Horatio Bottomley

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Horatio William Bottomley (23 March 1860 – 26 May 1933) was a British financier, swindler, journalist, newspaper proprietor, populist politician and Member of Parliament (MP).

Early life[edit]

Horatio Bottomley was born in Bethnal Green, London on 23 March 1860. He was orphaned at the age of four and spent 14 years growing up in an orphanage. His uncle George Holyoake arranged for him to join a firm of legal shorthand writers where he learned something about the court system.[1] His first experience of the courts was in 1885 where he defended a printing and publishing firm of his from bankruptcy and the fact that substantial funds were missing from its accounts.

Company promotions[edit]

He then moved on to promoting Western Australian gold mining projects, some genuine but others based on misrepresentation and fraud. He then moved on to British stocks. He developed a considerable talent for persuading members of the public to part with their money in order to invest in his various schemes. In 1888, he founded the Financial Times and was its first Chairman as a means of puffing his projects. In 1908 he was charged with conspiracy to defraud but the chaos of his record systems produced a hung jury and instead he was forced into bankruptcy in 1912, forcing him out of Parliament.

Political career[edit]

He stood for Parliament in 1887 for the Hornsey division of Middlesex but was defeated by wealthy ink magnate Henry Charles Stephens who lived in Finchley, part of the constituency. Later he successfully entered Parliament as the Liberal MP for Hackney South in 1906, was re-elected in 1910, and thrown out for bankruptcy in 1912.

John Bull and the Great War[edit]

In 1906 he established the patriotic journal John Bull. John Bull was originally strongly anti-Serbian but by 15 August 1914 Bottomley had reversed its position and supported the war effort.[2] Bottomley argued that Germany "must be wiped off the map of Europe", with her colonies and navy divided between Britain and France. He also attacked the Kaiser and Germans (called "Germhuns") generally and those living in Britain: "As I have said elsewhere you cannot naturalize an unnatural beast—a human abortion—a hellish fiend. But you can exterminate it".[3] Bottomley advocated the confiscation of all German property, the internment of all Germans and the requirement of naturalized Germans to wear a distinctive badge.[4] Bottomley also campaigned to get the Kaiser's banner removed from St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Bottomley also strongly attacked that section of the Labour Party which opposed the war, and argued that Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald should be court-martialled for high treason. MacDonald responded to these attacks by claiming Bottomley to be of "doubtful parentage, who had lived all his life on the threshold of jail". Bottomley retaliated by producing a facsimile of MacDonald's birth certificate which showed he was illegitimate.[5]

Although it is illegal for servicemen to send complaints to the press, Bottomley set up a column in John Bull where servicemen were encouraged to send an account of their grievances, upon which a company which advertised in the paper would send a parcel to them. The government thought about prosecuting Bottomley for this but they did not bring proceedings against him because they saw the usefulness of such a "safety valve".[6] Within six months of the start of the Great War one serious journalist wrote that "next to Kitchener the most influential man today is Mr. Horatio Bottomley".[7]

In 1915 Bottomley wrote articles for the Sunday Pictorial, with their success making him "the most famous journalist in Britain" through a mixture of "down-to-earth religiosity, patriotism and Radicalism".[8]

Public speaking[edit]

He spoke on many recruiting platforms (sometimes taking a large fee for doing so and at other times without payment). He displayed on these occasions a ready wit, and a considerable talent for popular oratory. His first recruiting speech was made six weeks after the beginning of the War at the London Opera House. The official recruiting function held there a few weeks earlier yielded fewer results than Bottomley's. 25,000 people went to the Opera House, with 5,000 being admitted.[9] After making a recruiting speech at Hull 1,000 men enlisted, his greatest success.[10] His patriotic lecture tour speeches had a higher tone than his newspaper articles and the more money he was paid for a speech the higher the tone Bottomley would employ.[11]

He pressed for a more aggressive prosecution of the War by Great Britain and attacked anybody he deemed less patriotic than himself. He advocated the unconditional surrender of Germany and a march on Berlin.[12]

Postwar political career[edit]

In the United Kingdom general election, 1918 he returned to Parliament as an Independent MP for Hackney South (with almost 80 percent of the vote). In May 1919 Bottomley founded The People's League hoping it would be 'a great Third Party' that would represent 'the People' against organised labour and organised capital. He supported General Dyer after the Amritsar massacre.[13] Bottomley became a famous and popular figure for his patriotic and political activities. He was also well known for numerous Court appearances in libel and other cases, in which he frequently acted for himself, often with success. He was on one occasion described by Mr Justice Henry Hawkins as the ablest advocate Hawkins had ever listened to, as a result of which the judge offered Bottomley his wig. He also bought the German submarine Deutschland which was taken on a tour of southern and eastern ports attracting 150,000 visitors, however the purchase became an issue in the subsequent fraud trial.[14]

Imprisonment, death, and legacy[edit]

Bottomley created the "John Bull Victory Bond Club" (a forerunner of Premium Bonds), purportedly as a mechanism for small savers to lend money to the Government, receiving prizes rather than interest; again a combination of fraud and mismanagement sank the scheme in 1921. He was charged with fraud, perjury and false accounting. Jeremiah Lynch (1888–1953), an Irish-born detective who had already earned a reputation for trapping wartime German spies, was instrumental in building up the case against Bottomley, and went on to become a founder member of the original Flying Squad. (The Times, Obituary, 15 July 1953). In 1922, Bottomley was convicted of fraudulent conversion of shareholders' funds, sentenced to seven years jail and expelled from Parliament.

