Horatio Bottomley: The real-life Toad of Toad Hall

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In October 1908, the recently retired company secretary of the Bank of England Kenneth Grahame published a short children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. The novel is dominated by its antihero, a fad-driven creature, Toad. He dines on lobster and drinks champagne, squandering money recklessly. Toad’s self-admiration is captured in the song he sings on his escape from jail: “The world has held great Heroes, As history-books have showed But never a name to go down to fame Compared with that of Toad!”

Kenneth Grahame had long been obsessed by what he perceived to be the declining morality of the times, and of business in particular. He hoped to preserve the England of his youth which had been pre-industrial, agricultural and aristocratic. This world, he believed, was under attack from an alliance of the new rich and the working class.

In February 1887 Grahame had watched the unemployed rioting in Trafalgar Square. More recently still, in November 1903, one George H. Robinson entered the Bank of England and demanded to speak to whoever was in charge. In the Governor’s absence, Grahame presented himself. As they spoke, Robinson shot Grahame twice. At Robinson’s subsequent trial, the would-be murderer was found to hold “Socialistic views”.

Grahame hated not merely the Socialists but even the Radicals and Liberal who were much more visible in Edwardian England. To one such Radical the poet and essayist Arthur Quiller-Couch Grahame wrote, only half in jest, that he would not wish him luck “in your nefarious designs on our savings, our cellars and our garden-plots”.

In The Wind in the Willows, Grahame warns against ostentatious spending, which might tend to encourage envy among the poor. Wealth needed to be spent responsibly, with a view to the future. Toad’s defining fault is that has come into money without learning how to control it. He is conceited and aimless; first he gives up boating for a horse-drawn caravan, then when a motorcar startles his horse, he determines to buy one for himself. In all, he crashes seven cars, spending a fortune on fines, before being tried and sentenced to 20 years.

How not to live

Bottomley’s biographer Peter Green has written that the man who inspired Toad was Horatio Bottomley, a Radical Liberal journalist and after 1906 Hackney MP, whose “flamboyant, gabby, vulgarian” politics were a source of particular distress to Grahame.

The Wind and the Willows is more than a satire on what Grahame called “gentleman in difficulties,” or on the risks posed by the excessive consumption of the leisure class. It was also directly a message to Grahame’s hothead son, Alastair, and a warning as to how an upright person should behave in relation to their contemporaries.

In a key passage, Rat explains to Mole: “There are a hundred things one has to know which we understand all about and you don’t as yet. I mean pass-words, and signs, and saying which have power and effect and plants you carry in your pocket, and verses you repeat, and dodges and tricks you practise.” All of these were “simple enough if you know then, but they’ve got to be known if you’re small, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.”

In the 1880s, Bottomley had been one of a small group of people, alongside James Sheridan and Harry Marks, who had helped to found the financial press in Britain. In 1888 and 1889 he had been the first Chairman of the Financial Times.

After leaving the FT, Bottomley had founded the Hansard Union, a speculative printing business from which he skimmed £150,000 over two years, leading to the “trouble” of a fraud trial. By the early years of the twentieth century, Bottomley had survived the Hansard Union prosecution, and personal insolvency, and had built a new career as a company promoter.

After being elected to Parliament in 1906, Bottomley founded a magazine, John Bull. On its masthead was a cartoon of that character with a union jack waistcoat and top hat. Bottomley hinted that as a politician he could provide his readers with unique information about the workings of government. His magazine’s business pages provided a stream of warnings that firms were on the verge of bankruptcy. In effect, Bottomley was blackmailing the companies: either he would keep up a series of articles accusing them of wrongs, or they would pay to advertise in John Bull, whereupon the negative coverage would stop.

The magazine denounced the parties who claimed to stand for a moral cause (the Labour Party, or his own party, the Liberals), accusing them of hypocrisy.

Bottomley grasped that he could maximise his circulation by publishing alongside news stories, racing tips, and competitions. Lotteries were then illegal, but Bottomley dodged the rule by setting up a Derby sweepstake, with its headquarters in Switzerland.

John Bull’s most famous scoop was published during the war, when it broke the news that the prominent anti-war politician and Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald was (as the magazine put it), “the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl”.

After the war, Bottomley established a Victory Bond Club, supposedly an unofficial scheme contributing to Britain’s efforts to pay off the nation’s war debt. This hazy association with the nation contributed to the Club’s success. When the club was launched, there had been just £7 left in Bottomley’s bank account. Within days he was writing cheques of several thousand pounds to his bookmakers, his friends and mistresses.

Jailed in 1922, and sentenced to seven years in prison, Bottomley spent his declining years working on the cold stone floors of Maidstone Prison’s printers’ shop.

Fraudster and Radical

At the time that The Wind in the Willows was published Bottomley was still on the rise. His final defeat lay 14 years in the future yet we can see why Grahame took against him. It was not just because of the financier’s avarice, toxic as that was. Just as important to Grahame was Bottomley’s message that he was a Liberal, indeed a Radical Liberal, and on the side of the poor as they looked with envy on the great homes of England’s rural elite.

On trial in 1893, Bottomley sought his blame that prosecution on his supposed advanced political views. “Radical and Democrat” he called myself, hinting at a mysterious conspiracy which had supposedly brought him low.

Through the 1890s Bottomley sought to combine an extravagant lifestyle with a professed support for Radical opinions. He attended gatherings of the Charles Bradlaugh Fellowship, claimed to have learned from the old apostle of Secularism, “the true Gospel, the Gospel of Humanity, with Reason for its creed and Human Emancipation for its faith,” and even put about the rumour that Bradlaugh was his real father.

In his life, and on the stump, Bottomley insisted that the rich and the Radicals could co-exist and be allies. But, in truth, Bottomley was no advocate of wealth redistribution. No twisting of labels, no appeal to Secularist forebears could make him a revolutionary. He wished to live the life of a plutocrat, with the support of the Edwardian ruling class and the law.

The Wind and the Willows treats this fantasy as a lie. When a mob comes to plunder Toad Hall, it is led by a crowd of weasels and stoats. Toad is not among them.

The message, we might say, is that one person cannot be at same time both Sherriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood; neither in fiction, not in real life.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

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