The Willett Collection of Popular Pottery at Brighton Museum offers a lively and different way of actively enjoying and engaging with ceramic objects. Each piece provides a comment on the social, religious, military or political history of the day. Many commemorate well-known events and figures we are still familiar with today, but others represent events or figures that have disappeared into obscurity over time.
One of my stories depicted by ceramics in the Collection is the Tichborne Case of the 1870s which received widespread publicity in both England and Australia at the time. It is a story which seems to have it all – a broken heart, fraud, death, cattle-rustling, and a mother’s delusional love. Its popularity was so great that it sparked the mania ‘Tichbornia’ for all things relating to it – including ceramics.
A heart-broken Englishman heads to South America
Roger Charles Tichborne was born in 1829 into an old English Catholic family with extensive estates in Hampshire. As the oldest son, he had a typical aristocratic upbringing including a good education and he gained an Army commission into the 6th Dragoons. Unfortunately, he fell in love with his cousin Katherine to the disapproval of both families. His heart broken, Roger left England in 1854 on a long tour of South America and Mexico to recover.
According to all reports, he reached Rio and left aboard a ship The Bella bound for Jamaica that year. Unfortunately The Bella then disappeared, never to be seen again. Only one empty long boat was found and over time all hope of survivors faded.
Lady Tichborne steadfastly refused to believe her son was dead and continued to search for him desperately. Encouraged by a clairvoyant who claimed her older son was still alive, she placed missing persons adverts in several newspapers in South America and Australia, offering a reward for information.
The long wait for news
For 11 years, she waited. During that time her husband died and the estates and title passed to their younger son Alfred in 1862. Finally, unexpectedly, a letter arrived from Australia, claiming to be from her son Sir Roger. Although crudely written in poor handwriting and unrefined language, Lady Tichborne was immediately convinced of its authenticity.
It is likely that Lady Tichborne’s mind had turned somewhat, as the son’s claims in the letter were pretty extraordinary for a member of the English aristocracy. According to his letter he was working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia, going under the alias Tomas Castro. He was married to an illiterate former housemaid he had met there and had a baby. Regardless of these life-changing events, Lady Tichborne was overjoyed and in 1866 with his wife and baby in tow, Castro (or should we call him Roger?) set sail for England to claim his inheritance.
When he arrived, Lady Tichborne was in Paris, so Castro set to work familiarising himself with the local Tichborne workers, many of whom had know Sir Roger when he was growing up. Unsurprisingly it was immediately noticeable to Sir Roger’s old acquaintances and family that he had changed significantly.
The riddle of the tattoo
Before leaving on his travels Sir Roger was described as of slender build, under 9 stone, with a long sallow face, straight dark hair and a tattoo on his left arm. Indeed Lady Tichborne’s description in the missing persons adverts in Australia referred to him as ‘of a delicate constitution, rather tall, with very light brown hair and blue eyes’.
The man who returned was very different. Weighing over 24 stone he was bursting out of his clothes, with a large round face and fair wavy hair. He no longer had a tattoo. While we cannot deny that years abroad and good living can wreck some changes on one’s physical appearance, such a drastic change is highly unusual. Certainly, the village blacksmith thought so, saying that ‘if you are Sir Roger, you’ve changed from a racehorse to a carthorse’. The family of Lady Tichborne also believed him to be a fraud, wanting nothing to do with him.
Not to be perturbed, Castro, who was now calling himself Sir Roger, travelled to Paris to meet up with his mother. According to accounts, he insisted on meeting her in his darkened hotel room – saying he was ill which presumably decreased the risk of her noticing the significant changes in his physique. Although he apparently made glaring blunders about his school and grandfather, the grief-struck, self-deluded elderly Lady Tichborne believed him. She commented fondly; ‘He confuses everything as in a dream’ and promptly settled on him an allowance of £1000 per annum. Such is the power and weakness of a mother’s love.
Did the prodigal son return?
When Lady Tichborne died in 1868, the rest of the family repudiated Castro. Running out of funds, he brought a civil case in 1871 to claim the Tichborne lands, worth £25,000 that had now passed to Alfred’s son and Sir Roger’s nephew. The trial lasted 102 days until the civil court rejected the claimant’s case. He was then arrested and charged with perjury. This second criminal trial commenced on 21 April 1873 and lasted 188 days until 28 February 1874, making legal history for its duration and cost as enquiries had to be made as far afield as Chile and Wagga Wagga.
In all, Castro produced over 100 witnesses in his favour, including many of Sir Roger’s fellow army officers who swore that he was the real Sir Roger. Certainly there seems to have been a strong facial resemblance between Castro and the younger Sir Roger that swayed many of Sir Roger’s acquaintances. Crucial evidence in his favour included the fact that he suffered from a rare congenital defect of his sexual organs, known to have also been experienced by the young Sir Roger.
Ultimately though, the jury judged him an imposter, convinced by his rough way of speaking, his known blunders and his inability to speak French, when Sir Roger had spent most of his early years in Paris and was fluent in it. Additional evidence exposed him as Arthur Orton, born in Wapping in 1834 who had gone to sea as a boy. Orton travelled to Australia and was alleged to have been a member of a horse-stealing and cattle-rustling gang and involved in criminal activities, with rumours of murder – a far cry from aristocracy. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The case in ceramics
The participants in the criminal case provided juicy content for potters and proved popular objects for the public. Orton was perceived by the working class as a victim of conspiracy by the elite and the Catholic church. Figures of the judge, the prosecution and defence counsels were made and sold as souvenirs of the case together with figures of the young Sir Roger Tichborne, the Claimant Tichborne (Castro) and Lady Tichborne. The plaster figures of Sir Roger and the Claimant highlight the extraordinary physical changes that age can (and had) brought to Sir Roger if they were one and the same.
The Willett Collection contains a pair of figure groups of the participants of the second criminal trial modelled as animals and birds by Randolph Caldecott, the celebrated children’s book illustrator, who attended the trial. One group shows a bench of judges represented as owls, the other group shows the prosecution and defence counsels as a hawk and a rooster respectively, playing on the name of Sir Henry Hawkins, prosecution counsel. They stand behind the claimant – a seated tortoise.
Sir Henry Hawkins, a future High Court judge, also appears in the collection in the form of a candle-snuffer made from biscuit porcelain. The piece is intended to ‘snuff-out’ a candle-shaped porcelain model of the claimant.
Orton was released in 1884 after 10 years in prison. He sold his confession to the People newspaper for £3000 but immediately retracted it and proceeded to tour music halls arguing his case. He died destitute in 1898 of heart failure and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Even in death however the mystery continued. The Tichborne family allowed a card bearing the name ‘Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne’ to be placed on his coffin before it was buried. It shows that an element of doubt still existed.
Cecilia Kendall,Curator, Collections Projects
Stella Beddoe ‘A Potted history Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain’