Caroline: The golden age of detective fiction was obsessed with identity. As soon as you start looking, you see impersonators everywhere in the crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s — sometimes there’s more than one in a single novel. Without the readily available means of independently verifying that someone was who they claimed to be that police have today, during the interwar period, it was entirely plausible that an imposter could go unquestioned even in extreme cases by their own family.
To 21st century readers, the common mystery fiction trope of the mysterious cousin from the colonies who conveniently turns up with a claim to the fortune and a ready motive for murder seems just that — a handy fictional device. But when writers like Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie and others were introducing themes of identity into their whodunnits, they were doing so in the shadow of a notorious and infamous Victorian case of impersonation, inheritance and false identity.
This is the story of the Tichborne Claimant.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
The story of the Tichborne Claimant reads like a nineteenth century sensation novel. It’s really no wonder that golden age writers, half a century later, were so inspired by it. As I’ve been researching the tale, every new twist seems to take it deeper into the realm of fiction. If it weren’t for the fact that I was looking at actual newspaper articles and court transcripts, I could easily have been convinced that I was consuming a plot devised by Wilkie Collins, or Sheridan Le Fanu, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
The case can be summed up very succinctly like this: in 1854 the heir to both an aristocratic title and two estates in the south of England was reported lost at sea in the Caribbean. In 1866, someone based in Australia came forward, claiming to be this very heir. Without a rigid system of passport controls or any forensic means to test this assertion, it fell to the legal system to determine whether or not it was true. In 1871, the claimant’s identity was put on trial in court in London, and the whole of Britain and many people further afield seem to have had an opinion as to whether he was who he said he was, or not.
The missing heir was one Roger Charles Tichborne. Born in 1829, it had already taken several quirks and coincidences of inheritance to put him in the hot seat for the family titles and fortune. To understand why we have to jump up a couple of generations and meet Sir Henry Tichborne, the 7th baronet. He and his wife Elizabeth had seven sons, the eldest of whom, another Henry, became the 8th baronet. This Henry had no male issue and a mere seven daughters, so because of the rules of the time prohibiting women inheriting such a title, upon his death it passed to the next of the seven brothers, Edward, the 9th baronet. Edward’s only son died in infancy, so the next brother James then got a turn when Edward died in 1853. James Tichborne became the 10th baronet, and suddenly his son Roger went from being the unimportant son of the third son to being the heir to the whole fortune.
During the later trial, there were attempts to portray Roger as a feckless, spendthrift, ungrateful sort of person, although what little first hand evidence that remains of him — such as his correspondence and his will — seems to suggest he was fairly canny and cautious about his personal affairs. He had spent most of his childhood and adolescence in France, since his mother Henriette was originally from there. Indeed, in one of those picaresque touches I mentioned, Henriette Tichborne was supposedly related to the House of Bourbon, the royal house of France, via her mother who was an illegitimate daughter of the Duc de Bourbon. Despite this heritage, Roger did attend an English public school, Stonyhurst, and then took a commission in an English regiment.
He first came into conflict with his family when he fell in love with his first cousin Kate, daughter of his uncle Edwards the 9th baronet. The family weren’t thrilled at the idea of their marriage, but a compromise was reached. Beginning in 1852, Roger would go overseas for three years, during which time Kate — who was only 16 — would be free to marry someone else if she so desired. If at the end of this period the cousins were still determined to make a match of it, they would be permitted to go ahead. Roger initially planned to spend his period of exile serving with his regiment in India, but the deployment was cancelled last minute. Furious that he was expected to spend his time back in barracks in Ireland instead, he resigned his commission and took a ship for South America instead, intending to spend his time and money seeing the world.
And that’s how, in April 1854, Roger Tichborne came to take a ship called the Bella from Rio De Janeiro bound for Kingston, Jamaica. Nothing was ever heard of the ship or her crew or passengers again. A few weeks after the departure, a few floating spars and an upturned longboat were discovered 400 miles offshore. It was assumed therefore that the Bella and everyone aboard her — including Roger Tichborne — had drowned.
