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Bottomley, Horatio Williamlocked

(1860–1933)
  • A. J. A. Morris

Horatio William Bottomley (1860–1933)

by Bassano, 1918

Bottomley, Horatio William (1860–1933), journalist and swindler, was the only son of William King Bottomley (1827–1863), a tailor's cutter, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Holyoake. He was born on 23 March 1860 at 16 St Peter's Street, Bethnal Green, London. Orphaned by the age of four, Bottomley was cared for by his maternal uncle, George Jacob Holyoake, radical agitator and the founder of secularism. In 1869 Bottomley was placed in Sir Josiah Mason's Orphanage, Erdington, Birmingham. To help alleviate his misery and humiliation Bottomley created a world of fantasy from which he never again entirely escaped. When at fourteen he ran away from the orphanage he was shunted between the homes of relatives and various lodging houses in Birmingham and London. Casual jobs preceded five years as a solicitor's clerk. He enrolled at Pitman's College, joined a firm of legal shorthand writers, and became a partner. His introduction to journalism he owed to his uncle and Charles Bradlaugh, serving them as a proof-reader in his spare time. Bottomley bore a striking resemblance to Bradlaugh—not in stature, for he was short and stout, but in features. He countenanced, even encouraged, the rumour that he was the natural child of the great Victorian freethinker.

In May 1880, at twenty, Bottomley impulsively married a dressmaker's counter assistant, Eliza Norton (c.1860–1930), daughter of Samuel Norton of Battersea, debt collector. They had one child, a daughter. Poverty spurred Bottomley to a succession of get rich quick schemes. He founded several so-called weekly Hansards. They reported the debates of local parliaments, like that at Battersea where Bottomley first discovered his gift for public speaking. He also discovered his unrivalled capacity for separating the credulous from their money. Revenue from advertising was enhanced by the simple expedient of promising special treatment to those who paid him a regular subsidy. By astute buying and selling he quickly acquired a small group of magazines and journals that in 1885 constituted the Catherine Street Publishing Association.

Bottomley's chronic lack of capital prompted him not to caution and parsimony but to ever more expansive and expensive schemes. In 1889 he floated the Hansard Publishing Union. This was popularly referred to on the stock exchange as ‘Bottomley's swindle’. Within two years he was obliged to file for bankruptcy and was charged with conspiracy to defraud. It was generally assumed that he would be found guilty but, conducting his own defence brilliantly, he was acquitted. The national press had reported the trial in detail. Bottomley's triumph seemed sufficient to persuade the public that he was a financial genius. Unabashed by the Hansard failure Bottomley founded the Joint Stock Trust and Institute as the vehicle for floating the Western Australian gold mining companies he now promoted. Whatever the consequences for the shareholders, Bottomley invariably did well. The Financial Times, of whose board he had been chairman for a few months in 1888, described Bottomley in 1897 as 'a man of millions'. It was a truly amazing success story, the product of reckless audacity, astonishing energy, and extreme good fortune.

Despite his prodigious income, the style in which Bottomley chose to live was unsustainable. His simple-minded wife neither understood nor enjoyed the mindless extravagance. She pined for the old days in Battersea, but instead was effectively banished to a villa near Monte Carlo. There, visited occasionally by Bottomley, she lived in ailing if comfortable exile. In Eliza's absence her daughter Florence happily acted as hostess for weekends at The Dicker: the newly purchased, ever expanding, country property near Eastbourne where Bottomley played the squire. His tenants, like his London friends, enjoyed the charade; local society remained quite unimpressed. Bottomley conducted most of his business from his luxury apartment in Pall Mall. Accompanied by his ‘stable’ of thirsty sycophants—friends, advisers, and general hangers-on—Bottomley became the all too familiar denizen of West End theatres and restaurants, the man about town with an insatiable taste for champagne. Not easily impressed, Frank Harris recorded Bottomley's 'intense greed for all the sensual pleasures' (Harris, 464).

Bottomley bought his first racehorses in 1898. Twice he won the Cesarewitch and numerous lesser races, but never achieved the successes in the Derby or the Grand National which he had grandiloquently forecast when first taking up the sport. For him, racing's real attraction was not the horses but the opportunity it afforded for spectacular gambling. A hopeless judge of equine form, his occasional betting coups never began to compensate for his frequent heavy losses. The bookies loved him because, uncharacteristically, he invariably paid his gambling debts. He enjoyed many mistresses, preferring lively, petite, blonde, working-class girls. He always treated them with courtesy and generosity. The current favourites—he liked to have two if not three in tow at a time—were set up in rented flats and showered with flowers and gifts. None ever seemed to resent it when he chose another as the subject of his fickle, amorous favours. But in 1910 he fell hopelessly and instantly in love with the wife of a fellow ne'er-do-well, Aubrey Lowe. Peggy Primrose (b. c.1890), a chorus girl with pretensions to being a musical comedy actress, was immediately established as the only permanent member of Bottomley's harem.

