Horatio Bottomley was one of those larger than life characters who seemed to populate Victorian and Edwardian London. A man of enormous energy and intellect, he was a talented speaker and writer, a popular MP and a creative businessman. He was also the most relentless swindler of his day, and three times a bankrupt.
Bottomley was born in Bethnal Green on 23 March, 1860. His father seems to have disappeared the scene almost immediately and luckless Horatio was left entirely alone when his mother died.
East End orphanage
Placed in an East End orphanage, he was then cast out onto the London streets – and his own wits – at age 14. He first took a job as an office boy in a City firm, moving on to a company of legal shorthand writers.
Bottomley was a bright lad and had learned to live on his wits; the quick learner became a partner in the company, and began to soak up an impressive legal knowledge from his time spent taking shorthand in the courts. Company law was his especial interest – though his speciality would be how to circumvent it.
Horatio Bottomley’s first swindles
In 1885 Horatio left to set up his own company, a printing and publishing concern. It was to set a pattern for his entrepreneurial ventures over the next four decades. Bottomley was terrific at raising money, good at ripping it off, but useless at controlling his own finances or escaping detection.
When the first of his bankruptcy writs duly rolled in (there were to be 66 more over the years), the authorities started to investigate his failure to pay interest due to investors who had collectively poured £250,000 into the firm.
Bottomley’s Australian swindles
During their digging, the City authorities discovered that £85,000 had disappeared from the company. But Bottomley, ace confidence man that he was, managed to talk his way out of any charges – and persuaded the court to revoke the bankruptcy order.
An emboldened Horatio now turned his attention to raising money through stock issues on the new gold mining companies in Western Australia. It was a classic scam: the promise of untapped riches in an exotic and far corner of the planet appealed to gullible and greedy London investors. And crucially, Kalgoorlie and Boulder were so far away that nobody could actually check whether there really were any goldmines.
From 1893 to 1903 Bottomley launched about 50 mining and finance companies with a nominal capital of £25 million – and racked up a personal fortune of £3 million.
Bottomley becomes an MP
Typically, Bottomley now overreached himself, turning his attention to the promotion of British stock. It was too close to home, and in 1908 he was charged with conspiracy to defraud, when it was revealed his Trust had issued 10 million shares in excess of its stated capital. Remarkably, the very chaos of the Trust’s affairs saved him – so confused were the books that the auditors decided they would never unravel them. It was a second extraordinary escape from justice.
Meanwhile, Horatio had embarked on a parallel career, being elected MP for South Hackney in 1906. That career had to go when he was declared bankrupt in 1909, and had to resign his seat.
Bottomley and Lord Northcliffe
Bottomley turned his undoubted gifts of persuasion to the national cause during the First World War. He became active as a speaker on recruiting drives, and would regularly pack halls for his patriotic speeches. He even managed to earn a fairly honest penny, when newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe commissioned him to write a weekly article in his Sunday Pictorial newspaper. Bottomley’s fee £7,800 a year, an astonishing sum at the time.
But even here Bottomley was lining his own pockets. He founded the John Bull Victory Bond Club in 1918, and £900,000 in subscriptions duly rolled in; Bottomley swindled much of it to spend on high living, with horse racing and a string of mistresses his expensive hobbies. The club went bust and Bottomley called in the receiver in 1921.
Bottomley becomes a bankrupt
It was one fix he couldn’t talk his way out of. Later that year he was charged with fraud and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Back outside in 1927, Bottomley raised cash for a new newspaper: it quickly folded and he found himself bankrupt again.
Decline and humiliation swiftly followed. One of his girlfriends got him a stage appearance at the Windmill Theatre, where he rambled incoherently about ‘the old days’ until the audience booed him off. The broken Bottomley collapsed and was carried off. Another bankruptcy followed in 1930 and by 1933 he was destitute, and relying on the charity of his few remaining friends. He died in 1933.