Now that Roger has gone, perhaps, to his watery grave, the next person you must meet is one Arthur Orton. Born in 1834, Arthur was the youngest of 12 sons born to George Orton, a ship’s butcher based in Wapping, east London. Arthur was considered slightly slow and was a sufferer of St Vitus’ dance, a kind of convulsion that can affect adolescents and now known to be connected to rheumatic fever. Partly because of these characteristics and partly because he had 11 older brothers in line to inherit the butchering business ahead of him, employment was sought for Arthur overseas. At the age of 14, his father purchased an apprenticeship for him on a ship called the Ocean, and Arthur set off on his first voyage as a cabin boy to Valparaiso in Chile.
But the seafaring life wasn’t for Arthur, and upon arrival in South America he deserted from his ship. He spent two years seemingly living on the charity of various well off English ex pats, before smuggling himself on a different ship back to London in 1851.
The crime writer Michael Gilbert, author of post 1945 golden age style whodunnits like Death in Captivity and Smallbone Deceased, was sufficiently fascinated by the Tichborne case that in 1959 he published an excellent review of the whole story, titled The Claimant. As his day job Gilbert was a solicitor, so it’s a very rigorous account of the legal proceedings, but the reason I like it has more to do with his gift for crime writing. He has a certain breezy turn of phrase that helps to place the reader in the atmosphere of the case, and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about this extraordinary story than I can cover in a single episode.
In his chapter about Arthur Orton’s younger years, Gilbert remarks that there were “altogether too many Ortons in Wapping”, which goes some way to explaining why the clan kept trying to ship this younger son off to the colonies. The second time, after his ill fated excursion to Chile, Arthur was headed for Australia, where a customer in Hobart, Tasmania, had ordered two of the prize Shetland ponies that Arthur’s father bred in Wapping as a sideline. Like Roger, Arthur also departed England in 1852, and seems to have taken to Australian life fairly quickly. He had family connections in Tasmania, and he was soon set up with a butcher’s stall in the market at Hobart earning a reputation for himself.
So far, so mundane — these are just two young men, from very different backgrounds and currently on different continents, with nothing yet to link them together. The catalyst for what happens next is Roger’s mother, Lady Tichborne. Michael Gilbert sums up her role neatly: “had she been a different sort of person, the Tichborne case might never have been heard of”. Lady Tichborne wasn’t willing to accept that her beloved elder son Roger had been drowned in a shipwreck on the way to Jamaica, you see. Even after the detailed news of what had happened to his ship reached England, she maintained that he must have somehow escaped the fate that had apparently befallen everyone else on board and was still alive, somewhere out there in the world.
And what did you do in the 1850s if you wanted to get in touch with someone who hadn’t made contact with you? You advertised in the newspaper, of course. So that’s what Lady Tichborne did, despite the misgivings and rolled eyes of the rest of her family. “If anybody can give any clue of Roger Charles Tichborne and if there are any survivors of La Bella they are requested to let Lady Tichborne know of them at 1 Nottingham Place, Regents Park. A handsome REWARD is promised for any well-authenticated particulars”. The word reward, by the way, appears in all caps. This text appeared in several languages in the Times newspaper, both in the English and overseas editions. Where Lady Tichborne could find a local inquiry agent willing to take up the work, it was also inserted into other publications, which is how, in 1865, it came to appear in the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. It was actually a much longer advert, giving some information about what age Roger would be now (36), his appearance before he disappeared, and giving the crucial fact that since his father’s death in 1862, if still alive Roger would be the rightful air to the entire Tichborne estate. The fact that Roger’s younger brother Alfred had already inherited did not seem to trouble Lady Tichborne — she believed absolutely in Roger’s survival and Alfred would just have to make way for him.
A solicitor called William Gibbes in the town of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, was at this time dealing with the collection of a debt of £6 from a certain Thomas Castro, who had appeared in the town around 1861 and seemed to have little or no prior history that anybody knew about. In another of those random strokes of luck that pepper this case, William’s wife had seen this advertisement in the Sydney newspaper. She made the suggestion that perhaps Castro was Roger Tichborne, and her husband ran with it. His hopes of collecting the reward were significantly bolstered early on when, in his first meeting with Castro on the subject, he was smoking a pipe with “RCT” carved into it. He was also greatly impressed by the “gallant” way in which Castro held the door open for his wife, which convinced him of an aristocratic upbringing.
