Horatio Bottomley; the Man who was John Bull

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John Bull cover

There has been much discussion in the last week of the moral virtue of the cause for which Britain was fighting during the First World War. The “German elites”, our Education Secretary has written, were “social Darwinists”, with “aggressively expansionist war aims”, who had only scorn for the previous “international order”.

What however of the elites in Britain; what did they think, and for what great cause were they fighting? The most celebrated propagandist of the British war effort was a magazine owner and former Liberal MP, Horatio Bottomley.

To think of Bottomley in his wartime pomp is to see one of the great figures of his age. His magazine John Bull claimed a circulation in excess of two million by 1914, making it by some distance the best-selling news weekly of its day. John Bull pushed itself as the most patriotic publication of a patriotic time. It called on its readers to hate the “Germhuns” and “Austrihuns” against whom Britain was fighting. It taught the British people to keep an equal hatred for those in power, the politicians and the civil servants, by whose insufficient patriotism the war might yet be lost.

If John Bull raged against Bottomley’s enemies like a drumstick tapping at a snare, a second sound could also be heard, the bass notes of a kettle drum. One man might yet save Britain. Bottomley spoke to rallies of shipwrights and munitions workers. For taking Britain deeper into war, Bottomley had his price; he should play a part in government. “When will Ministers realise this is a People’s War?”, he wrote, “One man in the Cabinet who really understood the heart and mind of the British democracy would be worth three army corps to the cause of the Allies.”

In 1917, the War Office accepted a proposal made by Bottomley that he should go on a morale-boosting tour of the Western front. He was judged to have been a success with the troops and was then taken in the winter of the same year to review the Grand Fleet. The government considered a further proposal in 1918 that Bottomley should take a share of the responsibility for managing the wartime food supply. Bottomley was invited to meet Prime Minister Lloyd George. He allowed the story to leak out that he was being considered for a cabinet position.

How did Bottomley, a former Liberal MP and undischarged bankrupt reach this position of influence? Returning to England following the declaration of war, Bottomley John Bull from a mix of scandal sheet and vanity project into a single-issue publication in support of the war. A typical front-page article began, “The Dawn of England’s Glory. The Day has Come. Now for the Golden Eventide … It is not necessary to be a soldier but it is necessary to be a MAN.”

A theatre manager Arthur Seymour Hicks invited Horatio Bottomley to make a recruiting speech at the London Opera House on 14 September 1914 which was billed as “John Bull‘s Great Patriotic Rally for recruiting”. Bottomley began with the great dangers facing Britain, the most serious of which was the emergence of the German navy. This threat, and all other dangers facing the country, he blamed on the “Party system of government” in Britain. He called for a different system of politics, under which all power would be placed in the hands of a leader “a man conversant with the details of his work”, and with the ear of the People. Continuing in a vein of patriotism, Bottomley pronounced that the war was not of Britain’s making, but that it could be brought a speedy end. “Its duration depends upon you. It depends upon those who are wanted to go to the front, the more there are, the sooner will the enemy see the folly upon which he has embarked, and sue for terms of peace.” He was certain that the war would end with the German warships in British hands, the German Empire partitioned and the Kaiser dethroned. He called on every man present to sign up and hasten the coming of peace. It was the destiny of what he termed “the Anglo-Saxon race” to fight, and those who declined would be branded afterwards as traitors and aliens, enemies of the King. Bottomley claimed that 5,000 people had attended his rally and 20,000 had been turned away.

From the end of 1915 to the culmination of the war, Bottomley gave 340 lectures in three years (or two on average ever week). Tickets were sold at a premium. A venue would be booked, and travel had to be paid for, but with those exceptions Bottomley would pocket the remainder of the takings for himself. He performed in measure to the generosity of the audience. If the takings were less than £75, Bottomley would end with a relatively subdued call on the name of the Empire King. The band would then strike up the National Anthem. If Bottomley was more than £75 up on the day, they were given a rather more stirring finale. “When this great nation emerges from its period of trial – as please God it will – we shall stand erect shoulder to shoulder before the world, and declare with one voice that Britain is the ‘Land of Hope and Glory'”. At this point the band would come in, and Bottomley’s voice would continue until it was overwhelmed by the sound of the audience singing along with him. Where the profits were in excess of £100 (which required an audience of at least a thousand people), Bottomley would end with his Opera House speech.

Faced with the history of these great patriotic assemblies which constitute the glory of Bottomley’s life, it would be unfair to dwell too long on the two major consequences of his performances. First, the star turn (Bottomley) made money in abundance for himself and for no-one else. Second, where he did persuade men to volunteer, Bottomley manfully contributed to a war in which more than 16 million people were killed. In every city in Britain, there were people who volunteered at his urging and returned from the war invalided for life, if they returned at all.