A famous story says that the prison chaplain of Wormwood Scrubs found him making mail sacks and asked him "Bottomley! Sewing?" to which he replied "No, reaping". He also became again bankrupt. On one occasion when he attended the Bankruptcy Court from Wormwood Scrubs but dressed in his civilian clothes, a friend remarked on the creases in his coat. Bottomley replied, "Never mind. When I get back, I change for dinner." He was released from gaol in 1927 and, after parading himself around seedy music-halls in a mawkish one-man show, died in penury on 26 May 1933, aged seventy-three, from a stroke after an operation at the Middlesex Hospital, London. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes later scattered, according to his will, at Lower Dicker, near Alfriston, Sussex.

Bottomley's papers are housed at the Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City.[15] The Horatio Bottomley Papers include correspondence by and about Bottomley and are part of the Fraud and Swindles Collection.

Noël Coward[edit]

In May 1931, whilst directing his latest play Cavalcade at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the English actor, playwright and composer of popular music Noël Coward, lost a black leather wallet. In February 1981 during pre-production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, American actor Henderson Forsythe found Noël Coward's missing wallet stuffed inside a broken tuba that had fallen upon him whilst he had been rummaging in a storage cupboard. Curiously, Coward's wallet also contained a small studio photograph of Bottomley. The discovery of the wallet provoked speculation that Coward had been planning a dramatic performance about Bottomley's strange life. This speculation arose because at the time that Cavalcade was playing at the Theatre Royal, Bottomley was appearing in a music hall nearby, performing the above mentioned one-man show about himself. Horatio Bottomley died in May 1933 and no record of a Coward penned musical about his life has ever been discovered.[16]


  • But he was irredeemably, utterly, psychotically corrupt. He built a string of other businesses on nothing more than fresh air: but there were always useful and distinguished idiots on the board, so he could tell the shareholders' meeting: "I would love to pay you a dividend, but my directors won't let me."
    Matthew Engel in The Guardian, Tuesday 30 November 1999.
  • Bottomley's capacity for self-advertisement was immense. His ambition was Napoleonic. His fall—when it came in 1922—complete. His capacity and industry were enormous also...if he had a humbug of his own, he made mincemeat of the humbug of others, excoriating the more extreme claims made on behalf of the League of Nations, dismissing most forces in international politics except those based on power and ridiculing the naivest sorts of Labour claim to have discovered an inexhaustible supply of wealth and wages.
    Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour: 1920–1924 (Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 53.
  • ..."on the night when it was known that F.E. [Smith, Lord Birkenhead] was going to the Woolsack [i.e., becoming Lord Chancellor], he was accosted by Bottomley in the smoking-room of the House of Commons and congratulated upon the appointment. Bottomley added, 'Upon my soul, F.E., I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that you had been made Archbishop of Canterbury.' 'If I had,' replied the Lord Chancellor, 'I should have invited you to come to my installation.' 'That's damned nice of you,' said Bottomley. 'Not at all. I should have needed a crook.'
    Gilbert, Michael, "The Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes", Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 282.


  1. ^ Matthew Parris, Kevin Maguire, "Great parliamentary scandals: five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo", Robson, 2004, ISBN 1-86105-736-9, p. 85
  2. ^ Julian Symons, Horatio Bottomley (London: The Cresset Press, 1955), pp. 162–163.
  3. ^ Symons, p. 166.
  4. ^ Symons, p. 167.
  5. ^ Symons, pp. 168–169.
  6. ^ Symons, pp. 167–168.
  7. ^ Symons, p. 164.
  8. ^ Symons, pp. 169–170.
  9. ^ Symons, p. 174.
  10. ^ Symons, p. 177.
  11. ^ Symons, p. 182.
  12. ^ Symons, p. 202.
  13. ^ Symons, p. 218.
  14. ^ Jasper Copping (2 February 2014). "The German sailor, his English wife and WW1 voyage that won him the Iron Cross". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  15. ^ "Manuscript Collections". Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 
  16. ^ Oscar G. Brockett & Franklin J. Hildy, History of the Theatre (9th Edition) (Allyn & Bacon, 2002), p. 193.

Further reading[edit]

  • Felsted, S. Theodore, Horatio Bottomley: A Biography of an Outstanding Personality, John Murray, London, 1936.
  • Gilbert, Michael, The Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 37–40, 281–282.
  • Horatio Bottomley Papers, Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (view on appointment)
  • Houston, Henry J., OBE, The Real Horatio Bottomley, Hurst and Blackett, London, 1923.
  • Hyman, Alan The Rise & Fall of Horatio Bottomley: the biography of a swindler Cassell, 1972 ISBN 0-304-29023-8
  • Sparrow, Judge Gerald, The Great Defenders, John Long, London, 1968, pp. 111–125.
  • Symons, Julian, Horatio Bottomley, Cressett Press, London, 1955.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Thomas Herbert Robertson
Member of Parliament for Hackney South
Succeeded by
Hector Morison
Preceded by
Hector Morison
Member of Parliament for Hackney South
expelled 1 August 1922 after fraud conviction
Succeeded by
Clifford Erskine-Bolst