Ahundred years have passed since the trial that brought an end to the career of the MP and journalist Horatio Bottomley, a fraudster whose victims, according to his biographer Julian Symons, often felt he ‘did not mean to do wrong’; a man fond of ‘the good life … of mistresses, champagne, gambling and entertaining’. He was best known for his magazine John Bull. Launched in 1906 following Bottomley’s election as the Liberal MP for Hackney South, it specialised in a leaden patriotism. The French were ‘the Foul French’; the Labour leader Keir Hardie was ‘Kur’ Hardie; Britain’s wartime opponents were the ‘Germhuns’. On the magazine’s masthead was an image of John Bull in a Union Jack waistcoat and a top hat, with a riding crop tucked under his arm. The longer Bottomley lived, the more he became that figure.
He was forced to resign from Parliament in 1912 when he was declared bankrupt: Eleanor Curtis, the daughter of one of his victims, had successfully sued him for the £50,000 stolen from her father. But his fortunes rose again during the First World War, when John Bull built up a circulation of two million. Labour leaders like Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were traitors who should be ‘shot at dawn’. Readers were urged to wage a ‘blood feud’ against Germans living in Britain: ‘You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.’ Bottomley went around the country giving bellicose speeches to huge audiences. Between January 1915 and the end of the war he delivered more than three hundred public talks, calling on men to volunteer and setting out how the war might be won: his recommendations included prosecuting strikers as deserters and purging the country of other enemies within, from conscientious objectors to doddering generals.
One of his most valuable skills was the ability to talk round a hostile crowd. Born into poverty in East London, and orphaned at the age of five, he learned to use his childhood to his advantage, turning derision into respect. Once, during a debate at the Oxford Union, he stumbled over his words and the students laughed. ‘Gentlemen,’ Bottomley replied, ‘I have not had your advantages. What poor education I have had has been in the University of Life.’ The playwright Beverley Nichols was struck by his stagecraft: ‘After that brief remark, any men who laughed at his pronunciation or his mannerism would be cads, and they knew it.’
Bottomley’s career ended in May 1922, with his prosecution for fraud. Key to his defeat was the defection of a group of admirers and associates, chief among them Reuben Bigland, a Birmingham printer. One difference between the two men was that Bottomley had escaped poverty by his late twenties, while Bigland had continued to dance on its edges. He had been a road sweeper, a bookmaker and a professional gambler. In 1919, Bigland wanted Bottomley to fund a scheme to convert water into petrol, but his mentor refused. ‘I don’t know whether you have ever met a man who was socially head and shoulders above you, who was a big gun in his own circle, and who the papers have boosted in their inimitable manner,’ Bigland wrote, ‘and when you have met such a man have said to yourself, “Well, where is his cleverness? I could beat him myself!”’ He resolved to do so.
Metropolitan Police records released by the National Archives over the last decade enable us to fill in some of the details of the case. The police, it turns out, had been watching Bottomley since 1913, not long after his first meeting with Bigland. Lotteries were unlawful unless they had been authorised by Parliament: Section 41 of the Lotteries Act 1823 made it an offence to sell a ticket or publish an advertisement for a lottery. Bigland had worked out a way to get round this. Bottomley could launch a sweepstake (the one he started was based on that year’s Epsom Derby) as long as it was administered abroad (from Switzerland, in this case). He could also advertise the tickets in John Bull and take the profits, so long as he maintained the lie that he was merely advertising a business which was owned by someone else and which operated overseas. The police noted that members of Bottomley’s family were profiting from his sweepstakes, along with his secretary Henry Houston, his friend Tommy Cox, even his valet. They handed over their information to a firm of solicitors called Wontner and Sons and sought advice. By this time, Bottomley had been a party in nearly a hundred civil or criminal trials, including fraud trials and numerous libel cases. He had built up a reputation of being almost invulnerable in court. ‘We with regret find ourselves quite unable to recommend having a fall with Mr Bottomley upon such vague and flimsy material,’ Wontner told the police.
After the armistice, Bottomley was determined to return to Parliament in his old seat of Hackney South, but he couldn’t stand unless he was discharged from bankruptcy. The day before nominations closed for the general election of December 1918 he went to court with £25,000 in cash and £9,000 in war stocks. As the watching police officers noted, this still left him £50,000 in debt. But the court was persuaded to discharge the bankruptcy, freeing him to stand. He won almost 80 per cent of the vote, and returned to Parliament as an Independent. The court had stipulated, however, that he pay off his remaining debts, and it was this that caused Bottomley to launch his most ambitious scheme.
In July 1919, he announced a Victory Bonds Club. For £1 subscribers could purchase a share in a government Victory Bond, which cost £5. There would be an annual draw for prizes, paid for out of the interest, and Bottomley pledged to return shares for their full value if asked. Had all his customers asked him to do this, he could not have paid them. On the date the club opened, the police noted, his private bank account contained only £7.