Amid this frenetic activity Bottomley nurtured the constant ambition to become an MP. Parliament offered influence and respectability. Also there were obvious advantages for a creative entrepreneur to enter the Commons when parliament increasingly sought to regulate commercial life. The only political conviction he ever convincingly entertained was the determination to gratify his own interests. The opinions he advertised on politics might have amused his constituents by their levity, but were not calculated to impress politicians. 'All parties', he asserted, 'are organised hypocrisies'. Political leaders 'for the most part do nothing or seek only to serve their own ends' (John Bull, 12 May 1906). He failed to win a seat in 1887 and again in 1900. But in 1906, as a nominal Liberal, he triumphed in Hackney South, defeating not only the incumbent tory but also another Liberal contender. His dubious financial reputation made him unwelcome at Westminster and his maiden speech was heard in chilling silence. Yet his ebullience and amiable self-deprecation—he referred to himself on one occasion as the chancellor's 'more or less honourable friend'—soon captured his parliamentary audiences. The ingenuity and good sense, particularly of the financial measures he proposed, compelled attention and even grudging admiration. But this parliamentary credit, so skilfully won, he undermined and eventually forfeited by his continued involvement in questionable financial schemes.

Despite the demise of his Hansard Union, Bottomley remained fascinated by journalism. In 1902 he bought a moribund evening newspaper, The Sun. Despite the ingenious changes he made, a series of increasingly dubious investigatory stunts, and a highly successful racing tipster, the Scorcher, The Sun failed to prosper, and he sold it in 1904. It was two years before Bottomley could persuade Odham's Press to print a new weekly journal that he proposed to edit. He had recruited a small, colourful, and talented editorial team, resurrected his old Sun column, 'The world, the flesh and the devil', and from its very first issue, 12 May 1906, John Bull was a success—sensational, lively, entertaining, and very profitable. Bottomley, pathologically averse to paying bills, saw no reason why he should pay his printer. Julias Elias (later Viscount Southwood) suggested that Odhams manage the journal. Bottomley agreed, glad to be free of the business details which he always found tiresome. The deal was a brilliant commercial coup for both parties. Bottomley remained editor until 1921. John Bull's masthead asserted that it was written 'without fear or favour, rancour or rant' to uphold the interests of the common man. That claim was as false as Bottomley's repeated assertion 'If you read it in John Bull, it is so'. The primary purpose of John Bull was to promote Bottomley and his schemes.

In the first general election of 1910, again standing for Hackney South, Bottomley trounced his Unionist opponent. His attachment to the Liberal cause was now so threadbare that he suggested an alliance with a group of ultra tories in order 'to continue to criticise the Liberal party unhampered by Cobdenite shibboleths' (Bottomley to Edward Goulding, 17 June 1910, Wargrave MSS, Parl. Arch.). Though nothing came of his proposal he rejected the Liberal whip, claiming he preferred 'to occupy a position of dignified detachment'. He formed the John Bull League as a public assertion of his 'new-found independence'. It was 'opposed to cant and self-righteousness … despised party tactics and party lies', and wanted parliament filled with 'business men of grit', among whose number Bottomley clearly thought he belonged (Hyman, 127). In the general election of December 1910 Bottomley again succeeded, seeing off opponents from both political parties with the help of paid supporters at the hustings. In the High Court, however, he was not so successful. A charge of conspiracy to defraud, brought in November 1908, was dismissed, but he went on to lose a succession of damaging suits arising from his fraudulent schemes. On his return to the Commons members treated him as a pariah. In vain he pleaded with the house that he was the undeserving victim of puritanism, party, and priestcraft, but his reputation for honesty was beyond rescue. In February 1912, facing demands from the Prudential Assurance Company, he admitted that his liabilities exceeded his assets by £200,000. As a bankrupt he could no longer remain an MP, and he applied for the Chiltern Hundreds on 24 May 1912. In public he showed no remorse, telling audiences that parliament was 'played out … quite possibly an illegal assembly', and that the present 'musty, rusty, corrupt system' needed replacement by 'Business government' (John Bull, 3 Aug 1912).

With the outbreak of war, in August 1914, Bottomley momentarily promised to mend his ways, but soon succumbed to temptation. War afforded a national stage for his huckstering demagoguery. John Bull spewed out venomous chauvinism, demanding that all 'Germ-Huns' in Britain, whether naturalized or no, be exterminated. The old fraudster was inspired to add peddling insurance against Zeppelin raids to his repertoire of familiar swindles—sweeps, lotteries, and rigged prize competitions. But his involvement in the recruiting campaign best demonstrates Bottomley's unrivalled capacity for captious cynicism. From September 1914 he addressed ever larger, more enthusiastic audiences, encouraging men to volunteer and take up arms. He described himself as an 'oratorical courtesan', shamelessly selling himself to the highest bidder. His patriotic appeals were barely disguised music-hall turns. The praise he received served to feed his latent megalomania. His political ambitions had always tended towards fantasy so that when, in December 1916, Lloyd George became prime minister Bottomley declared that he was ready to serve his country in some official capacity or other. He did not seem to realize that he was indelibly associated with dishonesty. Just as the blatant vulgarity of his writing in John Bull shamed journalism, so his speeches, with their ignominious appeals for sacrifice, degraded public life. Paid enough (his weekly articles for Northcliffe's Sunday Pictorial, launched in 1915, earned him nearly £8000 a year), Bottomley would say or write anything.

