Horatio Bottomley was in gaol. The notorious swindler’s misdeeds had finally caught up with him and now here he was in the prison workshop, sewing mailbags.
A former acquaintance happened to be visiting the prison, inspecting conditions, and was being shown around the workshop. He spotted Bottomley and walked over to him saying, “Ah, Bottomley! Sewing?”
“No,” replied Bottomley. “Reaping.”
Little remembered now, but a major celebrity in his time, Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933) was an A-List, gold-plated scoundrel. Orphaned at the age of four he spent his childhood shuttling between various homes, then through a succession of jobs before going into publishing, establishing a career pattern whereby his businesses frequently went bankrupt, but he always came out better off. By the 1890s he had a Pall Mall apartment, a country house near Eastbourne, a couple of racehorses and a champagne lifestyle. The only bills he could be relied on to pay, it was said, were his gambling debts.
In 1906 he got himself elected to Parliament as a Liberal, but his fellow MPs were appalled at this egregious con-man in their midst and his maiden speech was heard in silence. He did win some members over with self-deprecating charm (he once called himself the Chancellor’s “more or less honourable friend”) and his obvious grasp of financial affairs.
After a failed foray into popular journalism with a paper called The Sun (no relation) he hit paydirt in 1906 with John Bull, a colourful, lively, populist weekly which he also edited. While it sold well, it also existed to promote Bottomley and his schemes. In the meantime, he successfully defended a criminal case for fraud (because his accounts were too confusing for the court). In 1912, however, he was declared bankrupt and had to leave parliament.
War in 1914 provided plenty of opportunities. An excellent and rousing public speaker, he ran a hugely successful campaign to encourage army recruits. At the same time, John Bull plumbed new depths of rabble-rousing vulgarity. He also used it to promote various fraudulent schemes, such as lotteries and even Zeppelin raid insurance policies.
He became an MP once more the 1918 general election, gaining 80 per cent of the vote in Hackney South. His downfall came in 1922 when the extent of his fraudulent ‘Victory Bond’ scheme was revealed in court. This, like a forerunner of the modern Premium Bonds, promised investors cash prizes instead of interest, and was a complete scam, swindling the public whose patriotism he had so shamelessly exploited, out of £900,000. He got seven years and was released from Maidstone Gaol after serving five. All attempts to revive a business career failed, as did public speaking tours and even a music hall turn. Deserted by almost all his friends, he died in poverty in 1933.
On paper, Bottomley’s demagoguery and pathological fraud are so egregious that it’s impossible to like him. In person, of course, it was a different matter; many people found him plausible and, as the above anecdote, originally related by AJP Taylor in his hugely popular 1965 book English History 1914-1945, attests, he was witty and clever with it. On another occasion, he was sent from prison to attend a court case and an acquaintance remarked on his creased-looking suit. “I change for dinner when I return home,” he’s supposed to have replied.
Bottomley was on the receiving end as well, of course. When FE Smith (Lord Birkenhead) was to become Lord Chancellor, Bottomley congratulated him. “Upon my soul, FE, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that you had been made Archbishop of Canterbury.”
“If I had,” replied Smith, “I should have invited you to come to my installation.”
“That’s damned nice of you,” said Bottomley.
“Not at all,” said Smith. “I should have needed a crook.”