The club was a popular success, and around £1.1 million was paid in. If the scheme had proceeded on the terms under which it was advertised, Bottomley would have purchased an equivalent number of government bonds. He did buy some, but only spent £420,000. Police records show us for the first time where the rest of the money went: £648,841 was paid to an account with the London Joint City and Midland Bank for which Bottomley and Cox were the signatories. Houston received £1000 from that account, as did Bottomley’s horse trainer. Bottomley gave £1100 to Charles Palmer, who had been deputy editor of John Bull and who won an unexpected by-election victory in 1920 with Bottomley’s backing; a further £4800 went to an actress called Peggy Primrose, one of Bottomley’s longer-standing mistresses. Payments totalling £31,100 were sent to a woman called Laura Rogers, whom the Metropolitan Police believed was another of his mistresses. They noted that she had recently given birth.
By late 1920, Bigland had been campaigning against Bottomley for more than a year. He had printed 250,000 copies of a leaflet claiming Bottomley was a swindler and attempted to have himself arrested in possession of a war bond, which he insisted had been given to him as a prize after Bottomley rigged one of the Victory Bond Club’s draws. The magistrates refused to try him. Eventually, Bottomley initiated a private prosecution of Bigland for criminal libel. This ancient legal doctrine was originally intended to prevent public disorder by protecting the great of the realm from slander. It carried a maximum two-year jail term.
Ten years later, Bigland’s solicitor, Edward Bell, published a memoir under the pseudonym ‘Tenax’, or the ‘persistent one’. He charged Bottomley with ‘vanity and cupidity’, described him as being ‘inebriated’ with his own ‘astucity’, and noted ‘the chasm’ of his ‘delinquencies’. Before Bigland’s trial, Bell met Chief Inspector Mercer of the Metropolitan Police. Mercer refused to appear in court without an order requiring his attendance, but it’s clear from his notes that he was beginning to think Bottomley might lose: ‘Bigland,’ he wrote, in a note typed in lilac ink on Metropolitan Police notepaper, ‘gave the police the names and addresses of persons who are said by him to have been indicated by numbers as prize-winners, including his own niece in Birmingham.’ The police interviewed these people, and confirmed Mercer’s story. Bell also approached the banks Bottomley used to process the club’s takings, the City and Midland and Crédit Lyonnais, and was allowed to see the accounts in January 1922.
Shortly before the libel trial was due to begin, the two men’s lawyers met in conference. Bottomley was to be represented by Marshall Hall, one of the great advocates of the day. But, according to a memoir by his clerk A.E. Bowker, Hall was so shocked at what he read that he went straight to see his client. ‘We are offering no evidence,’ he told Bottomley. ‘It’s the only course to take. And there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Bigland’s trial duly collapsed. By implicitly accepting the charge that he was a fraudster, Bottomley paved the way for an investigation into his own conduct.
The director of public prosecutions wrote to police officers warning them to be on the lookout in case Bottomley attempted to flee the country. The police took possession of Bell’s documents, and used them to make a case against Bottomley, who was charged with 24 counts of fraud. They believed that the key to finally securing a guilty verdict was to convince a jury that he wasn’t merely a thief, but a hypocrite who claimed to speak for soldiers and for the people while defrauding them. The prosecution witnesses included an out-of-work boilermaker, a builder, several servants and a war widow, all of whom had lost money with the demise of the club. The prosecuting barrister, Travers Humphreys, forced Bottomley to admit that he had earned £27,000 from his war lectures. ‘What is to be said of the man who is making money out of the war?’ Bottomley had asked in John Bull. ‘A man who cannot take the risk of dying for his country is not fit to live in it.’ Yet very few people had made a greater profit. He still insisted that he hadn’t made any money from the Victory Bonds Club, telling the jury that ‘far from robbing these clubs, they spelled my financial ruin. I hope to satisfy you, if they were the last words to pass my lips, that I am incapable of robbing an ex-soldier.’ This time, the jury wasn’t convinced. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. Mr Justice Salter told him that ‘the crime is aggravated by your high position, the number and poverty of your victims, by the trust which they reposed in you and which you abused.’ He was expelled from the Commons after the dismissal of his appeal.
Bottomley had a realistic idea of the way his life story was likely to be written, and he tried from jail and after his release in 1927 to fight the descent into cliché. (Though cliché was not avoided in a perhaps apocryphal exchange in Wormwood Scrubs, where he worked making mailbags: ‘Sewing, Bottomley?’ ‘No, reaping.’) ‘We are all familiar,’ he began one piece, ‘with the newspaper interview with the robust octogenarian, or nonagenarian, who attributes his longevity to a course of living held up as an example to all. Early rising, daily walks, simple diet, abstention from alcohol and tobacco, and a list of virtues are paraded for our inspiration, however contradictory and inconsistent they may be.’ His life, he was well aware, was likely to be employed in the opposite way: a litany of vices, culminating in well-deserved humiliation. For ten years he had been an MP, for thirty he had fought his way through the court system without significant reverse. People stopped laughing at Bottomley’s jokes only when they grasped the source of his money. It was not enough that he lied or that he enriched himself. They needed to see that he was rich because he stole from them.