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AN OPEN-AIR TICHBORNE MEETING.
WHEN Sydney Smith, from the depths of his Barbarian
ignorance, sought to rise to the conception of a Puseyite, he said in substance much as follows:-" I
know not what these silly people want, except to
revive every obsolete custom which the common sense
of mankind has allowed to go to sleep." Puseyism is
not to our present purpose; but Tichborne-ism is for
it has attained to the dignity of a veritable ism - and
we may define it much after the same method, as
an attempt, not, indeed, to revive the claims of, but
to restore to society a person, who, after a trial of
unexampled length, was consigned by the verdict of a
jury, and the consequent sentence of the Lord Chief
Justice, to the possibly uncongenial retirement of
Millbank Penitentiary. With the rights or wrongs
of such an event I have simply nothing to do. I
abandoned the Tichborne Trial at an early stage in a
condition of utter bewilderment ; and directly an old
gentleman sought to button-hole me, and argue that
he must be the man, or he couldn't be the man, I
made off, or changed the conversation as rapidly as I
[-101-] But when the question had at length been resolved by wiser heads than mine, and when, too, I felt I could write calmly, with no fear of an action for contempt of court before my eyes, I confess that a poster announcing an open-air Tichborne meeting in Mr. Warren's cricket-field, Notting Hill, was too fascinating for me. I had heard of such gatherings in provincial places and East End halls; but this invasion of the West was breaking new ground. I would go; in fine I went. On the evening of an exceptionally hot July day, I felt there might be worse places than Mr. Warren's breezy cricket ground alongside Notting Barn Farm; so six o'clock, the hour when the chair was to be taken, found me at the spot - first of the outer world - and forestalled only by a solitary Tichbornite. How I knew that the gentleman in question deserved that appellation I say not; but I felt instinctively that such was the case. He had a shiny black frock-coat on, like a well-to-do artisan out for a holiday, and a roll of paper protruding from his pocket I rightly inferred to be a Tichborne petition for signature. As soon as we got on the ground, and I was enjoying the sensation of the crisp well rolled turf beneath my feet, a man hove in sight with a table, and this attracted a few observers. A gentleman in a light coat, too, who was serenely gazing over the hedge at the Kensington Park Cricket Club in the next ground, was, they informed me, Mr. Guildford Onslow. The presiding [-102-] genius of the place, however, was Mrs. Warren, who, arrayed in a gown of emerald green - as though she were attending a Fenian meeting - bustled about in a state of intense excitement until the greengrocer's cart, which was to serve as a rostrum, had arrived. When this occurred, the table and half a dozen Windsor chairs were hoisted into it; another table was arranged below the van, with the Tichborne Petition outspread upon it; and I fancied that arrangements were complete.
Not so, however. The gentleman in the shiny coat and emerald green Mrs. Warren between them tin-tacked up a long scroll or "legend" along the rim of the van, consisting of the text from Psalm XXXV. 11 :-" False witnesses did rise up against me. They laid to my charge things that I knew not." The association of ideas was grotesque, I know, but really as Mrs. Warren and the shiny artisan were nailing this strip to the greengrocer's van, they put me very much in mind of a curate and a lady friend "doing decorations" at Christmas or Eastertide. Nor was this all. When the "strange device" was duly tin-tacked, some workmen brought four long pieces of quartering, and a second strip of white calico with letters stuck on it was nailed to these; and when the stalwart fellows hoisted it in air and tied the two centre pieces of wood to the wheels of the greengrocer's cart, I found that it consisted of the Ninth Commandment. The self-sacrificing carpenters were to hold - and did [-103-] hold - the outside poles banner-wise during the entire evening ; and, with one slight exception, this banner with the strange device, No. 2, formed an appropriate, if not altogether ornamental background for the greengrocer's van. Knots of people had gathered during these proceedings ; and 1 was confused to find that I was being generally pointed out as Mr. Onslow, that gentleman having retired to the privacy of Mr. Warren's neighbouring abode. Later on I was taken for a detective, because, in my innocence, I withdrew ever and anon from the crowd, and, sitting on a verdurous bank, jotted down a note in my pocketbook; but this got me into such bad odour by-and-by that I felt it better to desist, and trust to memory. Some of the smaller boys also averred that I was Sir Roger himself, but their youthful opinions were too palpably erroneous to carry weight.