It was Bottomley’s boast that John Bull was the first paper to call Germans “Huns”. Bottomley disdained to allow any distinction between the country that Britain was fighting and the people of Germany, increasing numbers of whom would of course come to demonstrate their very opposition to war. “If by chance”, Bottomley told his readers, “you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup in his foul face, if you find yourself sitting at the side of a German clerk, you will split the inkpot over his vile head.”

Those who did not fight, Horatio Bottomley declared more than once, did not deserve to live. To all men he extended this rule, save to himself and to his civilian entourage. In war, Bottomley continued, there could be no restraint. “War is the eagle’s business, with neck outstretched and beak stern for combat, with talons outspread ready to fasten in the back of the foe and never lose hold until every drop of blood has dripped from the quarry – that is my picture of the fighting man.”

In John Bull Bottomley declared a “Blood feud” against the Germans. “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” German people in Britain, he said, should wear badges when they left their homes. As soon as it could be done, they should be deported. In Horatio Bottomley’s thinking this was not simply a matter of nationality, but one of race. A person born in England to a German father and an English mother was outside the British race. They too had no place in Britain. And this was not a matter of calling up phantom armies to fight a domestic struggle for which Bottomley had no real stomach. There were anti-German riots at Poplar in September 1914 and in Bottomley’s former base of South Hackney in 1917.

Repression on the necessary scale would produce enemies in Britain, Horatio Bottomley insisted, and they too must be extirpated. “Under the Business Government, every editor who either knowingly or recklessly publishes false news will be shot.” Parliament, a “played-out institution” should be abolished. John Bull had similarly blunt proposals for dealing with a miners’ strike in July 1915. Any workers who remained on strike, Bottomley suggested, should be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”.

Patriotism was good for business. Several large companies were so scared of Bottomley that they felt a need to advertise their patriotic credentials in John Bull, with both Lyons and Bovril using its papers to insist that every single one of their Directors was British, and not one was an enemy foreigner. De La Rue pens used John Bull to make an attack upon their rivals Waterman’s, suggesting that Waterman’s pens were being sold through an Austrian firm L & C Hardmuth. Waterman’s then took out a full page ad to deny the charge.

Bottomley raged in fury against that small minority of politicians who spoke out against the slaughter. He had a particular grudge against Ramsay MacDonald, who was not only a pacifist, but had declared on Bottomley’s removal from Parliament that the magnate’s downfall had been coming. In February 1915, John Bull named MacDonald with Labour’s Keir Hardie as one of two leaders of a “pro-German Campaign” in Britain. In the following issue, Bottomley published an article by A. G. Hales. One of the main ways by which the war was then being justified was by reference to the events of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, during which women had supposedly been raped in their thousands. MacDonald had privately cast doubts on these stories. In prose of which a contemporary Education Secretary might be proud, Hales suggested that doubt itself was a crime against the nation:

“Girls of tender age … have been ravished. Husbands have been hurled out of homes at the point of a bayonet, that wives might become the prey of uniformed ghouls. Vestals have been shamed in front of older relatives, women in the presence of their children … It is hard to believe that a British member of Parliament would lower himself to whitewash criminals in uniform, and I hope that Ramsay MacDonald can step forward and vindicate himself against the charge to which I have referred.”

In June 1915, John Bull demanded MacDonald’s trial by Court Martial, “his condemnation as an aider and abetter of the King’s enemies, and that he be taken to the Tower and shot at dawn.” Bottomley’s next attack was still better suited to the standards of the time. In print, he called MacDonald a liar, a pauper and a bastard:

“We have remained silent with regard to certain facts which have been in our possession for a long time. First of all, we knew that he was registered as James MacDonald Ramsay – and that, therefore, he had obtained admission to the House of Commons in false colours, and was probably liable to heavy penalties to have his election declared void. But to have disclosed this state of things would have imposed upon us a very painful and unsavoury duty. We should have been compelled to produce the man’s birth certificate. And that should have revealed what today we are justified in revealing – for the reason we will state in a moment. It would have revealed “James Ramsay Macdonald”, MP for Leicester, late “leader” of the Labour Party, late member of a Royal Commission, under the seal of His Majesty, the leading light of the “Union of Democratic Control” – libeller and slanderer of his country – it would have revealed him as the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl.”

MacDonald’s reaction is recorded in his private diary: “I spent hours of the most terrible mental pain … The first time I had ever seen my registration certificate was when I opened the paper … Never before did I know that I had been registered under the name of Ramsay, and cannot understand it now.” MacDonald’s closest ally at this time was Keir Hardie (casually renamed “Kur” Hardie, by John Bull). When Hardie learned of Bottomley’s attack on his friend, he suffered a stroke.

