Horatio Bottomley – through the eyes of his enemies

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The account which follows is structured in three parts. First of all, I will say a bit about who Bottomley was. Then, I’ll discuss two main periods in Horatio Bottomley’s life: the second part of my paper will cover his upbringing and its impact on his beliefs from his birth in 1860 up until 1905 when he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal (indeed left-Liberal or “Radical”) MP. The third part will explore the last four years of his political life: his second stint in Parliament between 1918 and 1922 and his relationship then with the right and far right.

(1) Who was Bottomley?

Horatio Bottomley had, multiple careers: one in Parliament, one in the media, and one in business. In terms of Parliament, he was the MP for South Hackney between 1905 and 1912 and again from 1918 to 1922. He was initially elected as a Liberal MP in 1905, although he had abandoned that party by about 1910, made overtures to the Conservatives unsuccessfully, and from 1910 to 1912 he was effectively an Independent, and experimenting with creating a party of his own, the John Bull League. He was made bankrupt in 1912, after which he was forced to stand down from Parliament. He was then re-elected in 1918, again as an Independent. At the height of his power, in his second stint in Parliament, he had the support of about 10-12 MPs in a loose party caucus of Independents. Several of them had been elected as “Anti-Waste” MPs, a label I will explain in due course. This part of Bottomley’s life has, effectively, been forgotten, for a couple of reasons. One is his disgrace in business which overwhelms every other part of his life story. Another is that he was trying to create a party, outside the Conservatives and to their right, but not fascists. Future generations have found it incredibly hard to imagine what that could mean – our sense of the far right has been so swallowed up by the memory of Hitler and Mussolini – that until recently we couldn’t imagine what it would mean for there to be a group of people, attacking the Conservatives from their right and yet falling short of doing what the interwar fascists did and using violence repeatedly against their enemies.

As a press magnate, Bottomley founded John Bull magazine, building it to the point where between 1914 and 1918 it had a regular paid sale of between one and two million copies per issue. (It sold about ten times as many copies, in other words, as the most popular news weeklies in Britain today). John Bull was a “populist” magazine; it spoke constantly of “the people”, while excluding from the ranks of the people all sorts of enemies: trade unionists, lesbians and gay men, suffragettes, and campaigners for Irish independence. When miners struck during wartime, John Bull insisted that they should be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”. Bottomley’s most important campaign was one encouraging hatred against German civilians living in Britain. Of them, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” As for German soldiers, he wrote, “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.” Within days of that piece, riots had broken out against German civilians living in Britain. Bankers gathered wearing top hats on the steps of the Stock Exchange to pass a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City”. In Poplar, crowds attacked the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans. This part of Bottomley’s career survives in public memory better than his time as an MP, but only a little better, essentially because John Bull magazine outlasted him. Julius Elias, a twenty-four-year-old owner of a small printing business when he met Bottomley in 1905 and became his publisher, switched on Bottomley’s demise to the Daily Herald and was made a Labour peer in 1946. John Bull magazine closed in 1964.

As for business, Bottomley was known in the press as a company promoter. In the early 1890s, he had a plan to amalgamate the printing and media industries within a single business, the Hansard Union. That failed in 1893, leading to a first fraud trial. From then, till 1905, he was promoting Australian mining businesses. In around 1905, Bottomley met a fellow crooked businessman, Ernest Torah Hooley, after which for several years, Bottomley gave up on company promoting, and worked instead by a method which was a form of very barely concealed theft. Essentially, he would find individual rich people, and prey on them to swap tens of thousands of pounds of their money for bogus shares. There were several court appearances, leading to his bankruptcy in 1912, and his first departure from Parliament. Between 1918 and 1922, while Bottomley was back in the Commons, his major project was a “Victory Bond Club”. Subscribers could buy shares which were supposedly tied to one-fifth of the government’s Victory Bonds (“Bonds”) by buying shares in Bottomley’s Club for £1 each. Bottomley took around £1.1 million in Club memberships, stored two-thirds of that sum in his private bank account, and paid various debts to his horse trainer, tame MPs, mistresses, and so on. Bottomley was tried in 1922, convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. It is this trial, above all else, for which Bottomley has been remembered ever since. He became, in effect, one of those great rogues of history, whose name is remembered in collections of true crime stories, a shorthand for the corruption of Edwardian England.

In the rest of this paper, I will focus on Bottomley politics, its origins and his destination.

(2) Bottomley’s politics 1860 to 1905

In all previous biographies of Bottomley, two key details are mentioned, in passing. First, his mother Elizabeth was a secularist, as was his uncle George Jacob Holyoake. These details are used as props to get at what writers really want to talk about, a juicy piece of gossip, encouraged by Bottomley himself in later life, that he may have had a secret parentage, with either or both of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant having perhaps been his real parents.