In due course the van was occupied by Mr. Onslow, the Rev. Mr. Buckingham (about whom I felt, of course, very curious), my shining artisan, and a few others. A thin-faced gentleman, whose name I could not catch, was voted to the chair, and announced to us that he should go on talking awhile in order that Messrs. Onslow and Buckingham might "refresh," as they had each come from the country. This they did coram publico in the cart, while the chairman kept us amused. The wind, too, was blowing pretty freshly, and was especially hard on the Ninth Commandment, which gave considerable trouble to the holders of the [-104-] props. It was directly in the teeth of the speaker, too - an arrangement which Mrs. Warren, in her zeal, had overlooked ; and it was decided by common consent to "reverse the meeting" - that is, to turn the chairs of the speakers round, so that the Ninth Commandment was nowhere, and looked like an Egyptian hieroglyph, as the reversed letters showed dimly through the calico. The chairman eventually read to the meeting, which was now a tolerably full one, the form of petition which was to serve as the single resolution of the evening. I was struck with this gentleman's departure from conventional legal phraseology on this occasion. Instead of naming the cause celebre "The Queen versus Castro" (it being written, as Sam Weller says, with a " wee") he termed it "The Queen via Castro!" The petition was as follows :-
" That in the trial at Bar in the Court of Queen's Bench, on an indictment of the Queen v. Castro, alias Arthur Orton, alias Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, Bart., for perjury, the jury, on the 28th day of February, 1874, brought in a verdict of guilty against him, declaring him to be Arthur Orton, and he was sentenced to fourteen years' penal servitude, which he is now undergoing.
"That your petitioners have reason to know and believe and are satisfied, both from the evidence produced at the trial and furnished since, and from their own personal knowledge that he is not Arthur Orton.
[-105-] "That though 280 witnesses were examined at the said trial in his behalf, a very large number more, as your petitioners have been informed and believe, were also ready to be examined, but that funds were not available for the purpose, the defendant having been entirely dependent on the voluntary subscriptions of the public for his defence.
" That your petitioners submit that such a large number as 280 witnesses, most of whom gave positive evidence that the defendant was not Arthur Orton, and whose testimony in two instances only was questioned in a court of law - as against about 200 witnesses for the prosecution, whose evidence was chiefly of a negative character - was of itself enough to raise a doubt in the defendant's favour, of which doubt he ought to have had the benefit, in accordance both with the law and the custom of the country.
" That, under the circumstances, your petitioners submit that he had not a fair trial, and they pray your honourable House to take the matter into your serious consideration, with a view to memorialize her Majesty to grant a free pardon."
The Rev. Mr. Buckingham, a cheery gentleman who bore a remarkable resemblance to the celebrated Mr. Pickwick, rose to move the resolution; and I could not help noticing that, not content with the ordinary white tie of clerical life, he had "continued the idea downwards" in a white waistcoat, which rather altered the state of things. He spoke well [-106-] and forcibly I should think for an hour, confining his remarks to the subject of "Sir Roger" not being Arthur Orton. He (Mr. Buckingham) belonged to some waterside mission at Wapping, and had known Arthur Orton familiarly from earliest boyhood. His two grievances were that his negative evidence had not been taken, and that he was now being continually waited on by "Jesuits," who temptingly held out cheques for 1000l. to him if he would only make affidavit that the man in Millbank was Arthur Orton.
Mr. Onslow, who seconded the resolution, however, made the speech of the evening, and was so enthusiastically received that he had to recommence several times after glowing perorations. The burden of Mr. Onslow's prophecy was the unfairness of the trial ; and his "bogies" were detectives, just as Mr. Buckingham's were Jesuits. The Jean Luie affair was the most infernal "plant" in the whole case; and he read records of conflicting evidence which really were enough to make one pack up one's traps and resolve on instant emigration. He was, however, certainly right on one point. He said that such meetings were safety-valves which prevented revolution. No doubt this was a safety-valve. It amused the speakers, and Mrs. Warren and the glazed artisan ; and it could do nobody any possible harm. Whether it was likely to do the man of Millbank any good was quite another matter, and one which, of course, it was quite beside [-107-] my purpose to discuss. There was a deal of - to me - very interesting speaking; for I gained new light about the case, and stood until my legs fairly ached listening to Messrs. Buckingham and Onslow.
When the editor of the Tichborne Gazette claimed an innings it was another matter ; and - perhaps with lack of esprit de corps - I decamped. I only saw this gentleman gesticulating as I left the field; but the rate at which he was getting up the steam promised a speech that would last till nightfall.
As I went off the ground I was struck with the clever way in which a London costermonger will turn anything and everything to account. One of them was going about with a truck of cherries, crying out, "Sir Roger Tichborne cherries. Penny a lot !"
There was no symptom of overt opposition, though opponents were blandly invited to mount the waggon and state their views ; but there was a good deal of quiet chaff on the outskirts of the crowd, which is the portion I always select on such occasions for my observation. On the whole, however, the assembly was pretty unanimous; and though it never assumed the dimensions of a "monster meeting," the fact that even so many people could be got together for such a purpose seemed to me sufficiently a sign of the times to deserve annotation in passing.