In 1854, the vessel Bella disappeared at sea when bound for New York. On board was Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne estates and baronetcy, who was declared dead – lost at sea.
And yet his mother never gave up hope that he might have survived. She placed advertisements in newspapers around the world seeking information about her son’s fate, and it seemed her faith was rewarded when she received news from Australia.
It came in the form of a letter from the solicitor, William Gibbes, telling her that her son was alive and well and living in Wagga Wagga under the name of Thomas Castro. In fact, the man was actually one Arthur Orton who would become known as the Tichborne Claimant.
Lady Tichborne contacted a former servant now living in New South Wales and who had known her son well to interview Castro/Orton and he was convinced by his knowledge of the family that he was who he claimed to be.
Lady Tichborne sent money so that Castro/Orton and his wife and children could travel to Europe and she was reunited with her long-lost son in Paris. But other members of the family were less convinced, particularly since Castro/Orton weighed 21 stone whereas Roger had always been of slender build.
Furthermore, Castro/Orton couldn’t speak a word of French, a language in which Roger had been fluent. The claimant explained this away by saying that he had had an illness that had affected part of his memory.
But before I go any further, just who was Arthur Orton and how did he come by knowledge of the Tichborne family, no matter how suspect?
Orton was born in Wapping, London, in 1834, the son of a butcher. He briefly worked for his father after leaving school, but aged fifteen he was apprenticed to the captain of the trading ship Ocean. This didn’t last long as he deserted while the ship was in port in Chile and spent some time living in the country town of Melipilla where he met and befriended the Castro family.
He worked his passage back to London as an ordinary seaman before sailing for Tasmania, arriving in Hobart in 1853. Orton worked as a butcher and there is evidence that he committed various minor criminal offences, such as ‘offering for sale unwholesome meat, unfit for human food’ and obtaining money under false pretences.
Little is known about Orton’s life from then until his contact with Lady Tichborne, although it seems he may have been a gold prospector and mail runner and might even have been wanted as a bushranger and murderer, although none of this has been proven.
But how did he come by his sketchy knowledge of Roger Tichborne’s life? It seems that the two must have known each other at some point, probably while both were in South America.
Back in England, Orton/Tichborne arrived in 1866, his newly reunited family members already suspecting that he wasn’t who he claimed to be. But Lady Tichborne remained convinced, as were many family retainers and advisers, which seems remarkable considering the physical differences and lack of refinement that Orton must have shown.
Orton was able to obtain financial backing to pursue his claim, by which time Lady Tichborne had died. After a lengthy hearing in the civil court, the case was dismissed and he was immediately arrested on a charge of perjury.
During the trial, Detective Jack Whicher (of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher fame) gave evidence that the claimant had visited Wapping and made enquiries about the Orton family and the jury found that he was indeed Arthur Orton and he was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment, of which he served ten before his release on licence in 1884.
Orton had clearly convinced himself that he was indeed Sir Roger Tichborne and he continued to press his claim after his release from prison.
He did publish a confession in The People newspaper in 1895 for a fee of several hundred pounds, but by then he was deeply impoverished and he immediately retracted the confession.
Orton died in poverty on 1st April 1898 and was buried in a pauper’s grave, but ‘an act of extraordinary generosity’ the Tichborne family allowed the coffin to bear a card which read ‘Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne’.
Perhaps it was this act which persuaded his wife and daughter to continue to pursue his claim well into the 20th century.
The case became a film, The Tichborne Claimant, in 1998 starring John Gielgud, Robert Hardy and Stephen Fry, with Robert Pugh as Orton/Castro/Tichborne.