Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Tichborne Claiming

An 1871 Punch cartoon on the Tichborne trial

The story of the Tichborne claimant is properly fascinating. Although little known today, it gripped mid-Victorian Britain, and I sometimes wonder at the merits of, say, writing a historical novel based on it.

First, a paragraph of backstory. The Tichbornes, of Tichborne Park in Hampshire, were an ancient English Catholic family (they are no longer: the baronetcy became extinct in 1968 on the death of the 14th baronet). In 1803 the seventh baronet, Sir Henry Tichborne, captured by the French during the Napoleonic Wars, was detained at Verdun along with his companion, the nobly-born Englishman Henry Seymour of Knoyle. Despite imprisonment, Henry Seymour managed to conduct an affair with the daughter of the Duc de Bourbon, which seems to me quite an impressive achievement, all things considered. A daughter, Henriette Felicité, was born in 1807. Decades later, after the release of Sir Henry T. and Seymour, and when Henriette Felicité reached 21, her father decided she should marry James Tichborne, old Sir Henry’s fourth son. James was middle-aged and ugly, but Henriette married him anyway and in 1829 she gave birth to a son, Roger Tichborne.

Now for the main event. Roger was raised in France with his mother, his father spending most of his time in England. Old Sir Henry’s first-born, also Henry, inherited the baronetcy in 1821, but himself had no male heirs (though he fathered seven daughters) so on his death the title passed to his brother Edward, who also had no male heirs. Suddenly Roger, from being a distant relative, found himself third in line to the baronetcy. In 1849 his father decided that Roger, who was fluent in French but barely spoke English, ought to be prepared for the eventuality of inheriting, and had him brought to Britain, where he attended Stonyhurst, afterwards being commissioned into the 6th Dragoon Guards. He was not a natural soldier: tall, but very slender (he was so skinny that his tailor had to sew special belt-hooks inside his coat to keep his sword-belt from slipping over his hips and falling to the floor), unrobust, pale, romantic, moony. After an unhappy, abortive love affair 25-year-old Roger bought-out his commission and set off to see the world. He sailed first to South America. In late 1853 his boat, La Pauline, docked at Valparaíso in Chile.

Roger Tichborne, 1854

A letter was waiting for him there: his uncle had died and his father had inherited the baronetcy, which made him the Tichborne heir. Roger then crossed the Andes, travelled to Buenos Aires and on to Rio de Janeiro, where in April 1854 he was last seen alive, waiting to board a Jamaica-bound ship, the Bella. On 24 April 1854 a capsized ship’s boat bearing the name Bella was discovered off the Brazilian coast. The ship itself was never seen again.

The family reconciled themselves to the fact that he was dead — all except for his mother Henriette, who refused to believe it. A clairvoyant encouraged her in her conviction that her son was still alive. For many years she placed advertisements in the Times and other papers, describing her boy as ‘of a delicate constitution, rather tall, with very light brown hair and blue eyes’ and promising ‘a most liberal reward for any information that may definitely point out his fate.’ She signed these notices ‘H. F. Tichborne.’

In October 1865 a man in Australia announced that he was Roger Tichborne. This individual had been working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga under the name ‘Arthur Castro’, although it seems his actual name was Arthur Orton. Lady Tichborne paid for his passage to Europe, requesting that he write a will before he left Australia in case of mishap. In this will, Orton bequeathed a non-existent Tichborne property in the Isle of Wight, and called his mother ‘Hannah Frances Tichborne’ — since he’d only ever seen her initials, and didn’t realise she was actually Henriette Felicité. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to withdraw £10,000 from a Melbourne bank, against an account held at a London house at which no Tichborne had ever banked.

So, yes, Orton was a fraud. Where the actual Roger Tichborne was extraordinarily slender, fluent in French, classically educated, sensitive and refined, Orton was very fat — when he arrived in England he weighed 15 stone, and within a few years had ballooned to 35 stone — couldn’t speak French, and couldn’t even identify which of the texts he was shown was Greek and which Latin, let alone read either. His accounts of his early life were vague and noncommittal, and mixed occasional accuracies (he was able to describe his favourite fishing tackle from when he was a boy, for instance) with large and patent errors and inventions.

Nonetheless when he arrived in Paris in 1866, and was met by Lady Tichborne, she tearfully embraced him and declared to the world that her son had returned to her. She settled an income of £1000 pa on him and made a legal deposition confirming him as heir.

The rest of the family weren’t having this. So far as they were concerned, the legal heir was Henriette’s grandson by Alfred, her second son — Alfred died in 1866, shortly before Orton arrived in Europe; his infant son was also called Alfred. It doesn’t take any very penetrating psychological insight to see that Henriette losing her second son, just before her first was quote-unquote miraculously restored, clearly played some part in her inability to see through Orton’s imposture.

