‘Just think of the flood of human idiotism that spent a couple of years or so of its life in writing, printing and reading the Tichborne trial,’ wrote John Ruskin in the 1870s. The attempts of 28-stone Wapping butcher Arthur Orton to pass himself off as Sir Roger Tichborne led to the longest court case in English legal history, until the McLibel trial of the 1990s. Despite being unable to speak French (this had been Sir Roger’s first language), having a strong Cockney accent and East London speech traits (in the dock he referred to a ‘clerk in Holy Horders’ and said ‘ketched’ instead of ‘caught’), and – most damningly – possessing sizeable earlobes where Sir Roger had had none, the Claimant won the support of a vast section of the British population. They were convinced that this was a man of noble birth who was being robbed of his rightful inheritance by a corrupt judiciary, a malignant aristocracy, and dark forces (probably the Jesuits, they believed) that had grasped control of the English Establishment.
In the past fifty years, there have been five books written about this, perhaps the most bizarre episode in all the baroquely bonkers annals of Victorian public life; and a rather good movie version was released in 1998, directed by David Yates (later of Harry Potter renown). Of the books,