Horatio Bottomley leads a recruitment rally in 1915. (Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

February 23, 2024   7 mins

Horatio Bottomley was never taken very seriously by political commentators. Even his “remarkable conjunction of names is quite enough to create mirth”, mocked one newspaper. But for 15 years or so, either side of the First World War, he was one of the best-known and most popular figures in British public life. And he had aspirations to be more than that: to be the leader of a populist movement that would sweep him into power.

Born in 1860, the only son of an East London tailor’s cutter, Bottomley lost both parents before he was five and was placed in a Birmingham orphanage, from which he ran away at the age of 14. From this unpromising background, and armed with little more than ambition, charm, and unshakable self-confidence, he made his fortune during the Australian goldrush in the last years of the 19th century.

London was awash with investors in search of profits, and Bottomley reinvented himself as a financier, launching companies that were forever just about to strike gold but never quite did. When his reserves ran low, he went back to the same investors and convinced them to throw good money after bad. Along the way, an estimated £3 million found its way into his pocket, and he was so brazen and jolly about his misappropriations that he got away with them. Challenged at a shareholders’ meeting about what had happened to £700,000 that had gone missing from the accounts, he came clean: “I have not the faintest idea.” He sat down to cheers.

In short, Bottomley was a “barefaced swindler” who “deliberately planned schemes to rob the public”, as one contemporary put it (Bottomley sued for libel and won), or “the cleverest thief in the Empire”, as a prosecuting lawyer in yet another case suggested. There were a lot of court cases in his life, and, despite a lack of legal training, he liked to defend himself. He normally won.

To the non-investing classes, he was a hero: the East End boy who had made good, thoroughly relishing a profligate life of champagne, racehorses and chorus girls, while still firmly on the side of “the despised, the rejected and the downtrodden”. Selected at short notice to be the Liberal candidate for slum-ridden Hackney South, he failed in the khaki election of 1900, and learnt his lesson. Thereafter, he nursed his constituency with a devotion that bordered on bribery, setting up soup kitchens and giving Christmas parties for local children (he appeared as Santa Claus). Come the great Liberal landslide of 1906, Bottomley took the Tory-held seat with a remarkable swing of 16.7% (the national average was 5.4%), winning the largest Liberal majority for a London constituency.

He wasn’t welcomed into the fold at Westminster, though. His reputation as a crooked businessman preceded him, and whenever he rose to speak, Liberal MPs talked loudly among themselves, trying to drown him out. He was unfazed. He “outfaces the cold displeasure with the most sublime effrontery”, said one commentator. He was “in the Liberal Party but not of it”.

Indeed, at a time when temperance mattered to Liberals, he exuded the boozy bonhomie of the saloon-bar — to the extent that he inspired the brash, boisterous Toad of Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Bottomley was short and stocky, with a large head and a soft, round face. In parliament, he tossed out policy ideas designed to attract the press. Abolish beer duty, and replace it with a tax on fizzy drinks, he’d suggest. Or he’d call for peerages to be sold on the open market to fund welfare spending. He was, in short, the Nigel Farage of his day.

“At a time when temperance mattered to Liberals, he exuded the boozy bonhomie of the saloon-bar”

His instincts, like Nigel’s, were distinctly tabloid. When he launched a weekly paper, John Bull — much of which he wrote himself — it featured a mix of salacious gossip, investigative journalism, highly opinionated comment and shock exposés of “the vilest habits of sexual depravity and degradation”. Surprisingly for a vanity project, it generated cash: any company that was repeatedly targeted in the pages of John Bull would be told that the attacks would stop in return for a financial consideration. At one stage, Bottomley was being paid a retainer by Harrods to investigate complaints by former staff — complaints for which he was the only source.

Relentless self-advertisement made him famous, but as an MP he clearly wasn’t deemed necessary. If he was ever to make progress, he needed to throw some grit into the political machine, to disrupt it sufficiently that the nation would realise how much it needed the expertise of Horatio Bottomley. So, in autumn 1909, he booked the Royal Albert Hall for the launch of his new venture, the John Bull League.

Bottomley’s platform was what you’d expect of a City man who’d gone into politics without any great vision: all the parties were the same these days, and we needed to get rid of professional politicians, replacing them with “a common sense, business government for a common sense, business people”. There was no need for a nanny state. “Molesting and restrictive legislation will be kept for the nursery. What people eat, what they drink, and what they play at will be a matter entirely for themselves.”

Much of this seemed to be aimed at his Liberal colleagues. Likewise, the specially commissioned campaign song that celebrated anti-puritanism:

Would you utterly destroy
Faddists who would murder joy?
Born on purpose to annoy?
Join the League!

