Businessman, politician and fraudster
Born 1860 Died 1932

The career of Horatio Bottomley invites comparison with the likes of Jeffrey Archer and Robert Maxwell. Described as "irredeemably, utterly, psychotically corrupt"1 he was a neverthless a genial rogue with a fondness for champagne, race horses and women, who generally took the attitude that if people were stupid enough to fall for one of his scams then they deserved everything they got. Indeed his personal sense of morality may be deduced from the incident when one of his employees was brought in front of him and accused of stealing a postal order for sixpence. Horatio simply glared at the young man for a moment before pronouncing, "Well damn it all, it's only sixpence I know, but I suppose he has to begin somewhere."2

Gentlemen: I have not had your advantages.
What poor education I have received has been gained in the University of Life.
3

Our Horatio was born in the East End of London at Bethnal Green on the 23rd March 1860. His father died when he was three years old and his mother when he was nine and so he was raised at Sir Josiah Mason’s orphanage in Birmingham. Rumours later abounded that Horatio was the illegitimate son of the famous atheist Charles Bradlaugh, but there appears to have been no truth in the suggestion, and the mundane truth is that Horatio's father was a tailor's foreman of no particular distinction.

At the age of fourteen Horatio left the orphanage and returned to London where he was employed as an errand boy for a firm of solicitors. There he was introduced into the world of practical finance when he discovered that one of the solictors clerks was in the practice of adding a totally fictious tax to clients bills and pocketing the proceeds. He then appears to have found employment as a court reporter and thus armed with a basic knowledge of journalism and the law was set fair for his future career.

Within a few years Horatio had somehow managed to acquire the funds to graduate from being a mere journalist to being a newspaper proprietor and in 1888 he became the first chairman of the newly launched Financial Times. This newspaper was of particular value to Horatio as a platform to promote his own rather dubious financial schemes. (Not, of course, something that the current owners of the Financial Times care to mention.) Horatio first promoted a company called the Anglo-Austrian Union which was supposed to acquire companies in Austria and raised £93,000 of which Bottomley pocketed £88,500. The company naturally failed but undeterred Horatio went on to set up the Hansard Union which raised the even larger sum of £1m including a £250,000 contribution from the Debenture Corporation. The Debenture Corporation eventually smelt a rat and put in a receiver and discovered that £600,000 of the company's capital was unaccounted for.

The matter was brought to the attention of the authorities and Horatio faced charges of fraud but escaped punishment thanks to the wonders of British Justice. The judge Mr Justice Henry Hawkins took rather a liking to Horatio and an intense dislike of the prosecuting counsel and the jury was thus steered into delivering a verdict of not guilty. Horatio was soon back in business promoting the shares of an Australian gold mining company and sold some ten million shares with forged certificates. Once more Horatio was charged with fraud and once more he was acquitted.

Much of the money that Horatio acquired in these schemes was rapidly dissipated in drinking and gambling, but enough remained for him to launch in 1906 a weekly magazine titled John Bull, "which specialized in 'spicy' reports of murders and divorces and in the merciless showing up of vice and graft"4. There were also regular competitions for its readers which required a small entry fee. The fees ended up in Horatio's pocket and the winners announced in the magazine were entirely fictitious. Horatio also used the magazine to shamelessly promote himself as the champion of the underdog and the enemy of hypocrisy and corruption. He thus emerged as a credible and popular political figure and was able to win election for the Liberal party in South Hackney. He was however later forced to resign his seat when he went bankrupt in 1912. Bankruptcy being a fairly regular occurrence for Horatio 5, as no matter how much money he made it seemed unsufficient to fund his lavish lifestyle.

"Let every Briton, therefore, gird on his armour.
It is not necessary to be a soldier, but it is necessary to be a MAN"6.

It was World War I that made Horatio Bottomley. With the outbreak of war in 1914 John Bull unashamedly banged the patriotic drum whilst Horatio declared that he would become the "unofficial Recruiting Agent of the British Empire"7. On the 14th September 1914 he held a rally at the London Opera House which attracted a capacity crowd of five thousand people whilst another fifteen thousand waited outside. He thereafter became much sought after as a speaker at recruiting meetings across the country where he would appear with a full supporting cast of wounded soldiers and hospital nurses. Of course, being Horatio, he did not provide these services for nothing and charged £25 for speaking at recruiting meetings. Although far more lucrative were the 'patriotic lectures' that he organised where he took most of the takings for himself and so made himself £27,000 during the course of the war.

The virulent jingoism of John Bull where the enemy were always referred to as the 'Germ-Huns' helped raise Horatio's public profile until he was second in popularity only to David Lloyd George, so that when he once more contested South Hackney in 1918, only this time as an independent, he regained his seat with a large majority.

The Victory Bond Fraud

As part of its efforts to finance the war the British Government began issuing Victory Bonds. Operating on the same principle as the modern Premium Bond these were priced at £5 each and were therefore beyond the means of most people. Horatio came to their rescue and launched a scheme called the 'John Bull Victory Bond Club' and invited the public to subscribe a pound and acquire a fifth share in a Victory bond. As Horatio himself explained "I will buy bonds, and hand them over to trustees, and each year we will draw for the accruing interest. Your capital will remain intact, or at any time, if you wish it, you may receive it back in full."8

The Victory Bond Club was a success from its very inception and money poured in. No one is quite sure how much, but certainly in excess of £650,000 was subscribed in total. It is probably fair to say that its success was far beyond that originally envisaged by Horatio and certainly far beyond the capabilities of the rather rudimentary clerical system he had established to administrate the fund. A certain amount of chaos ensued, no one was ever willing to act as a trustee, and it seems that many of the staff helped themselves to some of the money. But the harsh truth behind the 'John Bull Victory Bond Club' was that its main benefactor was always intended to be Horatio himself, and although he did eventually buy some Victory Bonds, large amounts were siphoned off by Horatio to pay off his personal debts, acquire a couple of newspapers and fund his gambling habit. (He once lost £40,000 on a single bet backing his own horse Aynsley in the Manchester Cup of 1919.)

