On Christmas Eve 1866, a ship from Panama docked in England, listing among its passengers one Sir Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to an English baronetcy and £20,000. This was a notable homecoming, to say the least. Roger Tichborne had been reported drowned at sea some twelve years previously, and presumed dead by all but his aged mother.
Soon after Sir Roger and his small entourage landed on his native soil, they made their way to the Tichborne family estates, where an old solicitor for the family vouched for him being the man he said he was. Then Sir Roger took a boat for France, where his mother lived, and where he had spent his childhood. His mother was understandably desperate to see him. She alone has been convinced all these years that her son lived, and had been placing adverts in international newspapers calling for him to come forward, and detailing his inheritance.
When, some days later, old Lady Tichborne was admitted to the room where her long-lost son was staying, she found him in ill bed. In fact, he could barely move enough to turn his face from the wall or pull down the blankets from his chin. But she declared that “he looks like his father and his ears look like his uncle’s.”
This was somewhat surprising, because the man with his face to the wall was not Richard Tichborne. He was in fact Arthur “Bullocky” Orton, a slaughter man, sometime bushranger and horse thief, originally from Wapping but more recently resident of Wagga Wagga, Australia. His mammoth deception started a year before when a friend read him one of Lady T’s adverts from the Australian Times calling for news of her lost son. As a joke, Arthur assumed a mysterious and pained look, as if to imply that hearing the advert caused him some secret distress. A few hints about money coming to him in the future, and the glimpse of the initials R.C.T carved on his pipe, and Arthur’s friends were convinced of his secret identity. Arthur, who seems to have been a man easily led, was soon up to his Tichborne-resembling ears in the tall tale, sending a badly spelled letter to his supposed mother and accepting her cash in order to return to Europe in style.
Lying in bed with the covers pulled desperately up to his ample chins and waiting for Lady Tichborne to come through the door must have been one of the supremely nerve-wracking moments of Arthur Orton’s life. He had already spent several hundred pounds of Lady T’s money, and also money provided by other backers, confident of Sir Roger’s future inheritance paying back the favour with interest. The fact that he was several stone heavier than Sir Roger had been, looked nothing like him, knew little about his family background, and perhaps most importantly couldn’t speak a word of the French Sir Roger had been accustomed to talk to his mother in, must have seemed facts certain to give the game away. Arthur Orton might even have been rather pleased if they had – he was in way over his head, egged on by associates who’d got a sniff of the size of the Tichborne inheritance. He’d passed the point of no return, and must have been certain of imminent exposure.
So when the old lady declared that his ears gave him away and that he was in fact her son, Arthur must have been as surprised as anyone else in the room. From that point on, the whole thing snowballed. Lady Tichborne secured a house for her son, and moved in with him. Arthur socialised in high society, his return from the dead and the dark mutterings of fraud from less gullible (or less desperate to believe) family members, making him somewhat of a celebrity.
The dark mutterings got louder, and soon parts of the Tichborne family (the parts who had stood to inherit a fortune until Sir Roger inconveniently turned up again) made a legal challenge to Arthur’s identity. When Lady Tichborne died in 1868, Arthur couldn’t get his mitts on her fortune until the case was settled, but it wasn’t until 1873, five years of legal wrangles later, that the case of the Tichborne Claimant came to court. During this time Arthur was living on handouts from friends and supporters, some genuinely convinced that he was in fact Sir Roger, and others presumably keen to have a claim on his purse once he successfully inherited.
The court case ran for 102 days, until Arthur’s defence attorney gave it up as a bad job. Arthur was sentenced to fourteen years penal servitude for fraud, of which he served ten. Up until his conviction, and even afterwards, many acquaintances and members of the public continued to believe that Arthur was really the dreadfully wronged Sir Roger. When, years later, Arthur published his confession to earn some much needed cash, he claimed that by the end of it all he himself had begun to believe that he was Sir Roger Tichborne. One witness at the trial who identified him said, “He is Arthur Orton right enough, but I don’t believe he knows it.” Arthur died a poor man in 1898. Friends who still upheld his old claim had his coffin inscribed with the name Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne. You can’t help but feel that Arthur, surely heartily sick of that name by then, must have turned heftily in his grave.
Arthur left his legacy in the English language with the word “tichy”, meaning tiny, an ironic music hall reference to the Tichborne Claimant’s ample size.