale

  1. A ripping yarn ( his tights!)

    Like

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