In April 1915, Bottomley was sent to the Clyde, to counteract a threatened strike by shipwrights. Five thousand workers listened to Bottomley pledge that after the War had finished the relationship between Capital and Labour would change:

“I do not want you to be treated like children by the state or tied to the apron-strings of the parson or the priest. Why, half the work of bringing about a better understanding between masters and men – between Capital and Labour – has been done by the war itself. You will find new Rules of Trade Unions and Employers’ Federations – on a more humane basis; you will find brotherhood and humanity covering the whole relations in the financial, commercial and industrial field.”

In May 1915, Churchill suggested that Bottomley should be asked to pay visits to munitions workers, and there were visits of this sort through the spring and summer.

In early 1915, Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, The Times, the Daily Mirror, the Evening News, the Observer and the Weekly Dispatch (and of course Bottomley’s own former employee, from 25 years before), approached Bottomley with the offer of a series of articles in a new paper, the Sunday Pictorial. Bottomley obliged, producing piece after piece modelled loosely on his speeches. He demanded £150 per article, an extraordinary fee by the standards of the day. By July 1915, the editors of the Sunday Pictorial and the Evening News were calling for their new columnist’s recognition and promotion to an official government post.

In 1917, Bottomley went on a mission to the Front to boost morale in the Army. The Sunday Pictorial paid £1,000 towards his expenses, although Bottomley was travelling on official business, and was entertained by the Army throughout. During his tour of duty, Bottomley suffered badly from a lack of champagne, he appeared listless, and his articles back home struck an unfamiliar, cautious tone: “I could not but marvel”, he wrote, “at the satire upon civilization which directed all this energy and enterprise and capital to the destruction of life and property instead of into channels for the happiness and welfare of mankind.” It may have occurred even to Bottomley that the men who he called weekly to serve were not ascending into some Elysian paradise but were living daily in the hell of trench warfare.

Bottomley, for his part, knew no more urgent need than alcohol. Houston describes his patron wilting in the four days he spent without Pommery champagne. Houston himself was sent to tour the local villages in the hope of finding something suitable for Bottomley’s tastes. From the Somme, Bottomley travelled to Amiens, where his party finished off six bottles of champagne. They were under orders to return to military headquarters, but Bottomley declined to do so, firing off a telegraph to the front line, “Sorry I cannot get back, am in the bosom of my family”.

In the soldiers’ newspaper BEF Times, Bottomley became “Cockles Tumley”, and his patriotic reporting was satirised as follows:

“I’ve been in the support line which is much more dangerous than the first. I’ve been in Div. HQ which is more dangerous still. And I’ve even been back to GHQ…”

“I have learnt that there’s a lot of meat in a tin of bully. I have learnt that an army biscuit is tough to crack. I have learnt that a tipping duckboard needs no push. I have learnt that Belgian beer wants a good deal of bush.”

“Every German prisoner I spoke to said the same thing. I can’t tell what it was but THE WAR IS WON … I will write more when my head is clearer. I must go now and have my photo taken in a gas-bag and tin hat.”

Early in 1918, Bottomley was invited to Downing Street for an interview with Prime Minister Lloyd George, Sir Edward Carson and Lord Rhondda. Their conversation appears to have been almost entirely restricted to the question of food distribution. Yet at some point, Bottomley managed to drop into the conversation his suggestion that a Director of War Propaganda was needed. Lloyd George, well aware of Bottomley’s ambition, replied that Bottomley was playing the part already.

After the war had ended, Bottomley determined on returning to Parliament. He was still, as he had been throughout the War, an undischarged bankrupt, and he was determined to make a sufficient large fortune so as to clear his debts, and to live in the style which his wartime lectures had subsidised. The method he chose was to issue a private “Victory Bond”, linked in theory to the government’s Victory Loan.

A Victory Bond Club (“the Club”) was launched in June 1919 from a flat owned by Bottomley at 26 King Street, Westminster. Subscribers could purchase shares equivalent to one-fifth of the government’s Victory Bonds (“Bonds”) by buying shares in Bottomley’s Club for £1 each. The principal merit of the scheme was that it was cheaper than the government’s Bonds which cost £5 each, making the Club more accessible to those without savings. Bottomley pledged to return all shares for their full value if asked. He also said he would charge nothing for administration.

By September 1919, the Victory Bond Club was making regular payments to Bottomley, with eight cheques of £1,000 or more paid to him between September 1919 and May 1920, and a further seven cheques of between £1,000 and £25,000 paid to members of his stable: Houston for example received £1,000, Bottomley’s horse trainer was sent £1,000, and sums amounting to around £10,000 were given to a man called James Kerr, who was then doing business on behalf of Bottomley in Ostend. Another £30,000 was sent to Paris under the authority of a woman Laura Rogers, who officers of the Metropolitan Police believed was Bottomley’s mistress and had recently given birth to a child. £4,800 in cash from the Club was traced to ana actress Peggy Primrose, £1,100 to a member of Bottomley’s entourage Charles Palmer, £100 to a bookie and £20 to Romano’s restaurant in central London

Other securities purchased with the Club’s money but held in Bottomley’s name included shares in John Bull, shares in the race courses at Plumpton and Brussels, the lease of an antiques shop at Victoria Street, a factory intended to manufacture John Bull fountain pens, a German submarine ‘Deutschland’ which was briefly a travelling exhibit and later pulled to pieces, and £25,000 which was sent to the Official Receiver for the remaining creditors of Bottomley’s second bankruptcy.