Lady Tichborne’s Australian inquiry agent, Arthur Cubitt, was soon called in and a letter was written to Lady Tichborne from Castro, explaining that he was alive, had lost some of his memory, and was keen to come home to England as soon as she would send the money for his fare. Initially, the solicitor stumped up the money for Castro, his wife and their new baby to go to Sydney to pursue the matter further. And who was this Castro, I can hear you wondering? Well, this identity crisis is complex, but the evidence is very strong that he was one Arthur Orton, formerly of Hobart, Tasmania, and even more formerly of Wapping, London. For ease of reference, from now on we’ll just call him, as everyone else did at the time, “the Claimant”.
A letter from Lady Tichborne eventually reached the Claimant and his growing band of supporters in Sydney. She suggested that he set off immediately for Europe, and also imparted the news that a beloved old family servant, Andrew Bogle, was actually in the city. Originally from the West Indies, Bogle had been valet to Edward Tichborne, the 9th baronet and Roger’s uncle. When he heard that Roger had re-emerged, Bogle rushed round to his hotel only to be disappointed. “I came here to see Sir Roger,” he said. “You are not he.” But eventually he was persuaded that this was Roger, and he had just put on a lot of weight since had last met. Bogle’s apparent “recognition” of the claimant was an important early boost to the campaign for formal recognition and, eventually, inheritance. Eventually, the whole party set off from Sydney, going first to Panama and then to London. That was where the claim would truly be tested.
After the break: could you prove that you are who you say you are?
When the Claimant first arrived back in England, his fortunes were on the up. Lady Tichborne was convinced that he was her son Roger and that she had been right all along never to doubt that he had survived the shipwreck back in 1854. The Tichborne family solicitor and doctor, both of whom had known Roger, also pronounced themselves satisfied as to his identity. Several of Roger’s former military colleagues also lent their voices to the chorus of support, as did some prominent members of parliament. However, there was also substantial opposition to his claim in the form of the rest of the Tichborne family, none of whom recognised him as genuine. Roger’s younger brother Alfred, the 11th baronet, had died the year before the Claimant arrived in London leaving a pregnant wife behind. A son was born in May 1866, and the Tichborne family rallied around this infant as the rightful heir to the estates and titles. However, this fragile line of succession only heightened the public interest in the question. If this baby didn’t survive, the Claimant could conceivably be the sole remaining heir of a noble English family that could trace its lineage back before the Norman Conquest of 1066. You see what I mean when I say that this story has all the ingredients required of the most florid and Gothic Victorian novel.
Matters were at an impasse. Some reliable and important witnesses recognised the Claimant, others called him a fraud. There was no objective test that he could pass to prove himself, and no DNA that could be cross checked or anything like that. Instead the progress of his claim relied upon subjective judgements as to whether he had the same French-inflected accent as Roger Tichborne had had in his youth, or whether despite now weighing over 300 pounds, any physical resemblance could be detected.
As well as the family drama within the Tichborne clan that kept the case in the newspapers during the Claimant’s first few months in Britain, there were two other factors that kept public interest running high. The first was the fact that the Tichbornes were, famously, an old and prominent Roman Catholic family. Since the English Reformation in the 16th century separated the church of England from the church of Rome, a series of laws had been introduced by successive monarchs that restricted and in some cases criminalised aspects of Roman Catholic worship. But beginning in the 18th century a process known as “Catholic relief” began and in 1829, coincidentally the year that Roger Tichborne was born, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed. This effectively allowed Catholics in England to participate fully in public life for the first time in centuries — they could now vote, run for election to Parliament, and hold most of the major offices of state.
The Tichbornes, although definitely wealthy and aristocratic, had until very recently belonged to this class of official outsider — they were titled, but not exactly welcome in the British establishment because of their adherence down the centuries to their religion. Given how topical the subject of Catholic emancipation was at the time, it’s not exactly surprising that the general public was keen to see their dirty linen washed in public. Whether the Claimant was a sufficiently devout Catholic to pass as Roger Tichborne formed a prominent part of the debate about his identity.
