Fraud Squad

Ferdinand Mount

  • The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation by Rohan McWilliam
    Continuum, 363 pp, £25.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 85285 478 2
  • A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson by Frances Welch
    Short Books, 327 pp, £14.99, February 2007, ISBN 978 1 904977 71 1
  • The Lost Prince: The Survival of Richard of York by David Baldwin
    Sutton, 220 pp, £20.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 7509 4335 2

Sir Roger Tichborne is my name,
I’m seeking now for wealth and fame,
They say that I was lost at sea,
But I tell them ‘Oh dear, no, not me.’

This ballad, sung in procession when the Tichborne Claimant appeared at the Grand Amalgamated Demonstration of Foresters at Loughborough in August 1872, neatly compresses the story of the most celebrated of all late Victorian causes. In the spring of 1854, Roger Tichborne, a roving, hard-drinking ex-dragoon, took ship on the Bella bound for Kingston, Jamaica, out of Rio, the only passenger alongside a cargo of coffee. Neither Roger nor the ship was ever seen again. His mother, Henriette, refused to believe that he was dead. An old sailor turned up at Tichborne House begging for cash and, when asked whether he had ever heard of the Bella, said he had heard that the crew ended up in Australia. A few years later, Henriette placed advertisements in newspapers all over the world. In due course, a bankrupt butcher in Wagga Wagga, originally called Arthur Orton though at the time going by the name of Tomas Castro, slyly admitted that he was indeed Roger Tichborne, who would by now have been a baronet and the owner of the large Tichborne estate in Hampshire. And on Christmas Day 1866 he arrived in London to claim his inheritance.

It is hard to think of any respect in which the Claimant resembled Roger. He was already 13 and a half stone, in contrast to the wraithlike Roger, and was to reach massive proportions, 28 stone 4 lbs, by 1871. Though Roger was half-French and had grown up in France, the Claimant couldn’t speak a word of the language. Roger later attended Stonyhurst College; the Claimant was barely literate. The best that could be said for him was that he waggled his eyebrows in a way that reminded his supporters of Roger. Nor was his original identity much obscured: when he recklessly visited Wapping on arriving in London, he was immediately identified as the long-lost Arthur Orton.

Yet in no time he became a national hero. When his waxwork went on view at Madame Tussauds, the queues had stretched out into the street. A demonstration in his support in the London docklands drew a bigger crowd than the one that welcomed Garibaldi. On his West Country tour, up to four thousand people crowded into Bristol Temple Meads station to catch a glimpse of him. The funambulist Blondin offered to carry him across Niagara Falls, though the Claimant declined, protesting in his characteristic deadpan style: ‘I think I am a little bit too heavy.’ His cause was coupled with that of Magna Carta and fair play for every Englishman. Between 1874 and 1886 no fewer than 251 Tichborne and Magna Carta organisations came into being, not to mention dozens of newspapers devoted to his cause, such as the Tichborne and People’s Ventilator.

Other causes became attached to Tichbornism: among them, the campaigns against compulsory vaccination and wrongful imprisonment in lunatic asylums. He attracted supporters from every age and class, particularly those who felt that life had given them a raw deal. He was the toast of the racecourse and the music halls. The diminutive Harry Relph began his career in blackface, as ‘Young Tichborne, the Claimant’s Bootlace’, soon to be abbreviated and immortalised as Little Tich, whence ‘tich’ and ‘tichy’ – a delicious way to remember the gargantuan Claimant. Those who took a class-based view of things were bewildered and infuriated by the whole business. Shaw, in the preface to Androcles and the Lion, mocked the contradiction involved in the case of ‘the Tichborne Claimant, whose attempt to pass himself off as a baronet was supported by an association of labourers on the ground that the Tichborne family, in resisting it, were trying to do a labourer out of his rights’. Ruskin deplored ‘the flood of human idiotism’ and ‘the loathsome thoughts and vulgar inquisitiveness’ provoked by the case.

In this new study, Rohan McWilliam argues that ‘the Tichborne cause reveals a mosaic of mentalities and attitudes that we still do not fully understand.’ He tells the story with a lucid command of narrative and an understated wit, but here and there we catch a whiff of the PhD out of which the book arose. McWilliam devotes much of the second half of the book not so much to the case itself as to the proposition that ‘the Claimant forces us to view the development of modern mass politics and the movement towards democracy in new ways.’ I’m not sure that he works this line out to his own satisfaction. Yes, the Tichborne agitations did coincide and overlap with progressive organisations and causes, such as votes for women, but he also notes that Tichbornism had in it a strong element of popular Toryism and nostalgia for the days before the Norman Yoke. Rather despairingly, McWilliam concludes that ‘the best way to think of it is as a form of pastiche.’ Pastiche of what exactly, and who is doing the pastiching?

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