by Pauline Montagna
Roger Tichborne was a delicate, sensitive boy, tall and slim, with black hair and blue eyes. When he was fifteen, his father enticed him to England where he was enrolled in a strict Jesuit seminary. There he eventually mastered English, albeit with a strong French accent, and excelled in Latin. After a brief stint in the Dragoons, and disheartened over a hopeless romance with his cousin Catherine Doughty, Roger decided to break free of his mother’s suffocating hold and travel to South America. A prolific correspondent, he constantly sent home detailed letters until the sinking of the Bella.
However, Lady Tichborne refused to believe that her son had died, sending agents to visit docks and taverns to question seamen, until she got what she wanted – tales that the Bella had not sunk, but had been stolen by her crew and taken to Australia.
In October 1865 she received word that a lawyer from Wagga Wagga, a small town in southern New South Wales, was claiming that his client, Thomas Castro, was Sir Roger Tichborne. A barely competent butcher facing bankruptcy, Castro was a heavy drinker and smoker, large boned and fleshy, with light brown-hair and a pronounced twitch. A rough, dirty yet affable man with a shady past, he often told his drinking companions that he came from a titled family and was living under an assumed name.
Lady Tichborne requested Castro to go to Sydney and see two retired family retainers now living there. Despite his stoutness, to which it was well known the Tichborne family had a tendency, they saw a facial resemblance to the Sir Roger they had known and swore he knew facts about the family that only the real Sir Roger would know.
By February 1866, Lady Tichborne was on the verge of losing her younger son. Sir Alfred had succeeded to his father’s estate, but, after squandering much of the family fortune, was dying, leaving behind no heir except an unborn child. If the child was a girl the baronetcy would become extinct. Perhaps it was this sad possibility that drove Lady Tichborne to write to her agent, unreservedly accepting Thomas Castro as her son Roger.
Castro had been lionised by colonial Sydney society allowing his lawyer to arrange a generous line of credit so that when Castro finally set sail for England he left behind debts amounting to £20,000 in the name of Sir Roger Tichborne.
Sir Roger’s many relatives were in no doubt that he had died on the Bella. He had been declared legally dead, Sir Alfred had duly succeeded to the baronetcy, and now they were acting as guardians for his infant son. They urged Lady Tichborne not to recognise Castro, but rejecting both them and their advice, Lady Tichborne wrote to Castro that he was to have no communication with his Tichborne relatives and come directly to her in Paris.
Arriving in London, Castro raised the suspicions of the Tichborne relatives, when, instead of making himself known to them, he went to Wapping, a working-class suburb of London, and asked after the Ortons, a local family of butchers. His next act was to go incognito to Tichborne House in Hampshire, currently occupied by a tenant, and persuade many of the local inhabitants that he was Sir Roger. It was not until several weeks after his arrival in Europe that Thomas Castro went to Paris.
On his arrival, Lady Tichborne verified that Castro shared a rare malformation of the genitals with Sir Roger and immediately accepted him as her long lost son, returning with him to London where she shared with him and his growing family her modest pension. Despite the fact that this man was large and fair while her son had been dark and slender; that his recall of fact about his family and life was faulty; that he had no memory of the childhood he had supposedly spent with her; that he could speak no French or Latin and spoke English with a Cockney accent, Lady Tichborne never faltered in her conviction that he was her son until her death in 1868.
Having adopted the lifestyle of the baronet he claimed to be, Thomas Castro found not only his weight ballooning to over twenty-four stone (336 lbs) but also his debts mounting, until he reached the point where he had no choice but to lay a claim to the Tichborne estate in the Court of Chancery. He was supported in the case by several rich backers and Tichborne family retainers, including their solicitor and historian. When funds ran low, Castro’s party came up with the lucrative scheme of issuing Tichborne Bonds which would be redeemed when he came into his inheritance. The bonds not only raked in tens of thousands of pounds, but became a superb PR instrument, ensuring a wide public with a personal stake in the outcome of the suit.
At 102 sitting days, the Tichborne case was one of the longest, most sensational, and most closely followed civil cases in British legal history and cost the Tichborne estate over £90,000. As there was as yet no recourse to blood tests or DNA, establishing Castro's true identity would rest on sworn testimony by the hundreds of witnesses named by both sides.
