Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

'The Slaughterman of Wagga Wagga': Imposture, National Identity, and the Tichborne Affair

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

'The Slaughterman of Wagga Wagga': Imposture, National Identity, and the Tichborne Affair

Article excerpt

ON 24 December 1866 a butcher from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, arrived in London and claimed to be Roger Tichborne, the long-lost son of a wealthy English family and heir to a very large fortune. Roger Tichborne had not been seen since he left England for Chile in 1852 and was widely presumed to have died in a shipwreck. However, his mother was unable to reconcile herself to his death. After consulting a clairvoyant who assured her of her son's well-being, Lady Tichborne contacted a missing persons agency and ran international advertisements promising a reward for information concerning his whereabouts. But the man who answered one such ad was more than two hundred pounds heavier than Tichborne had been, and could not speak a word of French, the language of Roger's childhood. He remembered nothing of Stonyhurst Academy, where Roger had been educated, and he could not tell Latin from Greek, although Roger had received lessons in both. Most troubling of all, as Helen Tiffin has noted, was his failure to account satisfactorily for his appearance, disappearance, and re-emergence in Australia during the late 1850s and early 1860s (130). Nevertheless, Lady Tichborne promptly identified him as her son and heir. Not surprisingly, the rest of the Tichborne family disputed this man's identity claims, arguing that the inheritance should remain in the hands of Roger's young nephew, who was second in line for the family fortune. The Claimant responded by suing the man in whose name the Tichborne estates were entrusted, thus beginning the second longest civil case in English history.

Despite the many improbabilities that beset the Claimant's testimony, he was not easily discredited because there was little documentary evidence pertaining to Roger Tichborne's physical being. To complicate matters, the Claimant was able to recall the layout of some of the Tichborne family homes, the punch lines of family jokes, and other details to which family members had unique access. But he lost this case and the subsequent criminal trial in which the court decided that he was Arthur Orton, an Englishman who was in Australia at the same time as the Claimant. (1)

As Christopher Kent has argued, there was 'much more than one man's identity' at issue in the Tichborne trials (20). The many gaps in the Claimant's testimony created widespread anxiety about the means of determining and safeguarding individual identities, but because both sets of lawyers acting for and against the Claimant argued that time spent in Australia accounted for differences between Roger Tichborne and the colonial heir-apparent, his defence raised questions about the production of national identities. The first hall of this essay uses the trials to examine English discourses about Australian identity in the late nineteenth century, and it considers how the Claimant's refusal to comply with the courtroom demand for a self-explanatory narrative exposed the precariousness of the distinctions that were said to differente nineteenth-century upper-class English identities from their colonial counterparts. (2) The second half of the paper considers how--and to what effect--the trope of imposture was recuperated in three late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century texts: Judge Edward Parry's Vagabonds All, Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, and Joseph Furphy's Such Is Life. I have chosen these three texts because of their common interest in and their very different approaches to interrogating the ways in which imperial and colonial identities were produced through the trope of imposture.

Public support for the Claimant constituted one of the largest popular movements in England in the 1870s (see McWilliam 44-45). Admonishing Britons for their credulity, Lord Coleridge, the lead lawyer for the Tichborne family, poked fun at 'The man in the street, the average practical Englishman, [who] was inclined to believe, and wished to believe that the ci-devant slaughterman of Wagga Wagga was heir to an ancient baronetcy and vast estates' (qtd in Lansbury 152). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.