Then the second thing that fired the public imagination was an ancient tradition called the Tichborne Dole. The story runs like this. In the 12th century, a Lady Mariella, the wife of a miserly Sir Henry de Tichborne, had asked her husband on her deathbed to dedicated some land to provide an income for the poor in her memory. His reply was to pull a burning brand from the fire and say that she could have as much land as she could walk round, carrying the torch, before it went out. As ill as she was, she supposedly still managed to crawl around 23 acres of land, before the fire petered out. For the next 600 years, every Lady Day, ie the feast of the Annunciation, 25th March, this charitable gift was given. And for good reason: to get her revenge, Lady Mariella had placed a curse on her husband’s descendants — if they ever stopped performing this act of charity, the Tichborne family would see a generation of seven sons and then one of seven daughters, after which the name would die out and the family mansion would fall down.
The practice of handing out the Tichborne Dole was suspended in 1796. In 1803 the family seat started falling down because of subsidence, and as we’ve already heard, in 1821 Henry Tichborne succeeded to the baronetcy, the eldest of seven sons. He then had seven daughters, at which point the family got scared that the curse was coming to pass and restarted the charitable giving. Roger Tichborne, Henry’s nephew, was born before the resumption of the Dole, and his younger brother Alfred after. Roger was cursed, but Alfred wasn’t — proved, many said, by the fact that Alfred was survived by his infant son while Roger was lost at sea. Ancient curses! Truly, this story has it all. As Michael Gilbert put it, this story was “the perfect blend of a permanent Cup Final with a well-managed, never-ending strip cartoon”.
Without any objective test for the Claimant to pass and with mixed results on Roger’s known associates recognising him, the case fell back on classic detective work. The Tichborne family sent an agent to Australia to investigate the Claimant’s life there, with especial reference to the story of Arthur Orton — remember him? One of the many complicating factors about this whole business is that even while the Claimant was trying to prove that he was Roger Tichborne, he was also trying to prove that he wasn’t Arthur Orton, the butcher’s son from Wapping who had emigrated and whose family the Claimant seemed to have made contact with soon after his return to England. The Claimant himself also traveled to South America in 1868 to meet potential witnesses who had met Roger Tichborne during his travels.
And this is where we meet an old friend, Jack Whicher. You may remember him from the episode I made last year with Robin Stevens, The Murder at Road Hill House, or indeed if you’ve read or seen The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. He had been the man detective in another controversial Victorian case, that of the murder of Francis Saville Kent at Road Hill House in 1860. After his failure to solve this case — his suspicions about Francis’s older sister Constance were not taken seriously and his reputation was ruined — Whicher left the Metropolitan Police in 1864. By the time the Claimant came to London, he was working as a private investigator. He was hired by a friend of the Tichborne family to find material that would discredit the Claimant, and over the next seven years he did an excellent job. It was Whicher, using painstaking detective work, who proved beyond reasonable doubt that the Claimant had family connections in Wapping and even located Arthur Orton’s former girlfriend and persuaded her to testify in court.
As with everything in Britain, eventually the case of the Tichborne Claimant came back to social class. He enjoyed tremendous support among the working class around the country, who saw him as a man who had lived a rough and ready life in Australian now being done out of his rightful inheritance by the aristocratic and Catholic elite. The upper classes, meanwhile, were mostly unconvinced by the Claimant’s unpolished manners, his inability to speak French, and his lack of knowledge of the family estate’s servants. As the Claimant travelled around the country speaking at public meetings to drum up support for his cause, the whole question of the Tichborne inheritance became a lightning rod for the class divisions of the day.
Everything eventually came to a head in 1871, when the Tichborne Claimant brought a civil case to court that sought to establish his identity and rights to the Tichborne estates. It’s worth mentioning that the whole fortune amounted to several million pounds in today’s money, which makes all of these shenanigans make a lot of sense — the Claimant was playing for very high stakes, and the people who hitched themselves to his cause hoped to be amply rewarded if he succeeded in inheriting. The court heard evidence from lots of people who believed that the Claimant was Roger Tichborne, as well as arguments from the defence that he was in fact Arthur Orton and old family servants like Andrew Bogle had been coaching him in how to behave like Roger Tichborne in return for a promised cut of the inheritance.