Many of these witnesses were in South America and Australia so the court was forced to send a panel of commissioners to take their evidence. Castro himself had undertaken to accompany the commission, but after a bout of illness he returned prematurely from South America and never made it to Australia. Without the man himself, witnesses were asked to make dubious identifications from photographs and sketches. The commission was preceded by detectives for both sides, who were so assiduous in finding and priming witnesses, that by the time the commissioners came to take their affidavits, their evidence was so tainted and contradictory that little of it could be credited. However, there was one name that kept recurring in both South America and Australia, that of Arthur Orton.
Castro categorically denied that he was Arthur Orton and claimed that he had plucked the name of Thomas Castro out of the air. If there was any resemblance between his movements and Orton’s it was because the two of them had met, become friends and often travelled and worked together. The rest of the Orton family were equally unconvincing. After denying that Castro was their brother, they were revealed to have been accepting money to keep quiet.
Castro was in the witness box for twenty-nine days. In a desperate attempt to prove himself he made a fatal error, outraging Victorian propriety by claiming that he had seduced his cousin Catherine, now Lady Radcliffe.
The case for the Tichborne estate rested on the not entirely credible claim that the real Sir Roger Tichborne had a large and amateurish tattoo on his upper arm, while Castro was manifestly tattoo-free. After this claim was repeated over ten days by seventeen witnesses, the jury declared itself convinced and finally brought an end to the interminable trial. Castro was promptly arrested for two counts of perjury, his claim of having seduced Lady Radcliffe being one of the charges.
The perjury trial, which rehashed much of the same evidence, was to last even longer at 188 days. Castro’s defence lawyer lost no opportunity to portray the case not only as a gross conspiracy of the established aristocracy against the honest working man, but also as a fiendish popish plot to keep the Catholic Church’s hands on their tithes from the Tichborne estate. Castro was found guilty on both charges and ordered to serve two seven year sentences consecutively.
Except for an uncomfortable stint in damp, foggy Dartmoor prison, Castro later claimed that his prison life had done his spirit good. Exempted by his obesity from much hard labour, he spent most of his time alone in his cell reading the Bible. Although officially recognised only as Thomas Castro, he continued to claim the name of Tichborne and, throughout the ten years he was to serve, his supporters continued to claim he had suffered a miscarriage of justice.
On his release in 1884, Castro was forced to live off his notoriety. At first he tried the music hall stage, but was never much of a showman. In desperate need of money, he eventually accepted a commission to write a series of newspaper articles, in which he confessed to being an imposter, but then immediately gave an interview to a rival newspaper in which he recanted his confession. With the money, he opened a tobacconists shop but it soon failed and he was forced onto parish relief and cadging drinks until his overworked heart gave out. He died in his sleep on April Fools Day, 1898, probably aged 64. Although he was buried in an unmarked grave, his coffin bore a plaque naming the occupant as Sir Roger Charles Tichborne.
So, was Castro really Sir Roger or Arthur Orton? If he was an imposter, how did he get away with it for so long? Was he a criminal or merely deluded? Many still believe he was truly Sir Roger Tichborne, but even those that believe he was an imposter have two different versions of events.
One version sees him as a cunning scoundrel, an avid reader who got the idea from sensationalist novels about long lost heirs returning from the colonies. He read everything he could get his hands on about the Tichbornes, and made good use of the little he knew to elicit even more information.
The other version sees him as an inept but lucky rogue who was only trying to get some quick, easy money to settle his immediate debts, but found himself caught up in the momentum he had unwittingly instigated. Lazy and obdurate, he won his supporters over by his very lack of effort which proved that he was no calculating imposter.
However he began, he clung to the name of Sir Roger Tichborne until his dying day. Perhaps, as Robin Annear implies in the title of her book, The Man who Lost Himself, he had so much invested in being Sir Roger, that he lost sight of his own identity altogether.
In a subsequent article we'll discover an old family curse which may have predicted the case.
Annear, Robyn, The Man Who Lost Himself: The Unbelievable Story of the Tichborne Claimant Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2002
Sir Roger Tichborne
The Claimant Arthur Orton (aka Thomas Castro)