Horatio Bottomley and
John Bull magazine

by Tony Quinn

Horatio Bottomley

Despite his success as an editor and orator, Horatio Bottomley was exposed as one of the biggest fraudsters in history, having used the pages of both the Financial Times and John Bull magazine to help promote his money-making schemes – but it took 30 years to come out.

Bottomley was founding chairman of the Financial Times. He came to note in the courts in 1893 when he defended himself from fraud, despite the fact that £100,000 had gone missing from the Hansard Union, his printing and publishing company. Seven years later, he failed to win election as an MP but won £1,000 in a libel case after being called a share pusher during the campaign. The Financial Times included him in a supplement titled ‘Men of Millions’.

Bottomley’s reputation in the courts meant others were afraid of taking legal action against him. Seventy years later, a similar strategy was used by Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell, known as the ‘Bouncing Czech’ in Private Eye.

In 1906, Bottomley entered parliament as a Liberal MP. In the same year, he founded John Bull with the help of Julius Elias (later Lord Southwell), managing director of Odhams, the printers. The magazine, with its belligerent stance, championing of the common man and prize competitions – including Bullets, which was akin to coming up with cryptic crossword clues – became incredibly successful. Bottomley survived other cases against him, but his taste for the high life led to him becoming bankrupt in 1912 and so he was forced out of parliament.

Wartime fame

Yet, Bottomley built on the platform provided by John Bull and became famous once the war started. He spoke across the country to support the war effort and the size of the crowd he attracted to London’s Trafalgar Square was the front page page splash of the Daily Mirror on 10 September 1915. His public fame meant he was lauded in the music halls, with a 1915 song ‘Mr Bottomley – John Bull’ by Mark Sheridan.

Such was Bottomley’s popularity that he was despatched by the government as an unofficial emissary, and persuaded shipwrights on the Clyde not to go on strike. London’s Evening News even ran a poster saying ‘Bottomley Wanted’ to promote a story calling for him to join the cabinet after the 1916 Somme offensive failed. Such was the power of the press that Lord Northcliffe was appointed director of propaganda, his brother Lord Rothermere became air minister, and Daily Express owner Sir Max Aitken served as minister for information (and in 1916 became Lord Beaverbrook). However, Bottomley never made it into government.

According to the historian Niall Ferguson, ‘Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull was selling as many as two million copies by the end of the war, a figure beaten only by the new Sunday Pictorial [for which Bottomley also wrote a column for £150 a week, a massive sum that had to be personally approved by Rothermere] and the News of the World.’

John Bull led to a cause célèbre in the film world when it accused the makers of what was intended to be an epic feature, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, of being German sympathisers. The Ideal Film Company sued John Bull and won the case in January 1919. Yet the film was never released, because the prints were bought – for £20,000 – by parties acting for Lloyd George. It was lost until 1994 when it was found at the home of Lord Tenby (Lloyd George’s grandson).

The magazine also bought a U-boat handed over by the Germans as part of the Armistice, and sailed it around Britain. The boat was broken up in Birkenhead in 1921 and the magazine sold badges that were: ‘Guaranteed to be made from metal forming part of the ex-German submarine Deutschland.’

Victory bonds scam

With the end of war, Bottomley again won a seat in parliament, this time as an independent MP. In 1920, Beverley Nichols invited Bottomley to speak at the Oxford Union in support of a motion in favour of independent political parties. (Nichols became a writer, and a columnist on Woman’s Own for 20 years from 1946). He described Bottomley in one of his books:

A grotesque figure. Short and uncommonly broad, he looked almost gigantic in his thick fur coat. Lack-lustre eyes, heavily pouched, glared from a square, sallow face … It was not till he began to talk that the colour mottled his cheeks and the heavy hues on his face were lightened …

Bottomley won the motion, and Nichols records another aspect of the arrogance of the man – he was disappointed that he had not broken the record for the size of the audience. For breakfast next morning, he ordered, ‘A couple of kippers and a nice brandy and soda.’

However, the swindling of his Victory Bond Club, which was promoted in John Bull, was coming to light. Another magazine, Truth, warned its readers off the scheme and Bottomley issued writs against it. He also threatened newspaper distributors – a tactic John Major, the Conservative prime minister, used in 1993 to prevent distribution of the New Statesman when it carried an article about a supposed affair (a decade later, Major admitted having had a four-year affair with the former minister Edwina Currie from 1984).

Reuben Bigland, a printer who had been slighted by Bottomley, had tracked his activities for years and his pamphlet ‘The downfall of Horatio Bottomley: His latest and greatest swindle’ prompted the MP to sue him for criminal libel and blackmail in October 1921. Bottomley lost and, along with Odhams, was fined £1,000. He tried again on the blackmail charge, and lost again.

Opinion turned against Bottomley and he was committed for trial at the Old Bailey in London. The Illustrated London News reported on his trial, with the verdict being its front-page illustration (3 June 1922). Bottomley was sentenced to seven years. The judge said:

You have been rightly been convicted by the jury of this long series of heartless frauds. These poor people trusted you and you have robbed them of £150,000 in ten months. The crime is aggravated by your high position.

The report made reference to the Sword of Justice seen hanging on the courtroom wall. Bottomley had earlier told the jury that it would drop from its scabbard if he was found guilty: it did not fall.

Travers Humphreys, the prosecuting barrister, had lost a John Bull lottery prosecution to Bottomley in 1914 but succeeded this time. He wrote in his memoirs:

[In 1914] he was a brilliant advocate and a clever lawyer, though completely unscrupulous in his methods … In truth, it was not I who floored Bottomley, it was Drink. The man I met in 1922 was a drink-sodden creature whose brain could only be got to work by repeated doses of champagne.

In prison, he was recognised and seems to have been popular with many inmates because of John Bull’s tradition of backing the working man and sending parcels to prisoners of war. A story is told that a padre came to visit and found the prisoner stitching mail bags:

Ah, Bottomley, sewing?
No, padre, reaping!

After prison

Horatio Bottomley

Masthead for the first issue of Horatio Bottomley's John Blunt magazine, dated 16 June 1928

Bottomley portrayed his prison experiences in the manner of Oscar Wilde, with a poem ‘A Ballad of Maidstone Gaol’ by ‘Convict 13’ (his prison number). He founded John Blunt magazine in 1928, having been released from jail the year before. As with John Bull, Bottomley ran John Blunt’s manifesto on the cover: ‘Tribune of the Man in the Street’; ‘Champion of the Bottom Dog’; and added his own face as founder and editor. Many of the staff had worked for Bottomley on John Bull. The last weekly issue was dated 14 September 1929, when it became a monthly, but does not seem to have survived the year.

He also published a book, Songs of the Cell (1928), and toured the music halls. However, he was a sad sight in his later days and died in 1933 after collapsing on stage at the Windmill theatre. His ashes were scattered near his house, The Dicker, in Upper Dicker, near Eastbourne.