On the secret parentage, this is utterly bogus: Besant and Bradlaugh did not meet until Bottomley was 14. Bottomley kept the story secret until Bradlaugh was long dead, so that the old man could not contradict him. The story caused distress to surviving members of Bradlaugh’s family. The one fact which supports it was that Bottomley, like Bradlaugh had a large, fleshy face. On the other hand, they were in other ways physically different: Bottomley as short as Bradlaugh tall. In any event, we do not know what the father named on Bottomley’s both certificate, a former shipwright, turned tailor, William Bottomley looked like. Without his picture, we can make no meaningful comparison with Bradlaugh.

Some new scraps of information have emerged about Horatio’s mother, Elizabeth Bottomley, who was a secularist. Stories have survived of her attending Bradlaugh’s talks at the Islington’s Hall of Science, and these traditions are corroborated, by several mentions to “E. H.” in the secularist press. A donation in that name of five shillings made on the launch of the newspaper, The Reasoner, which seems almost certainly to have been given by Elizabeth, She was then 14, and still living in Birmingham with her parents. Two decades later, Horatio’s birth was noted, with approval, in his uncle George Jacob Holyoake’s engagement diary. There was even an article written in The Reasoner published a few weeks before Horatio’s birth, a friendly review of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, which can plausibly be attributed to Elizabeth.

Understanding that Elizabeth Bottomley was an active secularist, and her brother George Jacob Holyoake the founder of that movement, helps to explain the earliest years of Horatio Bottomley’s political engagement. He was a Radical Liberal, and a contributor to the secularist newspaper, The National Reformer. He helped by sub-editing that newspaper. In 1876, when Bottomley was 16, he attended lectures delivered by the English positivist and recent supporter of the Paris Commune, Professor Edward Beesly. A contributor to the National Reformer, “H. B.”, which must be Bottomley, summarises Beesly’s talks diligently.

At its top, secularism was a family business. Holyoake had been Bradlaugh’s mentor. Another Holyoake, George Jacob and Elizabeth’s brother, Austen, was Bradlaugh’s election agent. By the early 1880s, the Secularists could afford, in effect, three full-time workers bound by ties of close friendship: Bradlaugh, Besant, and Besant’s new lover, Edward Aveling. It may well be that Horatio Bottomley hoped to be the heir to the family business. But, if so, he flunked his audition. “Young Bottomley will turn out a bad man,” Bradlaugh said.

While the secularists had spurned Bottomley, he continued to idealise them. The best way to understand his career, between about 1880 and 1905, is of a series of attempts to persuade the secularists, or perhaps just himself, that he was carrying on the family tradition.

In 1882, when he was 22, Bottomley founded a first newspaper, the Hackney Hansard. He was employing the skills he had learned from his uncle and from Bradlaugh. In 1887, Bottomley was selected as a Liberal candidate for the first time, for Hornsey, after which he was chosen as the candidate for North Islington, then as today, a Radical constituency. He supported temperance and Irish Home Rule. This was the immediate aftermath of Bradlaughs victory in Northampton, and the debate over whether Bradlaugh could sit as an atheist.

In 1888-1889 Bottomley became the first Chairman of the Financial Times. He used the paper to reports of speeches delivered by his favourite politicians, principally Bradlaugh. Elected in 1905 as an MP, one of Bottomley’s first act was to deliver a speech to the Bradlaugh Fellowship, recalling the bitter days of Bradlaugh’s isolation before he was vindicated: “Wasn’t he a dangerous and vulgar agitator, a man who knew no God, a Republican who had dared to impeach the House of Brunswick?”

Occasionally, it has been argued that the great mistake made by the left made between 1880 and 1910 was to encourage the break-up of the Liberal coalition. (Those with long memories may recall Tony Blair arguing that, others have made the same point independently). The argument goes that in Victorian politics there was a single party on the left (the Liberals) and one on the right (the Conservatives). The left fractured, the right didn’t. And this is said to be why the Conservative kept winning elections in the twentieth century.

Yet it is worth seeing this period through the eyes of workers and trade unionists. So, as the Radical chairman of the Financial Times in 1888, Bottomley could have supported the matchgirls’ strike. This, Bottomley refused to do, insisting that the real victims of the ‘matchgirls’’ strike were not the workers with their low pay, and their phossy jaws, but the employers. Bosses in London wanted to pay more. What held them back, he wrote, were “the much cheaper productions of Sweden,” where wood cost almost nothing.

After 1900, when Bottomley was a prospective parliamentary candidate for South Hackney, he faced a recurring problem of workers from the local trades council threatening to stand candidates against him and his party. They called Bottomley “an unscrupulous Company Promoter” and “a City swindler”. In return, he threatened the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union and Hackney Trades Council with libel action: “your action leaves me no alternative but either to apply for an immediate Order for a criminal prosecution, or to impose a Writ against you for damages…” Bottomley’s stance was typical of a whole period of British politics. The left deserted the Liberals because of how little the Liberals offered them.