There was very little, if any, criticism of Horatio's activities in the national press. Naturally the newspapers that he personally owned could be trusted to keep quiet, and his fellow proprietors preferred to remain silent rather than invite retaliation. But not everyone was prepared to ignore his dubious business methods. A pamphlet entitled 'Horatio Bottomley Exposed' had been circulating since the beginning of the war, but Horatio had developed a straightforward way of dealing with this and similar such attempts to alert the public. He would engage a stooge to reproduce the pamphlet and sue him for libel. The stooge would offer a feeble defence, judgement would be issued in Horatio's favour, which could then be used to prevent the allegations from being repeated elsewhere.

In such matters Horatio had relied on the assistance of a Birmingham printer by the name of Reuben Bigland. However the two fell out and Reuben began printing his own pamphlets exposing Horatio's scams, in particular the Victory Bond fraud. Word got round and people appearing at his public meetings to demand their money back. At one point Horatio was handing out £5 notes to aggrieved subscribers in a bid to restore confidence but this naturally only encouraged others to come forward and he was forced to engage a small army of bodyguards to protect himself. Horatio tried to silence Reuben Bigland by having him charged with demanding money with menaces but the magistrate dismissed the case. A subsequent action for libel also failed. Thus emboldened the press broke its silence and The Times denounced him in its leader column whilst the Daily News openly accused him of "quite inconceivable obliquity and hypocrisy"9.

Horatio publicly protested his innocence whilst inviting the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate his records. The DPP duly obliged and despite the fact that Horatio had already destroyed most of the incriminating evidence, they found sufficient to bring charges against him. Horatio was therefore summoned to appear at Bow Street Court in March 1922 and was finally brought to trial at the Old Bailey in May 1922 on a charge of "fraudulently converting to his own use sums of money entrusted to him by members of the public". Horatio defended himself as he always did but this time luck deserted him, the jury took only twenty-five minutes to pronounce him guilty and the judge sentenced him to seven years imprisonment.

There is an oft repeated tale of the prison visitor who came across Horatio sewing mail bags whilst in prison and casually remarked "Ah, Bottomley, sewing?". "No, reaping"10 was Horatio's response, but despite this admirable display of stoicism Horatio was quite unprepared for the rigours of prison life. He was sixty-two years old, weighed seventeen stone and an alcoholic; the prosecuting counsel at his trial, one Travers Humphrey described him as "a drink-sodden creature whose brain would only be got to work by repeated doses of champagne".

By the time that he was released from prison in 1927 Horatio's health had suffered considerably as a result of his incarceration. He wrote an account of his prison experiences for the press under the title 'I have paid but ...' which included a poem The Ballad of Maidstone Goal in imitation of Oscar Wilde, and attempted to launch a new periodical called John Blunt. But no further journalistic engagements appeared and John Blunt failed within a year. Despite retaining the support of his long term mistress, an actress by the name of Peggy Primrose, Horatio was reduced to touring as a music hall act, in which he recounted anecdotes from his long and colourful career. He appears to have suffered a heart attack whilst appearing at the Windmill Theatre in the autumn of 1932, gave one last interview to the Daily Mail in 1933 which briefly brought his name back into the public eye, before his health finally gave way and he died on the 26th May 1933.


Then and now there are people who refuse to accept that Horatio Bottomley was indeed nothing more than a crook with a sense of humour, and prefer to believe that the tendency for large sums of money to disappear whilst in his care was simply down to his inattention to administrative detail, bad luck and possibly an inclination to spend most of his waking life in a state of inebriation. But like most successful fraudsters he had a keen understanding of human nature and knew how to exploit human weakness, a skill that he also exploited in politics, where he was known as the "last of the demagogues". He was a successful public speaker who knew how to work a crowd and inspired a keen sense of devotion from his followers. Indeed one of his victims who became £40,000 poorer as a result, defended him with the words "I have heard him speak. I won’t have you say a word against him. Anyone who says a word against Bottomley I will quarrel with. I am not sorry I lent him the money, and I would do it again."


NOTES

1 By Matthew Engel
2See The Long Week-End
3 See http://www.saidwhat.co.uk/quotes/h/horatio_bottomley_1523.php
4See The Long Week-End
5There were 67 bankruptcy petitions served against him between the years 1901 and 1905 alone.
6 See Horatio Bottomley - the soldier's friend
7See Horatio Bottomley - the soldier's friend
8See Horatio Bottomley - the soldier's friend
9See The Long Week-End
10Everybody, probably apocryphal.
11See Local Heritage Initative


SOURCES

  • Robert Graves and Alan Hodge The Long Week-End: A social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 2nd Ed (W.W. Norton and Co, 1994)
  • William Donaldson Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix, 2004)
  • Matthew Engel, Absolute bounders we have loved The Guardian, November 30, 1999
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,251485,00.html
  • Horatio Bottomley - the soldier's friend at http://www.aftermathww1.com/horatio1.asp
    which draws its information from Alan Hyman's The Rise and Fall of Horatio Bottomley: the Biography of a Swindler
  • Local Heritage Initative - The Rise & Fall of Horatio Bottomley
    http://www.lhi.org.uk/projects_directory/projects_by_region/south_east
    /east_sussex/the_rise_and_fall_of_horatio_bottomley/

Further Reading

  • Alan Hyman, The Rise and Fall of Horatio Bottomley: the Biography of a Swindler (Cassell, 1972)
  • Julian Symons, Horatio Bottomley: a Biography (Cresset Press, 1955)

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