Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Orton, Arthur (1834–1898)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Arthur Orton (1834-1898), by Maull & Co. Photographers, c1872

Arthur Orton (1834-1898), by Maull & Co. Photographers, c1872

National Portrait Gallery, 2001.23, 'The Tichborne Claimant', carte-de-visite photograph

Arthur Orton (1834-1898), presumed imposter, was born in Wapping, London, son of George Orton, butcher and purveyor of ships' stores. The business became quite prosperous, and young Arthur acquired basic literacy. In 1849 he joined the Ocean, trading to South America. Deserting at Valparaiso in June, he began a sojourn in up-country Chile, notably at Melipilla, where he was befriended by a family named Castro. He learned some Spanish and facility as a cattleman.

Orton returned to Wapping in 1851 and late next year boarded the Middleton bound for Hobart Town, where he disembarked and settled. Over the next two years and a half he worked for various butchers, for a while keeping a stall in the city's market. His letters homeward at this time show Orton as fond of dogs and children and affectionate towards his Wapping girl-friend. Other evidence suggests heavy drinking, and he appeared before the magistrates for minor trade malpractices.

Orton moved late in 1855 to Gippsland, working first on cattle stations. He subscribed to the Crimean patriotic appeal and read Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels. His career then became obscure, but essentially it was an exemplar of the outback worker's life: gold-mining, mail-running, station work, tinged with hints of bushranging and even murder. This carried him through the Riverina to Wagga Wagga, where he settled as a butcher's help from early 1864 under the name of Thomas Castro. Such is the assumption of this article: subsequently Castro was to deny his identity as Orton.

At Wagga, if not before, Castro's character appears to have degenerated into boorishness, his affairs into chronic debt. In January 1865 he married Mary Ann Bryant, an illiterate second generation Australian, already a mother. Later that year, encouraged by a local solicitor, William Gibbes, he responded to world-wide advertisement seeking one Roger Tichborne, heir to an ancient Hampshire baronetcy. Roger (b.1829) evidently had drowned off South America in 1854, but his mother refused to accept this, and hence the advertisements. Castro claimed to be Roger.

Consequently, 'the Claimant' (as the man is henceforth best called) returned to Britain late in 1866, to begin a period of fantasy. Apart from Roger's mother, the Tichborne family disputed the claim, which therefore prompted a civil action in 1871-72; this failed, and thereupon the Claimant was charged with perjury, finally being sentenced to fourteen years' gaol in March 1874 after another mammoth case. The balance of evidence was always against him, yet he showed remarkable tenacity. Drink, food and lechery helped to sustain him: his weight rose to twenty-seven stone (171 kg). His very appearance seemed to change from that of a colonial rough to a debauched gentleman. He showed skill as a fly-fisherman and a pigeon-shot. When a popular movement developed in the Claimant's favour, he responded as a true demagogue. During the criminal trial he drew many brilliant cartoons.

Released from prison in October 1884, the Claimant argued his case before the public as a music-hall turn. Drink and women were still major interests, and in his last years he was kept by publicans and their clients. He died in London on 1 April 1898. By then he had recanted a 'confession' of his imposture, published in 1895, and a little doubt remains. His cause continued to be upheld by a daughter, eldest of four children borne him by his wife (d.1926).

Select Bibliography

  • D. Woodruff, The Tichborne Claimant (Lond, 1957).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Orton, Arthur (1834–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/orton-arthur-4341/text7047, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Arthur Orton (1834-1898), by Maull & Co. Photographers, c1872

Arthur Orton (1834-1898), by Maull & Co. Photographers, c1872

National Portrait Gallery, 2001.23, 'The Tichborne Claimant', carte-de-visite photograph

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Castro, Thomas
  • Tichborne, Roger
Birth

1834
London, England

Death

1 April 1898
London, England

Cultural Heritage
Occupation