(3) Bottomley’s politics 1918 to 1922

There are various reasons why Bottomley moved to the far right. One is that he failed as a Liberal MP in 1905 to 1912. His strategy was to be such a loose cannon that the party had no option but to offer him a prize ministerial job. But the Liberal party was sitting on a shrinking parliamentary majority: it lost seats in 1910. It already possessed external factions: the Irish and Labour causes. It spent more time on them, sensibly, than it did on him. Bottomley’s magazine John Bull was such a commercial success, and his editorial line so anti-Liberal, that the stakes were too high for his party.

Where new people were breaking with Parliament in around 1910, as Bottomley did by launching the John Bull League, and calling for the replacement of politicians by businessmen, they tended to move to the right – Hilaire Belloc was another member of the generation and his book The Party System is indistinguishable from Bottomley’s thinking. 

The war fixed Bottomley’s new, right-wing, politics in stone. Initially anti-Serb, Bottomley realised that the war would be an opportunity to undo the stain of his bankruptcy and help him get back to Parliament. He therefore switched to taking a pro-Seb, and anti-Austrian line. After that, when not penning articles attacking German civilians or strikers, he was delivering public lectures, 300 of them altogether, calling on other men to risk their lives.

From 1914 onwards, the trend of his politics was outside and against democracy. Under a Business Government, Parliament (that “played-out institution”) would be abolished in favour of military rule. All his allies were on the far right: in 1916, Bottomley backed Noel Pemberton Billing with his claims that an “Unseen Hand” (i.e. Jews) were controlling Labour and the unions, and that a “black Book” held the names of 47,000 gay men and women a “Cult of the Clitoris” who had been blackmailed into giving support to the German war effort.

Another of Bottomley’s friend was George Makgill, founder of the Economic League, with his lurid fantasies of “Jews in every secret society, Jewish Anarchists and Communists especially”. In 1918, Makgill and Bottomley founded a People’s League, to lead the anti-Communist campaign against the left which they thought the Conservatives had abandoned.

Where Bottomley’s politics were taking him was shown by the anti-Waste campaign of 1919-21, during which seven by-elections were won by “Anti-Waste” (i.e. pro austerity) candidates opposed to the Liberal-Conservative coalition government. The context was the resumption of ordinary politics after the end of the 1914-18 war at a time when the composition of the Cabinet had not changed. Most right-wing voters hated Lloyd George. They despised his politics, seeing him as the inventor of the state pension, national insurance and rent controls.

In January 1920, a pro-Bottomley independent was elected at Wrekin. The following January, at a by-election in Dover, an “Anti-Waste” candidate won with the support of Bottomley and the press baron Lord Rothermere. At the campaign’s height, there were ten anti-Waste independents, generals and company directors, sitting in the House of Commons. Growing numbers of Conservative associations announced their support for the broad thrust of the anti-waste campaign, while others – among them a young Oswald Mosley – joined campaigns intended to copy it, including a Conservative-sponsored People’s League for Economy.

By spring 1921, Rothermere and Bottomley, the two pioneers of this new strand of militant Conservatism, were at odds. Rothermere believed an attack on social reforms would help crystallise middle-class politics around a shared distrust of the poor. If you could make the Conservatives the sole anti-socialist party, he thought, they would win every time.

By contrast, Bottomley’s aim was not a reinvigorated Conservatism. He did not want a Britain where Conservatives and Labour alternated in government, even if the former held power for longer. Unlike Rothermere, he wanted to see something more, in other words, left MPs in jail.

Anti-waste was ostensibly a movement united around a single cause, of shrinking the state, but the longer Bottomley was involved with anti-Waste, the more he quibbled with its basic premises. He wanted the army expanded, not cut. He liked to imagine British power extending across the globe. He tended to downplay “the cutting down of pensions”, which he reasoned would alienate as many as it attracted. His vision of a growing far-right was closer to the experiments in right-wing politics emerging in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

In the incipient split between Bottomley and Rothermere, Bottomley had a keener sense of the direction in which politics was heading.

Even in Britain, the Conservative party would grow in the 1920s and 1930s by exploiting other causes than Rothermere’s. They would win through an anti-Communist culture war (the Zinoviev letter) then, from 1932, an imperial tariff which enabled the party to link welfare benefits to the maintenance of the Empire.

Horatio Bottomley’s fraud conviction in 1922 brought an end to his political career. During his trial, the central issue was whether he had been loyal to the soldiers who had volunteered for the army then wagered their savings on him. He told the jury, “I hope to satisfy you, if they were the last words to pass my lips, that I am incapable of robbing an ex-soldier.”

Sentencing him, Mr Justice Salter said, “the crime is aggravated by your high position, the number and poverty of your victims, by the trust which they reposed in you and you abused.”

One way to read his life is as a play on an old theme; that patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The other way to see it is an illustration of a different piece of political wisdom, one developed by the 1880s left: that Liberalism and Radicalism had been exhausted. And that nothing good would come from attempts to continue them.

(The above text is a talk I gave yesterday to the Socialist History Society; anyone who enjoys it is encouraged to consider buying a copy of the book, currently on 33% off at the Routledge website).

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