NOSTALGIA: Publisher, patriot, politician ... and master fraudster

Orator: Horatio Bottomley started a First World War recruitment drive
Orator: Horatio Bottomley started a First World War recruitment drive

Bede’s School in Upper Dicker was once the home of quite possibly the most audacious fraudster in British history. His barefaced lies, misleading newspaper features and labyrinthine schemes to relieve the innocent of their savings have only been equalled in recent times by that other disgraced publisher, Robert Maxwell.

Horatio Bottomley was born in 1860 in London’s East End and was brought up in an orphanage. He was highly intelligent and, foregoing a legal career, made enough money on the stock exchange to found the Financial Times newspaper at the age of 28. He would later have the paper laud his business acumen in a supplement headed ‘Men of Millions’.

The following year he bought a diminutive cottage in Upper Dicker and promptly had it knocked down to be replaced by a spacious country mansion. ‘The Dicker’ was fitted out with all mod cons including electricity and hot and cold running water – luxuries for the time. He set up a racehorse stud in the village and would regularly welcome guests from London to enjoy expensive wines from his well-stocked cellar.

His first big brush with the law came in 1893 when he successfully saved his publishing company, the Hansard Union, from being declared bankrupt. An allegation that £100,000 had “gone missing” was deemed “unproven”. He was later to be charged with fraud for selling worthless Australian gold mining shares. Four years of legal wrangling resulted in his acquittal. He had conveniently failed to keep detailed written records of his dealings but claimed to have stored the facts to memory.

In 1905 he was elected as Liberal MP for Hackney. The next year he founded John Bull, a jingoistic, tub-thumping weekly that pandered to popular opinion. Behind the scenes Bottomley was engaged in a string of dodgy deals, few of which came to light. When they were uncovered, his mastery of the small print of the law was such that after one trial the judge offered Bottomley his wig.

With the outbreak of the Great War, a prescient Bottomley saw an opportunity for John Bull to become the mouthpiece for ‘Tommy Atkins’, the humble and much put-upon brave British soldier in the trenches. His instinct paid off; as the size of the Armed Forces grew so the sales of John Bull soared.

At the end of the war he set up the John Bull Victory Bond Club, a savings scheme that ostensibly gave members the chance to win large monthly cash prizes. In 1921, by now independent MP for Hackney South, he was charged with embezzling Bond Club funds and the following year was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The judge, Mr Justice Salter, said, You have been rightly convicted by the jury of this long series of heartless frauds. These people trusted you and you have robbed them of £150,000. The crime is aggravated by your high position.”

Following his release, he put together a one-man stage show based around his turbulent life story. Unabashed, Bottomley would recall amusing courtroom confrontations and reveal how his complex frauds had worked. He claimed to do this so that the public were alerted to the handiwork of other fraudsters but in truth it was the only way he could now make a living.

Ill-health dogged him and he was actually performing on stage at London’s Windmill Theatre in 1933 when he suddenly collapsed and died.

Bottomley’s legacy? At his funeral it was said, “What opportunities he had, but how sadly they were wasted! He might have been almost anything, but for one fatal flaw.”

However, he was responsible for the construction of Berwick Railway Station (largely for his own convenience). It gave him easy access to London and it was originally called Dicker Halt.

The Financial Times is today probably the world’s most respected and influential publication of its ilk.

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