A solicitor Edmund Bell later estimated that the Club’s total receipt was £1,172,939 and that around a third was taken by Bottomley for his private use.

Bottomley did make it back to Parliament, as one of around a dozen Independent candidates, politically a little to the right of the then Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition.

In 1918, an anti-Bottomley pamphlet was sold under the name of Clarence Henry Norman. A member of the Independent Labour Party and a life-long campaigner against miscarriages of justice, Norman was a conscientious objector and a committed socialist. He was arrested on 27 June 1916. Norman then remained in detention until February 1917 when he was charged with persuading other conscientious objectors at Dartmoor to strike. Found guilty of instigating a protest he was sentenced to a year’s hard labour and remained in prison until the end of the war. From his cell, Norman wrote, “Mr Horatio Bottomley has never ceased to claim that he is the best interpreter of the mind and morals of the ordinary hard-working decent British citizen.” Norman then listed the legal actions in which Bottomley had been exposed as a swindler. His pamphlet ended,“With that we leave Mr. Horatio Bottomley, only reminding our readers that nothing could be more conclusive proof of the rottenness of British democratic and political life than the fact that such a man is consulted by the rulers of this country, leads Press campaigns, and is hearkened to by hundreds of well-meaning dupes in his endeavours to drum off the public stage any agency which stands for national security and working-class freedom.”

Bottomley engineered a typically two-faced scheme to stop the publication of the offending document. Bigland found a Midlands printer John Greaney (then at liberty between two jail terms of four and seven years for fraud) who printed ten copies of the pamphlet for £50. Bottomley next sued Greaney for libel. The case was heard by Mr Justice Darling on 20 July 1918. Greaney declined to attend in court, but communicated his apologies for any offence caused. Bottomley was awarded damages of £500. His “triumph” was widely reported in the press. Behind the scenes, Bottomley’s chequebook was at work, enabling Greaney to pay the debt, and giving the printer a further £200 for his services.

But fate, the judiciary, and the jailed anti-war activist Clarence Norman were to have their revenge. In 1922, Bottomley attempted to sue a former supporter Reuben Bigland. Bigland counter-attacked, accusing Bottomley of massive fraud.

The charge against Bigland was that he had approached three men, Phillips, Swinfield Wells and Harrison, a few days before a by-election in November 1921, with the aim of extorting money from Bottomley. The case came alive on the second day when Bigland was called on. Calmly, Bigland detailed the entire course of his relationship with Bottomley. He described an incident in 1918 when Bottomley had fixed a War Stock Combination draw so that Bigland would win a £1,000 prize. He admitted having fixed the Greaney trial. This evidence had a particular effect on the judge, Mr Justice Darling (the same Judge from the Greaney case), who did not like the thought that Bottomley had made a fool of him.

Bottomley refused to appear as a witness in his own case against Bigland, which was dismissed. His own prosecution inevitably followed; and Bottomley ended up serving a lengthy jail term for fraud.

To the defenders of the First World War, stories such as Bottomely’s do nothing to challenge a narrative of the essential benevolence of the British machine guns and tanks, which must be contrasted to their German counterparts. “They” were an Empire in whose leading circles ideas of militarism were prevalent. We, by contrast, had the Republic of the British crown, the anti-war academy at Sandhurst, and the moral rectitude of war-propagandists such as Bottomley.

Horatio Bottomley was a sincere believer in all things English. And like all genuine patriots he chose the best way to act on his patriotism which was to enrich himself as fast as he could. If he did so more fabulously than others it was only because better opportunities provided themselves to him.

No sincere patriot in the long history of the word has ever acted differently when given the chance.

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One response »

  1. Excellent post – someone should be paying you for stuff like this!

    As long as it is, it should be longer – you forgot to introduce ‘Houston’, or to say enough about HB’s pre-war career to explain when & how Harmsworth had worked for him.

    Not sure about the conclusion – that kind of well-er-basically focus-pull is a bit too easy, and it cuts against the grain of a lot of what you’ve said about HB before. You don’t have to be Carlyle to acknowledge that there are unusual individuals – people who individually change the world. HB was also pretty unusual as a patriot – a classic example of those who orchestrate & profit from hate, but that’s not the only strand in patriotism.

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