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The 'Baronet' From Wagga Wagga, Arthur Orton, or Tom Castro, Or Roger Tichborne

Roger Tichborne (left) The man claiming to be him (right)

The story of the Tichbourne Claimant has all the elements of a Victorian Melodrama, but it illustrates in many ways real life is stranger than fiction.

Roger Charles Tichborne was born in Paris in 1829. He was bought up mainly in France, although the Tichbourne family home was in Hampshire.

In 1854, Roger Tichborne now heir to the family fortune boarded a ship, the Bella bound for New York, but less than a week later, the Bella was lost at sea and in 1855 Roger was declared dead.

Roger’s mother Lady Tichborne however refused to give up hope and sent messages to be printed in newspapers around the world asking for further information about Roger’s fate.

In 1865 an Australian solicitor contacted Lady Tichbourne with the news that a man claiming to be her son had contacted him.

The man who contacted him was called Tom Castro a butcher from Wagga Wagga , although Tom Castro was a larger build than Roger Tichborne when he had disappeared there was some physical likeness.

Roger Tichborne, 1854

Lady Tichborne quickly made up her mind, with an eagerness that some said bordered on insanity, that this was her son. She implored him to leave Australia and he arrived in London on Christmas day 1866. After paying a flying visit to Tichborne House the claimant met the dowager at a hotel room in Paris. She announced that she recognised him straight away.

1871 Punch cartoon on the Tichborne trial

Given the known facts, this declaration was startling. Roger Tichborne had been slight and delicate with narrow sloping shoulders, a long narrow face, and thin straight dark hair. Castro, though about the same height, was big-framed and burly, weighing about twenty-four stone. He had a large round face and lots of fair wavy hair.

Born and educated in France, Roger spoke and wrote French like a native but Castro did not know a word of French.

Nevertheless, Lady Tichborne apparently had no doubts. She lived under the same roof with him for weeks at a time, accepted his wife and children, and gave him a generous allowance.

Tichborne House c.1875

All to the fury of the rest of the family. He had failed to recognise any of them, or to recall any incidents in Roger's life. Castro was, they declared unanimously, an imposter trying to claim Roger's identity and the fortune that went with it.

There followed two of the longest trials in English history. The first, a civil trial, was officially an action for the ejectment of Colonel Lushington, the tenant of Tichborne Park. It was brought to establish the claimant’s identity as Roger Tichborne and his rights to the family estate.

Tichborne v. Lushington began in May 1871 and ended 102 days later in March 1872. Over one hundred people from every class swore to the claimant's identity. They were mostly perfectly genuine in their belief.

By this point the whole story was a huge cause celebré in Britain, with the country divided between Tichborne true believers and Tichborne deniers. And where most of the actual Tichborne family rejected him, plenty of others believed Orton, including the Tichborne family’s solicitor Edward Hopkins and Dr Lipscomb, the family’s physician. Lipscomb’s testimony at the trial included one particularly remarkable detail: he declared that Orton, had ‘a distinctive genital malformation’ that was also possessed by Roger Tichborne, although he didn’t specify what the deformity was.

Several soldiers who had served with Roger Tichborne in the Dragoons recognised Orton as him, including his former batman Thomas Carter. High society support included Lord Rivers, and the MP for Guildford, the confusingly if aptly named Guildford Onslow.

But after several members of the Tichborne family had been in the box, the jury declared that they required no further evidence and were prepared to reject the claimant's case. His lawyers then abandoned their suit. He was arrested for perjury and later tried in a criminal court under the name of Castro.

The criminal trial, Regina v. Castro, was equally long, from April 1873 until February 1874. But the jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning its verdict that the claimant was guilty of perjury for his testimony in the civil trial. They declared that he was not Roger Tichborne and identified him on the evidence as Arthur Orton. He was sentenced to 14 years hard labour.

In the end, Orton served ten years in prison gaining freedom in 1884, for the next couple of years Orton travelled around Music Halls trying to make a living from his celebrity, It was also claimed he had confessed to a newspaper that he was Orton for a substantial amount of money. But when this money had run out he withdrew this confession.

Pictorial Souvenir of the Great Tichborne Trial [London, 1874]

But a significant chunk of the population continued to believe Orton was Tichborne — or perhaps both believed he was and knew he wasn’t but revelled in the idea of a working-class chancer making good and sticking it to the upper classes. The second, criminal trial lasted an extraordinary 188 days of court-time, with Orton being defended by a fiery but eccentric Irish lawyer called Edward Kenealy, whose ferocious manner in court led to him being dismissed by the judge and eventually being disbarred:

The court’s verdict swelled the popular tide in favour of the Claimant. He and Kenealy were hailed as heroes, the latter as a martyr who had sacrificed his legal career. George Bernard Shaw later highlighted the paradox whereby the Claimant was perceived simultaneously as a legitimate baronet and as a working-class man denied his legal rights by a ruling elite. In February 1875 Kenealy fought a parliamentary by-election for Stoke-upon-Trent as ‘The People’s Candidate’ and won with a resounding majority. However, he failed to persuade the House of Commons to establish a royal commission into the Tichborne trial, his proposal securing only his own vote and the support of two non-voting tellers, against 433 opposed. Thereafter, within parliament Kenealy became a generally derided figure, and most of his campaigning was conducted elsewhere. In the years of the Tichborne movement’s popularity a considerable market was created for souvenirs in the form of medallions, china figurines, teacloths and other memorabilia. However, by 1880 interest in the case had declined, and in the General Election of that year Kenealy was heavily defeated. He died of heart failure a few days after the election.

As for Orton, ‘the Claimant’: after his release from prison he confessed to The People newspaper (for a fee of £200) that he was, after all, Arthur Orton, originally of Wapping (although he later retracted this confession). He married a music hall singer and opened a small tobacconist’s shop in Islington. But the shop failed, and he died destitute in 1898.

Even in the death of Arthur Orton there was a final twist to the story, the coroner, his death certificate and a coffin plate all named him as Sir Roger Tichborne.


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