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Horatio Bottomley.Swindler and fraud.

Updated on August 20, 2012

Horatio Bottomley was one of Great Britain’s most notorious and colourful fraudsters of the early twentieth century. He was a man of huge self-belief and self-deception Founder of the much respected newspaper the Financial Times and the patriotic magazine John Bull, elected as a member of parliament twice, he went onto embezzle thousands of pound from people involving an almost Ponzi like scheme regarding world war one war bonds.

He was born Horatio William Bottomley in Bethnal Green, East London, in March 1860. That part of London was the centre of the rag trade well into the twentieth century and Horatios father found employment as a tailor’s cutter. Unfortunately he also suffered severe mental problems and died in a mental institution when Horatio was only three years old. Sadly his mother died a year later: so at four years of age Horatio became an orphan.

From the time of his mother’s death in 1864 until 1869 Horatio was cared for by his uncles in London. In 1869 he was placed in an orphanage in Birmingham. He ran away from the orphanage aged fourteen and in 1875 arrived in Brighton and for a time worked in a jewellers shop. He returned to London, city of his birth, in 1877.

This period of Horatios life and employment history has become somewhat fudged. It is reported that he worked as office worker in an Iron Works and that he also worked in the stock exchange and trained as a lawyer. The latter probably sparked by the fact that he joined a firm of legal shorthand writers in 1879 after enrolling in the Pitman’s College. Other reports claim that he learned his dubious trade as a fraudster from a crooked manager in the stock exchange. What is known however, is that he married Eliza Norton, a debt collector’s daughter, in 1880. They had one daughter .Florence.

Horatio had by this time developed a taste for politics and journalism, and by 1885 formed the Catherine Street Publishing Association In 1889 he formed the Hansard Publishing Union.This venture ended in failure and Horatio filed for bankruptcy, after just two years: Horatio was charged with conspiracy to defraud. Despite the evidence against him he was found not guilty, after conducting a brilliant defence for himself. After his acquittal he formed the Joint Stock Trust to promote gold mining companies in Western Australia. With this flotation money he was able to purchase expensive houses, wallow in champagne, own a string of race horses and a string of mistresses. Despite being a man of short and portly stature, he was able to attract a number of young women, who succumbed to considerable charm and perhaps his considerable wealth; money not only talks but has the ability to attract the opposite sex.Nothing much has changed over the years.

In 1906 his political ambitions started to become reality. He joined the liberal party and was elected M.P for Hackney South. In this year he also founded the magazine John Bull, aimed at the ordinary man in the street. But his Australian mining venture was catching up on him. In 1908 he was arrested and charged with fraud. The shares in the Australian mining companies where worthless, the case dragged on for four years before he was acquitted due to lack of evidence, or more to the point, lack of any records. However in 1912 after being faced with a demand of £220,000 from an insurance company, Bottomley admitted that his liabilities outstripped his assets by £200,000.He was declared bankrupt for the second time and ejected from the House of Commons

This proved no obstacle to Bottomleys desire for further wealth; he promptly entered the lottery business. To maintain its legality the funds were channelled through banks in Switzerland.

The First World War opened new opportunities for Horatio Bottomley. He launched himself on the public as a recruiter for the army, encouraging young men to join up for the battles ahead. His first big meeting held in London’s Albert hall was hugely successful. Although publicly declaring that has was not paid for his efforts, he received fees of between £6600 and £1000 for various speeches and blatantly pushed sales of the John Bull magazine paying himself over £20,000 for his efforts, he later claimed that any money he received for his speaking engagements went to his war charity fund. Needless to say no money ever reached the fund.

His tactics in recruiting also left something to be desired. In a 1915 speech delivered in Bournemouth he declared: "Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to pull yourselves together and keep your peckers up. I want to assure you that within six weeks of to-day we shall have the Huns on the run. We shall drive them out of France, out of Flanders, out of Belgium, across the Rhine, and back into their own territory. There we shall give them a taste of their own medicine. Bear in mind, I speak of that which I know. Tomorrow it will be officially denied, but take it from me that if Bottomley says so, it is so!"

Bottomley had been invited to write for the Sunday Pictorial, and it was in this capacity he was invited by the War Propaganda Board to visit the front in 1916.An invitation he was pleased to accept. However he could not break his habit for dubious and self-enriching financial schemes. He began selling Victory bond s for £1 (against the official government bond of5). These bonds did not offer a dividend but the chance to win £20,000 in a sweepstake. But he made the decision not to invest the money instead he purchased two newspapers. He ran these papers at a loss and pocketed the considerable balance.

Bottomley in France
Bottomley in France

With money he made from his recruiting speeches and various other enterprises Bottomley was able to clear many of his debts and revive his political career. In 1918 at the wars end, he was returned to parliament as an independent for Hackney South. But his pass began to catch up with him. Rumours and pamphlets began circulating regarding his Victory bond scheme and people began to point the finger of suspicion at him. Never the shrinking violet, he made the mistake of suing for libel. The subsequent case brought him to the attention of the public prosecutor, and in 1923 he was accused for fraudulent conversion.

In the subsequent trial, Bottomley cut a sad pathetic figure. His penchant for champagne had finally caught up with him. His prosecuting counsel later 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.” He was found guilty of twenty three of the twenty four charges and sentenced to seven years penal servitude. He appealed against the sentence, but the appeal was dismissed: and once again Horatio Bottomley was ejected from parliament

On his release in 1927 he was a sad and broken man.All his friends had deserted him, save for his mistress, Peggy Primrose who remained loyal to him. He launched a new publication, John Blunt, which unsurprisingly failed. His wife Eliza died in 1930 and his daughter Florence emigrated to South Africa.Desparate for funds Bottomley began touring as variety act, but with little success. A passage from the London Daily News of 1932 illustrates how far he had descended into abject obscurity. The passage reads “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,” and it was on this stage that Horatio Bottomley suffered a stroke that he never really recovered from. He died on the 26th of May 1933.

Horatio Bottomley, for all his flair and flamboyance was at heart a criminal. But it begs the question that if he had put all his energy and flair into legitimate enterprises, he may well of achieved the riches he so desperately craved honestly. He was not the first nor will he be the last man to allow greed and self-delusion to ruin him.

There is a story that may or may not be true, but it sums up Horatios life. While in prison stitching mail bags as part of his penal servitude, an inmate approached and asked “Ah Bottomley - sewing?” to which Horatio replied, “No reaping”. I hope it was true.

Bottomley at court
Bottomley at court

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