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The prank that grew to giant proportions

22 November 2003

12:00 AM

22 November 2003

12:00 AM

The Man Who Lost Himself Robyn Annear

Constable & Robinson, pp.416, 12.99

The story has been told dozens of times already, but never gets dull, and until the 1996 McDonald’s libel case there had not been a longer saga played out in any English court. From 1867 the Tichborne claimant dominated conversation for years, and people openly despaired they might die before a verdict was reached. Photographs of the claimant outsold those of the royal family, and such was the hypnotic fascination of the case that even they fell victim to it, the Prince and Princess of Wales sitting next to the judge on the bench on one occasion (on another, George Eliot was in the public gallery). The whole country was gripped by a tale so preposterous, it was either a wicked wrong which needed to be repaired, or, in the words of prosecuting counsel, ‘a detestable imposture’.

The facts of the case have not changed much since the admirable entry in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1854 the heir to the Doughty-Tichborne estates, young Sir Roger, was drowned at sea when the Bella disappeared off the east coast of South America. There was a crew of 40, with Sir Roger the only passenger. His mother, the Dowager Lady Tichborne, brilliantly depicted in this book as a bitter, sniping, stubborn old skeleton, never accepted that her son had been lost and offered half-crowns to any passing sailor in the determination to find evidence of his survival. She was ‘as mad as a haddock’, and without her frenzied faith the entire story would never have even begun.

She eventually advertised in Australia for information leading to her son’s discovery, and before long a butcher from Wagga Wagga emerged to announce that he had been living under the pseudonym of Thomas Castro since his rescue. He and his mother started a devoted correspondence, she accepting his authenticity before even seeing him, and the course was set for this taciturn, sweaty individual to set sail for England and take his place amid the lower ranks of the aristocracy and set the nation panting with interest.

The Roger Tichborne who disappeared was friendless, thin, effete and clumsy. He shot at anything which moved, but never hit, and once hooked his own eyelid with a fishing-rod. He had been brought up in France, a ‘foppish, mummsied Parisian boy’ who spoke scarcely a word of English, and his brief spell in the army was rendered laughable by his narrow frame and champagne-bottle shoulders; having no hips, his body could not hold up a sword-belt, and without calves his boots slipped off. The ‘Roger Tichborne’ who turned up 13 years later weighed 26 stone, had a bladder which emptied once every three days, was coarse, grubby and greedy, and appeared to have forgotten every French word he had ever known. Yet there were dozens of people prepared to swear that this was one and the same person. The possessed mother died before the butcher’s claim went to court, but she was no longer needed. Nothing, except the butcher himself, could stop the train once it had been set en route, and he seemed not to care one way or the other, happy to enjoy the ride and see where it took him.

The blurb on the back of this book is mistaken in calling the claimant ‘charismatic’. He was anything but — a gloomy, monosyllabic bore who would have caused mass desertion from any bar were it not for his notoriety. The journalist G. A. Sala was mystified by him, finding it impossible to work out what, if anything, was passing in his mind, for he looked as if he wanted nothing better than a nap. He spent 29 days under cross-examination in the witness-box, ‘baited, sneered at and disbelieved’, but the experience left him curiously unmoved. The present author allows he displayed ‘a steadfast talent for evasion’, but that was a poor quality to evoke the status of popular heroism. He was just null and vapid, proof, to some, that he must be genuine, for a crook would have produced more fireworks.

The jury stopped the first trial, brought by the claimant’s supporters, saying that they had heard enough (after a few months) to reach a verdict, which went against him. The judge then ordered his arrest on charges of perjury, and a second trial kept the show running for at least another year, the claimant’s counsel, Edward Kenealy, subjecting the hapless jurors to an opening address which lasted one month. Kenealy did not flatter his client, calling him an idiot with the mind of a hippopotamus, but said he must be someone, and that someone was Tichborne, whose enemies were the Catholic Church out to get his fortune for the Pope. Neither does Robyn Annear flatter Kenealy, calling him ‘clever but clueless’, from which you will gather that one of the delights of this very entertaining book is its profusion and variety of insults.

The butcher travelled the country to raise funds for his defence, attracting 20,000 paying guests to a meeting in Manchester. People mobbed him at the railway station and at his hotels, cheered him down the street and paid for Tichborne bonds which they would cash in on his return to his rightful inheritance. Gullibility is clearly some kind of aphrodisiac, enhancing the pleasure of communal excitement, a gang-bang of those brain cells wherein dreams are fashioned. Throughout it all the butcher remained phlegmatic.

He was indifferent, too, to Kenealy’s insinuations of his physical shortcomings. The butcher had a penis which retracted into a hole, like a shy tortoise, and he was required to demonstrate this to the jurors in the robing-room. They might as well have been discussing his hat-size, says the author. Roger Tichborne had also been somewhat deformed in this regard, being teased as ‘Small Cock’ by his fellow carabineers. Quod erat demonstrandum. It is uproarious, to me at least, that the man thus humiliated in court was alleged to bear the surname Castro.

Well, it turned out he wasn’t Tichborne or Castro, but a man originally from the East End of London by the name of Arthur Orton, as he eventually confessed after serving his prison term. This is what his detractors had been trying to establish for six years, and what the Tichborne estate had spent £90,000 in costs to prove, a sum which might, in 1870, have happily bought them 90,000 terraced houses instead of being squandered on puncturing a prank. It finally appeared the claimant did have some emotion after all, when he admitted that the guilty verdict was a huge relief after what had started as a schoolboy-level dare grew into an all-engulfing nightmare. ‘The story really built itself,’ he said, ‘and in that way it grew so large that I really could not get out of it.’ ‘What had seemed like a wild, bold, extravagant scam had been nothing of the kind’; the whole mess issued from a torpid lack of imagination.

The story itself is but the scaffolding of a good book, and a bad writer could cause it to collapse into tedium. Robyn Annear is a very good writer indeed. She treats the material with panache, vigour, a sense of fun, and that warmth of humour which it richly merits. She also places some choice footnotes with tangential historical information. One of these made me sit up. I dimly remember in childhood being entertained by a film of a diminutive comedian called Harry Relph, also known as ‘Little Tich’. I had assumed the nickname derived from his height of four feet, but no, it was by comparison with the person he shared billing with in the travelling circus, namely the Tichborne claimant, whose girth would entitle him to be called ‘Big Tich’. Thus the Tichborne affair has found its way into our speech, for no small person had ever been called Tich before.

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