On 4th February 1851, James Vanstone was charged with the theft of an Erica Brunaides and ten pots of heath (species not named), the property of Robert Taylor Pince of Alphington Rd, St. Thomas.
Frederick Brewer was the first witness called. He was Robert Pince's foreman and began by explaining that Pince's Nursery grew many expensive plants and mentioned that some plants were so rare that in the whole of Exeter, there may be just one at Pince's plus another at Veitch's. Over recent time, they had missed a large quantity of plants and could not explain how they had gone missing. On December 31 1850, he had checked that there were 25 heath plants in stock. Erica Brunaides was expensive and rare and was priced out at 5 shillings. He personally had bent up a small piece of wire and embedded it in the root ball of the plant as an identification mark and then told one of the workmen, Henry Johns, to watch these plants very carefully. On 3 February 1851, Johns reported to him that a number of plants were missing. At that point, Brewer sent another person along to Vanstone's Nursery with instructions to attempt to buy such a plant from them.
At 10 o'clock, the man returned and Brewer immediately looked for the identification wire - and found it. The plant had been re-potted but he instantly recognised the soil as being from Pince's nursery. He went straight to a Magistrate and swore out a warrant. Upon arrest, the prisoner said that he had grown the plant himself.
Henry Johns gave evidence that no such plants had been sold at Pince's but that he counted the plants in the row as all present on 28 January but that by February 3, some were missing. George Timewell gave evidence that on 31 January he had gone to Vanstones and ordered plants in the name of a Mr. William Caldwell. He called again on Tuesday 4 February and bought six roses and a heath for which he was charged 2 s 6d.
James Veitch came forward next to testify that he had never sold any such plants to Vanstone. He said that at that time of year, any disturbance to the root soil would probably kill the plant. A journeyman gardener called Cornelius Rhodes came forward to explain that items sold at Pince's were always delivered by himself in person. He added that he had never been to Vanstone's on any errand. The final prosecution witness was Robert Taylor Pince himself who stated this had been the biggest loss his business had ever sustained - presumably because he had lost root stock from which he would have propagated a large number of plants.
John Vanstone next appeared on behalf of his father, the prisoner. He explained that his father had asked him to obtain certain plants which they did not have in stock on behalf of a customer. Rather than go himself to Pince's or Veitch's, he had used a middleman called Hutchins because he thought he would have been able to get them more cheaply than himself. He agreed that he had spoken to his father about what he might say at the trial but that he never told him what his story was going to be. In fact, he said, "he has rowed me about it. He never told me what to say."
John Vanstone continued by saying: "I have never had but 5 plants from Hutchins. I cannot recollect whether Hutchins offered or I asked him. I did not know Hutchins was to steal the plants and I did not know the plants were in any way dishonestly come by. Of course, I thought Hutchins would buy the plants of Mr. Pince."