May 2014

The Nation Reviewed

The return of the Tichborne Claimant

By Robyn Annear

A recent play resurrects a 150-year-old case of imposture

Nick Backstrom is no lightweight, but he ought to be fatter. Recently, he took the lead role in his play, Who You Are, at the La Mama Theatre in Carlton, Melbourne. To say that the play is based on a true story and his character on a real person wouldn’t be to lie, exactly. But true and real have always been contentious words when it comes to the case of the Tichborne Claimant.

Newspapers across Australia in 1865 carried advertisements seeking “such information as will discover the fate” of Roger Tichborne, supposed to have died in a shipwreck off Rio in 1854. His inconsolable mother, the dowager Lady Tichborne, still clung to the rumour that a vessel bound for Melbourne had rescued survivors. Her son, if living, was now heir to a baronetcy, the Tichborne fortune and estates in England. Tom Castro, a debt-ridden Wagga Wagga butcher, eventually came forward: “I am Roger Tichborne.”

Almost certainly, he was not. Roger had been thin, “of a delicate constitution”; Castro was stout and getting stouter. Roger had blue eyes; Castro’s were dark grey. Roger had attached earlobes; Castro’s were pendulous. Most damning, though, was that Roger’s native tongue had been French, and he had spoken English with a strong accent; Castro knew no French and his accent was Cockney. Yet, upon meeting him, Lady Tichborne recognised Castro in an instant as her long-lost son.

That recognition wasn’t enough to secure him the title and inheritance, however. Those had passed into the possession of Roger’s infant nephew. To gain them, Castro would have to make a legal claim on the Tichborne estate and establish his identity, in an English court, as the undoubted Roger Tichborne. Though he was already calling himself Sir Roger, he would henceforth be best known as the Claimant – a title that, in its ambivalence, fit him better than any other.

The question “Shall I tell you who you are?” opens Backstrom’s play, and recurs throughout. The Claimant is bombarded with accounts of his supposed former life, of which he seems to have scarcely any memory. Besides the dowager, more than a hundred witnesses – school friends, army colleagues, shipmates, servants – attested in a London courtroom to the Claimant’s being the “very man”. And that was only the half of it. Queuing up to tell him just as insistently who he wasn’t, and who he really was instead, were the witnesses – twice as many – mustered by his opponents, supporters of the infant Tichborne heir.

His legal claim failed, in spite (or likely because) of the slew of witnesses who swore to ludicrous proofs of his identity as Sir Roger. Upon the collapse of his case, the Claimant was charged with perjury for the lies he’d told under oath – or was it rather, as his supporters said, his comeuppance for having been reduced by providence from nobleman to working man? At any rate, he was found guilty and sentenced, as Thomas Castro, to 14 years’ jail.

I once wrote a book about the Tichborne case. It ran to more than 400 pages but, in the 12 years since it was published, I’ve forgotten much of the detail. The Claimant, resurfacing 12 years after his supposed loss at sea, made the same complaint. Who remembers everything?

“A man may forget many things,” asserts the composite character of the Opponent in Who You Are, “but not how to be a gentleman.” To which the Claimant drily replies, “You’ve never been to Australia, have you?” The effort of mastering four Aboriginal dialects, explained the Claimant, had left him unable to recall a word of French. A witness on his behalf concurred that “in the bush he might see a white man or two perhaps once in a few months” and that “[t]he most frequent sounds he would hear would be the abominable howling of the wild dogs, the squeaking of the various kinds of parrots and cockatoos”. The Claimant blamed the growth of his earlobes on the infernal pounding of the antipodean sun. As for his change of name, “Castro” was only one of four or five he was said to have inhabited during his colonial career, “Morgan” being another – in connection with which he hinted darkly at acts of bushranging and even murder. Accounts of Australian life were liable to be misunderstood, however. One witness spoke of having played billiards with Castro in a hotel, adding, “That is a very general thing in Australia.” The trial judge misheard the remark as “That is a very general thing with horse-stealers.”

Playbills for Who You Are carry the tagline “Her son came back from the dead … or Wagga Wagga, anyway.” That Sir Roger’s place of exile should have been that Riverina town was considered one of the most picaresque details of the Claimant’s case, not to mention a gift to the broadside balladeers:

When the jury said I was not Roger,
Oh! how they made me stagger,
The pretty girls they’ll always think,
Of poor Roger’s Wagga Wagga.

At La Mama, the audience by turns laughs and gasps at the outlandishness of Castro’s claims. And thus it ever was. In an age before television, the Tichborne case – which lasted eight years – was a pop-culture juggernaut. For the months on end that the civil and criminal trials were in progress, full-page reports ran daily in newspapers across Britain, the United States and Australia. Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Mark Twain and members of the royal family were among the notables who vied for seats in the court’s public gallery. And tens of thousands of people (mainly working-class) subscribed to the Claimant’s defence fund and attended rallies at which the big man himself would appear. (When finally convicted, he weighed 170 kilograms, the result of consuming 13 bottles of Jameson’s whiskey a week and comestibles in proportion.)

Disbelief has never been a hindrance to fascination with the story of the Tichborne Claimant. But some people did believe him, in part because he lacked the guile to tell convincing and consistent untruths. “He almost lied like truth,” they said. And by the end, if not at the beginning, the Claimant believed himself. Aside from its entertainment value, his story endures as a study in credulity and the too-human tendency to self-delusion.

Since the book, descendants of figures luminous on their family tree for having played a role in the Tichborne case sometimes send me emails. Annie Alexander had emerged from the remote Red Jacket goldfield to identify the Claimant as the same Roger Tichborne whose lover she’d once been; William Hopwood’s summons to give evidence at the Claimant’s trial in London had provided an excuse to abandon his Australian family. I even heard once from an elderly woman whose family folklore held that her great-grandfather, a secretive man who spoke French and died by his own hand in Victoria’s Western District, was, for a certainty, the real Roger Tichborne.

Who You Are ends with the ghost of Roger’s mother calling the Claimant “home” one last time. The sympathetic bond that the play establishes between the two has me wondering whether Backstrom has swallowed the Claimant’s story. Afterwards, the cast mingles with the audience in La Mama’s courtyard, and someone asks (as someone always must), “So, do you think he really was Roger?”


Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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