It’s one of the most bizarre and intriguing stories to come out of rural Australia and it put Wagga Wagga on the world map. In the latter half of the 19th century an overweight rough-looking butcher, known as Tom Castro, emerged from the bush to claim he was not the man people thought him to be. No, in fact he claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, a missing English baronet and heir to Tichborne Park in Hampshire, a sizeable estate and a vast fortune.
With his rough manners and contradictory stories, the Claimant (as he became known) was difficult to believe. And yet many people did believe ‘Sir Roger’ including friends and servants from his past and even his own mother claimed he was the real thing. When the Claimant travelled to England to take up his rightful place, it caused an incredible stir. The English press went crazy for the story and the subsequent courtroom dramas drew huge crowds. But despite support for the Claimant, there were many holes in his story. Who was Arthur Orton, a butcher’s son from the East London who went missing the same time as Tom Castro emerged? And why did the Claimant visit Orton’s family immediately on disembarking in England? The Claimant is at times sad, funny, always fascinating. We spoke to author Paul Terry about why it’s still an appealing story today and the challenges of writing history.
You’ve previously written critically acclaimed books about iconic Australians, such as Ned Kelly and Banjo Paterson. What was it about the story of the Claimant that attracted you for your latest book?
PT: The Claimant emerged from my home town of Wagga Wagga to earn world-wide notoriety so I felt I had something of a connection with him. I first became introduced to him while working as a young reporter covering a Wagga Council meeting some 25 years ago. The meeting was boring and my attention was drawn to a huge painting, The Great Tichborne Trial, which was hanging on a wall. The enormous Claimant in the painting really jumped out at me. I found out more, and years later I started researching him with the idea of writing my fourth book. I soon discovered that his story was even more fascinating than I had realised. Mark Twain had written that a novelist could never tackle the Claimant’s story because nobody would accept such a character and events could exist. Twain was right; this story is much better and even more bizarre than fiction. And that painting on the wall is now on the cover of the book.
It must have been quite a challenge to pull all the strands of evidence and research to build up this intriguing story. What are the various challenges in writing these kind of historical stories?
The challenges are many and varied. Assembling all the knowledge you need to make a start is the first step and that isn’t easy but I was lucky to have the help of a fabulous researcher named Jen Lamond. Jen has a knack of burrowing into the dark corners of history and coming up with little nuggets that really do bring the long-dead to life. Also, the Museum of the Riverina in Wagga has a mountain of Tichborne data, including documents, books, papers and some of the many souvenirs of the era. The museum was a great help, as was the Trove website which is a wonderful resource for writers and researchers.
During the course of the story, there’s convincing evidence that the Claimant was rightful heir to the Tichborne estate and, on the other hand, the evidence that he was an impostor is compelling too. For readers unfamiliar to the story we swing from believing him to not. Was this your experience during your research or did you come to your final conclusion fairly early on?
I did come to a conclusion fairly quickly. The truth seems obvious to me but some people who’ve read the book have come up with a different interpretation. That’s the joy of this story. It’s just so ridiculous yet so strangely compelling that the truth can be in the eye of the beholder. If he was an impostor then why did Roger Tichborne’s mother, among many others accept him? And if he was telling the truth, why did the upper class work so fervently to bring him down? Do you mind if I keep my view to myself and let the reader decide?
The aristocracy and much of the British press ultimately turn on the Claimant and yet he had great popular support. Is this a reflection of the British class system and its attitude to colonial Australia at the time?
The Claimant’s rise and fall most certainly revolved around class attitudes of the time. The working class loved him with a dedication that went beyond enthusiasm to the point of obsession. The upper class hated and feared him and did whatever it took to stop him. It does also reflect the attitudes to Australia which was regarded by some in England as a rough and wild frontier into which a man might disappear and return as someone else entirely. All of these attitudes helped to frame the international debate around the fat man with no name.
The story of the Claimant is one that’s intrigued many people over the years and right up until the present day. Accordingly, there have been various renditions of this fascinating story. What do you think your book bring that previous stories haven’t?
I’ve tried to bring a light-hearted touch to a sweeping story, and also to investigate other possibilities beyond the usual debate over the Claimant’s true identity. Also, some great work by Jen Lamond coupled with easier access to research thanks to modern technology has helped us to uncover some little-known and quite tragic details about the Claimant’s life. And as a Wagga native, I’ve hopefully taken an intimate look at the place where it began, while poking a little fun at its historic foibles.
It’s both a sad story and it’s a funny story and this comes through, despite your straightforward telling. Did you aim for both effects?
I did aim to push some emotional buttons. The story goes from farce to thriller to tragedy and back again so it was very rewarding to tell. And there are so many ludicrous moments that it cried out for some gentle humour – and I hope I’ve provided that, along with some empathy and compassion for the many people whose lives were damaged by the great controversy.
You manage to really bring the characters to life – the Claimant, his mother the dowager, his lawyers and his friends. How did you achieve that while staying within the boundaries of your research?
Thanks for that. It was really quite easy. The characters are all so powerful that they were easy to bring to life. Some are outrageous, others are contemptible, admirable or piteous, and a few are quite clearly plain nutty – so they told their own tales through their actions and the reactions they caused at the time. I hope anyone who reads this tale warms to those characters and enjoys the story as much as I did!
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