Horatio Bottomley (above) was one of those larger than life characters who litter the stage of history. His career veered wildly from failure to success, and from fame to disgrace, ending in the grotesque sight of the journalist who had proclaimed himself ‘the soldier’s friend’ being sent to prison for defrauding thousands of ex-soldiers of what little money they had.
Born in 1860 Bottomley spent much of his early life in an orphanage. One of his early jobs as a court shorthand writer led to a consuming interest in journalism and self promotion. During the years before the Great War he founded several short-lived publications, started other businesses few of which ever paid their shareholders. He was made bankrupt twice, the second time in 1911 meant that he had to resign as MP for South Hackney, and was twice taken to court for fraud, being acquitted twice.
But the start of the war marked the beginning of the high point of his career, when he turned his magazine John Bull into a patriotic paper: writing a couple of weeks after war was declared, he thundered “Let every Briton, therefore, gird on his armour. It is not necessary to be a soldier, but it is necessary to be a MAN”.
He then turned his attention to the matter of persauding young men to join up. His famous recruiting speech was first delivered on 14 September 1914 at a huge rally when five thousand people filled the London Opera House and fifteen thousand waited outside hoping to get tickets. Of course he had a high opinion of his own talents in this respect: “Professional politicians are useless for this purpose. I’m going to be the unofficial Recruiting Agent of the British Empire.”
He became much sought after as a speaker at recruiting meetings, and appeared in theatres throughout the country, usually supported by a chorus of wounded soldiers and hospital nurses. At one venue (he claimed) a thousand men joined up as a result of his oratory.
At straightforward recruiting meetings he charged only £25, but made his money at ‘patriotic lectures’ where he took most of the takings – there were well over 300 of these during the last three years of war.
He was virulently anti-German, and believed that the whole race should be hated and shunned. He gave the readers of John Bull some advice for when the war ended: “If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup on his foul face.”
The truth is that few serving soldiers felt the same hatred for the enemy as those on the Home Front – they were after all both victims of war. The Wipers Times mocked Bottomley mercilessly, giving him the name Cockles Tumley.
At the election in December 1918 – during which Lloyd George made his famous (or infamous) “homes fit for heroes” speech – Bottomley once again became Member of Parliament for South Hackney in London, and his substantial majority went a long way to convince him of his continuing popularity.
In July 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the government issued Victory Bonds aiming to help offset the costs of paying for such a ruinously expensive war. Priced at £5 they were out of the reach of most ordinary people at a time when an unskilled worker might earn as little as £2.50 a week. Bottomley – ever the self-styled people’s friend – instituted a scheme whereby the less well-off members of society (especially returned, unemployed soldiers) might benefit by sending him £1 for a fifth share in a Victory bond.
He promised boldly: “I will buy bonds, and hand them over to trustees, and each year we will draw for the accruing interest. Your capital will remain intact, or at any time, if you wish it, you may receive it back in full.”
Unfortunately, he had no real head for business, and ignored warnings about the risks inherent in promising to return invested capital to subscribers on demand. He also overlooked the massive initial expenses for advertising, ticket printing and hiring of a staff of 12 clerks to handle ticket distribution.
But to begin with the scheme was a roaring success. Every day an army of people, most of them ex-servicemen, eager to buy tickets queued up the whole length of King Street. At the height of the Victory Club boom Bottomley was receiving cash at the rate of £100,000 a day – and this was before he had actually bought any bonds, since he was waiting for their price to drop.
The first signs of real trouble came from his overworked clerks, who were mostly ex-servicemen with no experience of office work. There were no systems in place to deal with the huge number of people arriving in person to buy their tickets, nor to deal with the thousands of letters arriving by each postal delivery, containing cheques, money orders or cash. The clerks got ever more behind with sending out tickets, and some helped themselves to cash and never sent out tickets.
Then thousands of subscribers started writing to demand the return of their capital. By the end of 1919 Bottomley had paid out a total of £150,000. With no administrative control many subscribers were overpaid by the clerks, and others wrote in two or three times for their money and were paid each time.
With no trustees to keep an eye on him Bottomley had sole control of all the money and while he did finally buy around half a million pounds worth of bonds at a bargain price, he used money remaining to buy two newspapers or to pay off other debts. At last it dawned on the public that this was all a massive swindle. Life became increasingly difficult for Bottomley.
Whenever he spoke to meetings he found himself confronted by aggrieved subscribers demanding their money back – and he took care to have plenty of cash on him so he could pay back members of the audience there and then.
Nonetheless, his opinion of himself scarcely faltered. On November 11 1920 the Daily Mirror commissioned him to cover the Unknown Warrior ceremony, and it was clear he thought that God was still on his side. He wrote: “It was during that awful silence – when the world stood still – that I heard that voice from Heaven, telling me to write.”
The law finally caught up with him and he was brought to trial in May 1922 on a charge of “fraudulently converting to his own use sums of money entrusted to him by members of the public”. During the trial, where he defended himself, he made extravagant claims about how his scheme had helped ex-soldiers, claiming (quite untruthfully) that he had engaged a hundred ex-servicemen at £1 a day and he had personally paid them £15,000.
He was sent to prison for seven years. He was sixty-two years old and completely unfit to face the rigours of prison life. He weighed seventeen stone and the authorities were unable to find a regulation uniform to fit him. Years later, Travers Humphrey, the prosecuting counsel wrote: “In truth it was not I who floored Bottomley, it was Drink. The man I met in 1922 was a drink-sodden creature whose brain would only be got to work by repeated doses of champagne.”
At all events, when he was discharged from prison in 1927 he disappeared into obscurity, and one of the last public accounts of him in the London Daily News in September 1932 shows just how far he had descended:
The strangest turn in the new non-stop variety programme at the Windmill Theatre last night was the appearance of an old man in a dinner suit who walked slowly to the middle of the stage and cast a sad and patient eye upon a puzzled audience. … he told a little string of anecdotes from his Parliamentary, journalistic and racing experiences … the occasion had a curiously disconcerting air of pathos
He was not destined to enjoy a new career on the halls. Horatio Bottomley died less than a year later in May 1933.