Bottomley also attacked professional charities for wasting money on administration and overpaid executives, and for sending funds overseas that could be used for the relief of social problems at home. He wanted an end to first-past-the-post, an appointed Senate to replace the House of Lords, and votes for women — why should a man waste his time voting while his wife “goes to the theatre or sits at home”? It was all good populist stuff.

He took the message out to mass meetings around the country, and staged benefit concerts with the support of music-hall stars, promoting himself remorselessly via the pages of John Bull — now claiming sales of a third of a million. He was a witty and engaging speaker, swinging between passionate outrage and jovial self-deprecation (it’s how he won so many court cases). He quickly gained fans. But it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to do next.

Bottomley didn’t seem to know either, unsure whether the League was a pressure group, a faction or an embryonic party. He stood under the Liberal banner in both the 1910 elections, and won both times, then — aware that he was running out of road — he resigned the party whip. In the autumn of 1911, his past finally caught up with him: for the first time, he lost a major case, sued by the estate of an investor for £50,000. The following year, he was declared bankrupt and obliged to resign as an MP. With his disgrace, the John Bull League withered on the vine. It did make a tentative stab at engaging with the political process, fielding candidates in two by-elections, in 1911 and 1913, but came second in a two-horse race on each occasion. Whole months drifted past now when the League wasn’t mentioned at all, even in the pages of John Bull itself.

And then came the war, and he reinvented himself as the great patriotic speaker. National crises are a gift to any self-regarding populist. When things go wrong, it’s time for the country to pull together and rise above and beyond party interests — and Bottomley was there to do his bit. For a fee of £200 (around £10,000 at today’s prices), plus a cut of the door money, he’d address a meeting anywhere in the country, initially to encourage recruitment, then to raise funds for war charities and to sell government bonds. Meanwhile, John Bull, which was in full jingoist mode, pumped and puffed his endeavours, rather like the Daily Mirror in the Eighties heyday of that other cheerful and crooked proprietor, Robert Maxwell.

Bottomley was so reinvigorated that when the war ended, he decided to go for his old seat of Hackney South again, this time as an Independent. He was still banging the same old drum, augmented now by demands for massive reparations from Germany. The Kaiser, he insisted, should be tried by an international court. In December 1918, he trounced the Coalition Liberal candidate, taking 80% of the vote, and headed back to Parliament. It ended worse than last time.

In the aftermath of the war, the government issued Victory Bonds for ÂŁ5 a pop. This was, protested Bottomley, unaffordable for the working classes. In the pages of John Bull, he proposed to block purchase bonds, then divide them and offer readers the chance to buy a ÂŁ1 stake. The scheme was popular but, inevitably, much of the money raised never got any further than Bottomley. When an ex-employee published a pamphlet exposing this, Bottomley sued for libel, thereby drawing the attention of the authorities to his malpractice. The final court case came in 1922. Bottomley was found guilty on more than 20 charges of fraud and given seven years with hard labour.

Public support evaporated: fleecing greedy and gullible speculators in the City was all very well, but stealing from the working class in the name of patriotism was a step too far. Yet even in jail, some of the old ebullience remained. As he sat stitching-up mailbags in Wormwood Scrubs, a prison visitor tried to make conversation: “Sewing, Horatio?” and he replied, “No, reaping.”

So, Horatio Bottomley was never taken very seriously. But perhaps his chief problem — apart from the crookedness — was being ahead of his time. In those years before the First World War, his assaults on the political system appealed to many. The country was deeply unstable, riven by industrial disputes, Suffragette terrorism and incipient civil war in Ireland; he successfully exploited the unease. He was, above all, a great campaigner, capable of inspiring an audience, and not averse to underhand tricks: a speciality was recruiting men to attend rival candidates’ pre-election meetings and then walk noisily out, one-by-one in their hobnail boots, drowning out the speaker.

He had the egotism, the pulling power, the stage presence — but he had no staying power, no real vision for changing the nation, just an ersatz sense of destiny. As his time in the City had shown, he could write an eye-catching prospectus to attract investors, but there was nothing to back it up. He never returned to public life after his release from prison, and died, bankrupt again, in 1933.

Unfortunately for him, Bottomley lived in an era when politics demanded more than mere showmanship. He might have done more, had he been born a century later: nowadays he’d be in his element (if we momentarily set aside the 40 years of rampant criminality). Vain, self-promoting, undisciplined, a campaigner in poetry without the attention-span to govern in prose — well, you can fill in the name of your choice for which of our representatives he most resembles. Hence why Horatio Bottomley seems like so very modern a figure. He was wasted on the Edwardians.

Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.