The Tichborne Claimant: Baronet or Butcher
Roger Tichborne was a British aristocrat and a man of means. In 1854, he was travelling in South America. On April 20, 1854, he boarded a ship called the Bella in Rio de Janeiro that was headed for Jamaica. A few days later, some wreckage was found off the coast of Brazil along with a small capsized boat bearing the name Bella. There were no bodies and it was assumed the ship had sunk with all hands. That’s when the search for Roger Tichborne began.
The Tichborne family held a baronetcy in Hampshire, southern England, which dated back to 1621.
Roger Charles Tichborne was the heir to title of the 10th Baronet. The family’s wealth was based on the ownership of almost 2,300 acres of farms and land known as Tichborne Park, as well as property in London. This provided them with an annual income in the mid-nineteenth century of £20,000; that’s about two-and-a-half-million pounds in today’s money.
Into this wealthy family a boy child was born in 1829. He was christened Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, the first son of Sir James Tichborne and Henriette Felicite Tichborne. Henriette was the product of a royal dalliance in the French court and she was not a happy lady.
She hated living in rural England and took off for Paris with Roger. He lived there until he was 16 when his father enticed him to return to England. Having spent his early years in France, Roger spoke English with a quite pronounced French accent.
An Unfortunate Love Affair
Roger and his first cousin, Catherine Doughty, fell in love; a union that was opposed by the family. The solution was to send the lad off on a three-year trip around the world in the hope it would cool his ardor.
In June 1855, news arrived at Tichborne Hall that young Roger’s ship had sunk in a storm and he was presumed lost at sea.
With the heir to the title and fortune gone, both passed to Roger’s brother Alfred. Unfortunately, Sir Alfred was a dissolute character whose reckless financial dealings and heavy drinking reduced the estate to near bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Lady Tichborne refused to believe that her son was dead.
There were rumours that another vessel had picked up survivors and had taken them to Australia. Another version that reached Lady Tichborne’s ears was that the crew of the Bella had stolen her and sailed her to Australia. A clairvoyant showed up and told her ladyship that her oldest son was indeed alive.
The Man From Wagga Wagga
Henriette was so convinced of her son’s survival that she started placing advertisements in Australian newspapers offering a reward for information about the whereabouts of Roger.
A few years after Roger’s disappearance, the ads caught the attention of an unsuccessful butcher named Thomas Castro who lived in the town of Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.
He was, he said, none other than Roger Tichborne living under an assumed name. Hadn’t he already told his drinking buddies several times that he was from a titled family?
Lady Tichborne asked Thomas Castro/Roger Tichborne to go to Sydney to meet a couple of former family servants who were living there. They confirmed that Thomas resembled Roger and knew things about the family that only a Tichborne would know.
They overlooked the fact that Thomas was shorter and much heavier than Roger had been. After all, the Tichborne males had a tendency to become portly with age. He also seemed to have lost his French accent.
Nevertheless, Lady Tichborne was convinced her long lost son had been found and brought this rough-hewn character from the Australian outback to Paris.
The rest of the family was equally convinced that Henriette had unearthed a swindler.
The Estate Claim
Lady Tichborne took in the Australian butcher and shared her income with him. Roger Tichborne/Castro enjoyed living as a member of the landed gentry. His weight ballooned up to 336 pounds and his debts grew similarly.
Then, his benefactress died in 1868 and he faced financial ruin. His only choice was to claim what Alfred’s profligate ways had left of the estate. He filed a claim in Chancery Court and drew widespread financial support among friends who would be paid back, with interest, when he got his hands on the money.
Enquiries were made. Did the man who said he was Roger Tichborne have a legitimate claim on the estate? Was he even Roger? DNA identification was many decades in the future so other methods were needed.
Witnesses were tracked down and primed for testimony that was worthless.
Detectives unearthed the information that Thomas Castro was probably not Roger Tichborne, he probably wasn’t even Thomas Castro either. More likely he was Arthur Orton son of a butcher in Wapping in the east end of London. He had gone off to Australia and was involved in all sorts of nefarious dealings including, probably, murder.
The Chancery Court sat for 109 days and the nation was transfixed by every day’s testimony. The case against Tichborne/Castro/Orton was too strong including the absence of a tattoo Roger was known to have on his upper arm.
The Tichborne claimant was declared an imposter and was promptly arrested on charges of perjury.
Prison for the Tichborne Claimant
Castro, or Orton, or whoever he was continued to claim he was Sir Roger Tichborne throughout his 188-day perjury trial. His supporters continued to back him up; they had no choice, to accept he was a fraud meant losing whatever money they had put into his case.
The claimant even started up what is called today a go-fund-me campaign. He took out newspaper ads declaring “I appeal to every British soul who is inspired by a love of justice and fair play, and is willing to defend the weak against the strong.” Support committees formed and raised money for his defence.
The perjury trial had the same outcome for the claimant as the Chancery hearing, adding the bonus of a 14-year prison sentence with hard labour.
On getting out of prison in 1884, Castro/Orton tried to make a living off his notoriety through music hall appearances. Apparently, he wasn’t very good at the gigs and, anyway, the public appetite for things Tichborne had waned.
The claimant died in poverty at the age of 64 in 1898. However, there was enough money from his still-loyal supporters to provide a plaque for his coffin which read “Sir Roger, Charles Doughty Tichborne.”
While the claimant was serving his time, a man popped up in Sydney, Australia claiming to be Arthur Orton. He was an inmate in a mental asylum, and was known by the name of William Cresswell. The claimant’s supporters tried to bring Cresswell to England to establish that the Arthur Orton behind bars was really Sir Roger Tichborne. An Australian court looked into Cresswell’s claim and came up with the unsatisfactory conclusion that his identity was undecided.
Sir Anthony Joseph Henry Doughty Doughty-Tichborne was the 14th and last baronet of the line. He had four children but the only male died when just a day old. He died in 1968 but none of his three daughters could inherit the title.
In 1998, a comedy/drama entitled The Tichborne Claimant was directed by David Yates, who later achieved fame as director of the Harry Potter movies.
- “Butcher or Baronet: The Amazing Story of the Tichborne Claimant.” Pauline Montagna, English History Authors, February 26, 2014.
- “The Tichborne Claimant, a Victorian Mystery.” Barry Ennever, Ennever Family History and Ancestry, undated.
- “Bizarre Victorian Trial on Show.” BBC News, August 12, 2004.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor