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VICTORIAN SELF-MAKING, OR SELF-UNMAKING? THE TICHBORNE CLAIMANT REVISITED CHRISTOPHER A. KENT University of Saskatchewan On Christmas day, 1866, there arrived in London a man who claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the long losi eleventh baronet and head of an ancient English county family.1 He had long been presumed dead, shipwrecked off the coast of Brazil twelve years previously. At the time of his presumed death in 1854 he was not yet Sir Roger, for his father did not die until 1862, whereupon the inheritance that would have been his passed to his dissipated and reckless younger brother, who managed to spend himself twice into bankruptcy before dying in February, 1866, passing the baronetcy to a posthumous son who would be born that summer. Meanwhile the dowager Lady Tichborne had never reconciled herself to her eldest son ' s presumed death. Fortified by the assurances of a clairvoyant, who said he was still alive, she advertised in the agony column of The Times and contacted a missing persons agency. In due course, from the wild Australian outback there emerged a claimant to the identity, title, and fortune of the lost Sir Roger. Even on so little information, anyone unfamiliar with the story will have begun to develop expectations. It is all so redolent of the commonplaces of the sensation novel, which was enjoying its moment ofgreatest notoriety at this very time. The claimant would surely be either the true Sir Roger, still bearing, despite all his vicissitudes, the unmistakeable lineaments of an English gentleman, or else some smooth talking, presentable and plausible rogue—a clever con man, bearing a physical resemblance to the lost baronet, who had carefully researched and memorized details of his family and background. What he surely would not be was the fat, uncouth, ill-spoken and quintessentially vulgar ex-butcher from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, who in fact presented himself to claim what he preposterously called his birthright. The only surviving member of Roger's immediate family was his mother, the dowager, who immediately acknowledged the Claimant as her Victorian Review 17.1 (Summer 1991). CHRISTOPHER A. KENT19 son. Also quick to recognize him were most of the Tichborne estate * s tenants, old family servants, Roger's old doctor, his old lawyer, and a large number of men from the regiment in which he had been an officer. Equally quick to repudiate him were almost all his relatives, and several priests (the Tichbornes were an old Catholic family). The dowager Lady Tichborne had been particularly close to her son in his boyhood, and severely estranged from her husband. Nor did she get along well with her in-laws, who looked down upon her because, although of noble blood, she was illegitimate. She was also French. Both sides began to recruit supporters through energetic solicitors and, in the family * s case, a top private detective. They scoured Britain, South America, and Australia for people who had known either Roger Tichborne or Thomas Castro, the name taken by the Claimant in Australia, hoping to get statements favorable to their side. Unfortunately the Claimant lost his strongest supporter, the dowager Lady Tichborne, little more than a year after his arrival in England. With her death he also lost the allowance on which he was living, having no personal means. Fortunately, a group of the local Hampshire gentry who believed in him stepped forward handsomely with financial support. Not until nearly five years after his arrival, during which time the Tichborne case attracted enormous public interest, did the matter go before the courts. There were two trials, the two longest in English history, each ten months long. The first was a civil action to establish the legitimacy of the Claimant's claim: this he essentially lost. It was followed by the criminal trial of the Claimant for perjury—for testifying under oath that he was Sir Roger. He was found guilty in February 1874, and received the exceptionally harsh sentence of fourteen years in prison. What is the historian · s interest in the Tichborne matter? From one perspective it is an anomalous and trivial affair, at best a footnote to the history of a decaying social class...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 18-34
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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