The decisive evidence came from a schoolfriend of Roger Tichborne’s, who testified that Roger had had tattoos that the Claimant did not possess. The jury found against the Claimant and the state then immediately began criminal proceedings against him for perjury and put him in Newgate Prison. His fortunes were utterly reversed, and from being an up and coming man with an expectation of a large inheritance he became a bankrupt prisoner begging in newspaper articles for the public to donate funds for his defence. The perjury trial began in 1873 and lasted for 188 days, one of the longest court hearings in English legal history. Public interest in his story remained high, but nothing can suck the thrill out a story like a really long and technical court case and by the time the judge found him guilty of perjury in 1874, the fervour surrounding the case of the Tichborne Claimant had already diminished. In his summing up, the judge not only found him guilty but stated that he was not Roger Tichborne and was in fact Arthur Orton, which rather put a dampener on his supporters’ spirits too.
There are many examples of how aspects of this case were imported into detective fiction. Novels like Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie both feature people who return from overseas to inhabit new identities in an attempt to secure large inheritances. In fact, the disguised cousin who reveals themself during the denoument is such a common trope in golden age crime fiction that every parody of the genre features a moment where someone leaps up and declares, “no, it is I, cousin Andrew, back from the dead to claim my inheritance!”. As readers of this kind of book, we learn not to believe that anyone is who they say they are until the very last page.
After the official golden age was over, authors continued to experiment in this vein as the crime novel developed further. A book like The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr from 1952 has an interesting twist on a Claimant style narrative, since it features a nephew who pays someone else to impersonate him so that his rich uncle will consider the conditions for his inheritance fulfilled. The world wars also provided good material for writers interested in ideas of identity, inheritance and impersonation, as Julian Symons showed in 1965’s The Belting Inheritance. In that story an aristocratic matriarch, Lady Warington, has four sons, two of whom died during WW2. And yet one of these supposedly deceased sons returns unexpectedly, and the rest of the family have to grapple with the idea that he may genuine or he may be an imposter there to secure one third of a substantial inheritance.
However, the best and closest replica of the Tichborne Claimant story in fiction is Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar. This story, which takes place after the second world war on a country estate in the south of England, features a young man returning “home” from the colonies to claim his stake in the valuable stud farm. He claims to be Patrick Ashby, who went missing and was presumed to have taken his own life by drowning at the age of 13. Tey plays with her readers’ familiarity with the Tichborne case, though, and inverts many of the Claimant’s characteristics. Brat is thin where the Claimant was fat, almost pathologically honest rather than constantly being caught out in his own lies, and in possession of a good rather than flimsy claim. The final outcome of the novel, too, diverges from real life — perhaps because what really happened to the Tichborne Claimant was too tragic to be believable in a novel.
For you see, by the time the Claimant had served his ten year sentence for perjury and got out of prison in 1884, nobody really cared about his cause any more. He was broke and unlucky in every endeavour he tried; at one point he even confessed that his whole claim had been spurious in a newspaper in exchange for a few hundred pounds, and then immediately recanted it. He died in poverty in 1898, and 5000 people came to see him buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave
As for the Tichborne family, you could say that Lady Mariella’s curse got them in the end, although it took a bit longer than she might have intended. The Tichbornes made it well into the twentieth century and eventually died out in 1968 when the 14th baronet died without male issue.
The various legal experts, including crime writer slash solicitor Michael Gilbert, who have reviewed the case down the years generally agree with the Claimant was really Arthur Orton and this whole saga was an elaborate and audacious attempt at fraud. As I hope you can appreciate having now heard all about it, it’s not something that it’s really possible to feel neutral about — like all the most intriguing true crime stories, you feel like you must take a side.
However, there is one last mystery that Michael Gilbert highlights in his book, and that I agree has never been satisfactorily solved. If the Claimant was indeed Arthur Orton, the poorly educated son a of a butcher from Wapping, how did he managed to convince so many of Roger Tichborne’s highly educated friends, relatives and even his mother, that he was genuine? Part of what made this case endure was this very question — a lot of serious people took his claim seriously. Perhaps they were all just hoping for a cut of the spoils, but that seems far fetched. As a conspiracy, investigation suggests that it was entirely organic, with the key figures just seeing how far confidence and Orton’s knack for memorising minor details about Roger’s life could take them.
Whoever he really was, he did achieve immortality of a sort: nobody will ever forget the Tichborne Claimant.
This episode was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books we mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thetichborneclaimant. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Special thanks to Robin Stevens, whose thesis on the influence of Victorian crimes on Golden Age detective fiction inspired me to make this epiosde.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.