Bottomley was eventually betrayed by his growing carelessness, but not before managing his discharge from bankruptcy, partly by launching schemes, publicized in John Bull, to invest in war stocks and savings. He once more entered the Commons as the independent member for Hackney South at the general election of 1918. He had the effrontery to congratulate himself upon not being raised to the peerage, an honour that had been given to so many connected with the press. As his investment schemes faltered he moved to France for a time in 1920. An attempted action for criminal libel which he brought in 1921 against a former associate, Reuben Bigland, failed. The case brought damaging revelations that his highly successful Victory Bond Club—through which in 1919 readers of John Bull were invited to invest in government Victory Bonds, some £900,000 being raised—was a hopeless swindle. Bottomley complained to readers in the Sunday Illustrated, the paper which he had started in 1919, that those, like himself, who sat upon a pinnacle, inevitably became the target of envious mud-slingers. But his business enterprises were being examined by a receiver, and in March 1922 he was charged with fraudulent conversion. Tried before Mr Justice Salter at the Old Bailey, Bottomley was found guilty on twenty-three out of twenty-four counts and sentenced to seven years' penal servitude. His legal appeal was rejected and he was expelled from the Commons.

Prison was a harrowing experience, but his sense of humour never entirely deserted him. A prison visitor seeing Bottomley working on a mail bag inquired, 'Sewing?' 'No, reaping', came the instant reply. He was released from Maidstone gaol in July 1927 after serving five years. The confident belief that he would soon be rehabilitated with his public proved ill-founded. A new journal, John Blunt, planned speaking tours, even an act at the Windmill Theatre, all alike failed. He cut a pathetic figure and, a broken old man, he stumbled into obscurity. In 1930 his wife died and his daughter emigrated to South Africa. Of his former friends and acolytes all deserted him except Peggy Primrose, who shared her home with him. He died of a stroke at the Middlesex Hospital, London on 26 May 1933. He was cremated at Golders Green and his ashes were scattered on the Sussex downs in 1937.

Bottomley's obituary notices in the national press emphasized how he had squandered his many gifts. 'He had magnetism, eloquence, enthusiasm, the power to convince … he might have been anything, a captain of industry, a great journalist' (Daily Mail, 27 May 1933). All his adult life Bottomley was 'more a series of public attitudes than a person' (Symons, 274). As company promoter, businessman, financier, politician, national recruiting sergeant, bon viveur, sportsman, squire, publisher, journalist, advocate, he claimed to serve the interests of others, but sought only his own gratification. It was his overwhelming egotism that betrayed him and promoted the hubris that condoned ever rasher, more carelessly executed frauds that invited discovery, irredeemable ruin, and disgrace.

Sources

  • J. Symons, Horatio Bottomley: a biography (1955)
  • A. Hyman, The rise and fall of Horatio Bottomley: the biography of a swindler (1972)
  • Tenax [E. Bell], The gentle art of exploiting gullibility (1923)
  • R. J. Minney, Viscount Southwood (1954)
  • Daily Mail (27 May 1933)
  • G. R. Searle, Corruption in British politics, 1895–1930 (1987)
  • J. Camplin, The rise of the plutocrats (1978)
  • T. Jones, Whitehall diary, ed. K. Middlemas, 1 (1969)
  • S. E. Koss, The rise and fall of the political press in Britain, 2 (1984)
  • F. Harris, My life and loves, new edn, ed. J. F. Gallagher (1964)
  • C. Shaw, ‘Bottomley, Horatio William’, DBB
  • b. cert.

Archives

  • People's History Museum, Manchester, corresp. relating to his Hackney Labour Party candidature
  • Parl. Arch., Wargrave MSS, letter to Goulding

Film

  • BFINA, news footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, news recording

Likenesses

  • B. Stone, photograph, 1911, NPG
  • Bassano, photograph, 1918, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. Kapp, drawing, 1928, Barber Institute of fine Arts, Birmingham
  • H. W. Bottomley, self-portrait, pencil drawing (aged thirty-three)
  • photograph (as Sergeant Buzfuz from Pickwick papers), repro. in Symons, Horatio Bottomley
  • photographs, repro. in Hyman, The rise and fall of Horatio Bottomley
  • portrait (aged thirty-three; after pencil drawing by H. W. Bottomley), repro. in Symons, Horatio Bottomley
(1849–)
D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)