#February 28, 1874: the curious case of the “baronet” from Wagga Wagga4 min read
Arthur Orton, who became known as the Tichborne Claimant, was found guilty of perjury on this day, February 28, 1874, after the longest trial in English history. The bizarre case, which gripped and fascinated all society, involved the son of a butcher in London’s East End, a missing English aristocrat, and the claims of a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia.
But let’s start from the beginning. The Tichbornes were a prominent wealthy Catholic family whose stately home stood in rolling Hampshire farmland. In 1854, Roger Tichborne, heir to the family baronetcy, was presumed dead after a ship that he had boarded at Rio de Janeiro, the Bella, was lost at sea.
Around this time, Arthur Orton, the son of a London butcher, who went to sea as a boy, worked as a butcher and stockman for squatters in Australia.
At this time in the story, a despairing Lady Tichborne, refusing to believe her son was dead, offered a reward in newspapers for information about his whereabouts, clunging to rumours that some of the Bella passengers had made it to Australia.
In November 1865 she learnt through an agency in Sydney that a man answering the description of her son had been found at Wagga Wagga, in Queensland, a certain Thomas Castro who was working as a butcher.
Thus, she quickly made up her mind, with an eagerness that some said bordered on insanity, that this was her son: she implored him to leave Australia and he arrived in London on Christmas day 1866.
After a short visit to Tichborne House the claimant met Lady Tichborne at a hotel room in Paris.
She announced that she recognised him straight away.
Given the known facts, this declaration was incredibile. Roger Tichborne had been slight and delicate with narrow sloping shoulders, a long narrow face, and thin straight dark hair. Thomas Castro, though about the same height, was big-framed and burly, with a large round face and lots of fair wavy hair. Born and educated in France, Roger spoke and wrote French like a native but Thomas did not know a word of French.
Nevertheless, Lady Tichborne apparently had no doubts: she lived under the same roof with him for weeks at a time, accepted his wife and children, and made him a generous allowance.
All, of course, to the fury of the rest of the family. He had failed to recognise any of them, or to recall any incidents in Roger’s life. Thomas Castro was, they declared unanimously, an imposter trying to claim Roger’s identity and the fortune that went with it.
There followed two of the longest trials in English history. The first, a civil trial, was officially an action for the ejectment of Colonel Lushington, the tenant of Tichborne Park. It was brought to establish the claimant’s identity as Roger Tichborne and his rights to the family estate.
Tichborne v. Lushington began in May 1871 and ended 102 days later in March 1872. Over one hundred people from every class swore to the claimant’s identity. They were mostly perfectly genuine in their belief.
But after several members of the Tichborne family had been in the box, the jury declared that they required no further evidence and were prepared to reject the claimant’s case. His lawyers then abandoned their suit and he was arrested for perjury, and later tried in a criminal court under the name of Thomas Castro.
The criminal trial, Regina v. Castro, was equally long, from April 1873 until February 1874. But the jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning its verdict that the claimant was guilty of perjury for his testimony in the civil trial. They declared that he was not Roger Tichborne and identified him on the evidence as Arthur Orton. He was jailed for 14 years.