John Bull Magazine

by Tony Quinn

John Bull is one of Britain’s most collectable magazines. It was started in 1906 under the editorship of Horatio Bottomley as a weekly published by Odhams Press, and was one of the bestselling magazines in the world for five decades. John Bull was relaunched in 1960 as Today, which was folded into Weekend four years later. It is known for its Bullets prize competitions, Bottomley’s hectoring editorials during the First World War, and its fiction and illustrated colour covers in the 1950s.

The early John Bull

At the age of 28, the publisher and financier (and later swindler) Horatio Bottomley became the founding chairman of the Financial Times in 1888. Three years later, he filed for bankruptcy and was tried for conspiracy to defraud. He conducted his own defence and through the skill of his oratory was acquitted. In 1906, he launched John Bull in co-operation with Odhams Press and became a Liberal MP in the same year. The magazine became popular by combining Bottomley’s populist editorials with the hugely popular Bullets prize competitions.

He tried to launch a women’s spin-off, Mrs Bull, in 1910. This changed its name three years later to Mary Bull, but that closed in March 1915.

However, Bottomley was a spendthrift, losing a fortune on horse-racing and living a champagne-filled lifestyle with many mistresses and homes in England and Monte Carlo. Although Bottomley was again declared bankrupt in 1912 with debts of £200,000, so had to give up his seat as an MP, he retained his popularity.

Bottomley's wartime popularity

During the First World War, John Bull claimed to be the biggest-selling title in Britain. It became very influential and supported troops in their complaints about the war. Bottomley was feted for his ability to sway the feelings of the nation – persuading men to sign up for the front, being asked to debate at the Oxford Union and being despatched as an unofficial emissary by the government to persuade strikers to return to work. Lord Northcliffe even employed him to write a column for the Sunday Pictorial, supposedly at an astounding fee of £8,000 a year.

At the end of the war, Bottomley became an independent MP for Hackney South. However, the swindling of one of his financial schemes, the Victory Bond Club, which was promoted in John Bull, was coming to light. Truth magazine and The Times both denounced him and Bottomley was tried for fraud at London's Old Bailey. He was sentenced to seven years.

John Bull took a hit to its sales, but recovered under the control of Julius Elias (later Lord Southwell), managing director of the printers Odhams. It may well have been the biggest-selling magazine until the success of the BBC’s Radio Times in the 1930s.

As for Bottomley, 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 at the top of the cover. However, the title was short-lived and his attempts to return to the speaking circuit also failed. He died in 1933.

Adverts on the cover

During the war, an advertising panel had been introduced on the front cover, and in the next decade display advertising gradually took over. By 1929, the John Bull character had been shrunk into the title and advertisers were starting to use photography. Guinness became a regular on John Bull covers, with slogans such as ‘You’ll feel better when you’ve had a glass of Guinness’ a common sight throughout the Second World War.

John Bull had kept to its A4-ish size and campaigning editorial style right from its launch, even as weekly rivals and newcomers either adopted a larger tabloid format with colour in the 1930s, such as Passing Show, Illustrated and Answers, which relaunched as To-Day; or became pocket monthlies, as The Humorist and London Opinion did. This was despite the fact that its owners, Odhams, had opened new colour gravure works in Watford in 1937, which printed Woman. After the war, though, advertising was replaced on the front cover by black-and-white whole-page illustrations. Then, in March 1946, even though rationing was still in force, colour finally appeared with a switch to gravure printing.

John Bull changes strategy

The colour also heralded a change in editorial strategy with an emphasis on famous commentators, such as JB Priestly, and actors, and, later, fiction serials. So, a late 1949 cover promoted articles by James Mason and Wilfred Pickles, and fiction by Sax Romer. Throughout the 1950s, all-action tales by CS Forester, Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean were promoted on the covers and in posters and sales material at newsagents.

Despite the investment in novel serials by the world’s leading authors, sales of John Bull slid – even as it gobbled up its rivals such as Passing Show and Illustrated. However, sales of all the general weeklies were in decline in the face of competition for readers’ time and advertising revenue from television. The February 20 issue in 1960 announced that the next issue would be called Today, ‘the New John Bull’ as the magazine ‘streamlined’ itself to ‘face the exacting demands of the 1960s’ with a ‘fresh, urgent, and up-to-date look’. The contents became more topical with ‘fascinating untold stories behind the newspaper headlines’ and ‘a sparkling new approach to entertainment’.

The relaunch worked for a while, but 1962 saw competition arrive for colour advertising in the shape of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement. After just four years as Today, the New John Bull closed and was merged into Weekend, a weekly owned by the Daily Mail newspaper group.