What’s really remarkable about this story is not that Lady Tichborne believed Orton to be her lost son, but that so many other people did too. The case finally came to court in 1871: Orton, or ‘Roger’, sued to eject a certain Colonel Lushington, the tenant of Tichborne Park, and so claim the estate for himself. A successful suit would have effectively confirmed Orton’s legal identity as Roger Tichborne.

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. Golly!

The Tichborne Claimant in 1871

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.

How could they believe it? That’s the really fascinating thing, I think.

Anyway: things soon began to unravel for Orton. Lady Tichborne died on 12 March 1868, removing his main advocate and ending his annual stipend. He initiated a number of schemes to keep-up his income, borrowing against his claim and also selling bonds to supporters — he had a large (as we would nowadays say) ‘fanbase’, and they snapped up the issue of 1000 ‘Tichborne Bonds’, each of which could be redeemed at their face value of £100 when he entered into his inheritance. This enterprising stock-market exercise raised the staggering sum of £40,000, although, as his star began to wane, the bonds were soon being traded for tiny amounts.

The court case did not go well for Orton. The defence team — led by John Coleridge, one of the most distinguished lawyers of the age, and great-nephew of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge — was able to submit Orton’s marriage certificate from Wagga Wagga (he had married a housemaid there, one Mary Ann Bryant) which showed his date of birth as 1833, not Roger’s 1829. They showed that such details of Roger Tichborne’s childhood as Orton was correctly identifying had been fed to him by a family servant called Bogle — I mean, the names in this story are just too delicious, don’t you think? — presumably for money. One witness, Lord Bellew (who had known Tichborne at Stonyhurst) testified that Roger possessed several distinctive tattoos. The Claimant, examined, was shown not to possess these. By March 1872 the jury had heard enough. Some 200 witnesses had been lined-up by the defence to prove Orton’s fraud, but they were never called: the jury instructed the judge they were ready to reject the Claimant’s suit. Orton was charged with perjury and committed to Newgate Prison. After a second, criminal trial Orton was convicted and sent down for fourteen years.

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.

I recently read Sean Grass’s excellent monograph, The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literary Marketplace (Cambridge University Press 2019), which closes with an account of the Tichborne case. This is a persuasive reading of how the case became commodified (all those souvenirs! bonds! newspaper accounts and books!), a network of ‘textual involutions and mass-cultural reifications’ that showed ‘how identity had become a seminal form of value within England’s capitalist sphere’ [213]. I think this is right: even Orton/Tichborne’s body became a legible text, written on (or not) by tattoos, genitally deformed, fat and so on. But Grass says one thing that I’m not sure is right. He notes how ‘whole books have taken up the subject, from Edward Kenealy’s The Trial at Bar of Sir Roger C.D. Tichborne (1875–80) to Douglas Woodruff’s The Tichborne Claimant: a Victorian Mystery (1957)’, and adds:

It became the touchstone for literary works such as Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life (1874) and, possibly, J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937).

This gave me pause. Clarke’s melodramatic fiction, written at the height of the Tichborne mania, I can see, but: The Hobbit, really? True Bilbo disappears and then reappears; but he really is Bilbo, and it doesn’t take him long to kick the Sackville-Bagginses out.

And indeed, as I thought about it, I found it difficult to think of any significant literature that fictionalises or adapts this particular story. I wonder if, whatever I say at the head of this post, it is not the best material for a novel. Perhaps we prefer the story of the true hero arriving home in disguise, unrecognised, as Odysseus does in Homer, over the story of the false hero declaring himself the hero, fooling some before being revealed. Would it be a better story if, after all the misdirection of his weight and ignorance, it was revealed that Orton was Roger Tichborne after all?

In Daniel Vigne’s 1982 film Le Retour de Martin Guerre (based on a much older French case, not on the Tichborne claimant) the ‘false’ Martin Guerre is a better man than the violent and unpleasant person he is impersonating; a feature copied by the 1993 US remake, Sommersby starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, which transposes the story to the American Civil War. And that is more dramatically interesting, I think. There’s a 1955 Philip K. Dick’s short story called “Human Is”, in which a cold, unpleasant and abusive husband is sent on a mission to the dying planet Rexor IV, and when he returns he is changed for the better. The man is tried as an imposter but saved by the testimony of his wife, who prefers her husband this way — even though, as the story reveals at the end, her husband’s mind has actually been replaced by an Rexorian, eager to escape his dying world. There’s a moral dimension to this that puts in question the less interesting and more straightforward ‘is he or isn’t he?’ of bald impersonation. As it stands, the Tichborne case lacks that. But perhaps that could be the very ground of my retelling …

[But see also, here]




Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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