A load of Bull | Camden New Journal

A John Bull First World War recruiting poster

GROWN plump through the good life, a red face brought on by a hearty diet and country air, solidly conservative and selective libertarian in his views – John Bull, the cartoon caricature, is shorthand for the quintessentially English squire.

It was also the name of one of the best-selling English language magazines ever printed, logging more than two million copies a week in its heyday during the First World War.

John Bull – the publication – was the baby of newspaper magnate, politician, constant litigant, reactionary racist, anti-Semite and fraudster, Horatio Bottomley.

A new biography of a man who was a household name in the late Victorian period through to the 1920s by barrister and historian David Renton reveals a story of greed, broken promises and class, of how a man born into progressive politics could gradually seep rightwards until he had become the mouthpiece for UK proto-fascism.

David’s book gives us a detailed insight into Bottomley’s life and impact, and widens it. He marries the narrative with a study of the post-Chartist working-class politics. It follows Bottomley’s political journey resulting in conspiracy-fueled right-wing nonsense that, frighteningly, mirrors much in UK and USA politics today.

Born into a generation trying to improve equality, Bottomley’s uncle, the politician Austin Holyoake and family friend Charles Bradlaugh, another leading reformer, were early inspirations.

His early life was fractured by the deaths of his parents. He grew up in a Birmingham orphanage and then worked in numerous jobs, including as a barrow boy for a haberdasher, a clerk for a crooked solicitor and as an engraver for the Illustrated London News – his first brush with the world of Fleet Street.

Bright but insular, “Bottomley understood from a young age how to found a newspaper, how to write it and how to pay for it,” wrote David.

His career developed during two important social pressures.

The first was the immense riches in the UK, and how that capital was used.

In the 1880s, 25 per cent of the entire world’s manufacturing output came from the British Isles. This wealth created investors who wanted that profit to work for them. There was no shortage of super-rich whose business acumen did not correspond with their success. There were plenty out there for Bottomley to fleece. Secondly, the rise of a literate population was coupled with a rise of political interest. It gave him a springboard: investors in newspapers he could sell to a huge market.

His first break came when he set up the Hackney Hansard, a paper that covered a newly formed discussion group, modeled loosely on Parliament, and one of many across the country.

“He was equipped with a fascination for those popular institutions that imitated parliamentary democracy: speakers’ corners, suburban parliaments,” wrote David.

Horatio Bottomley

It was successful for a short time, driven by Bottomley’s innovative editorial and sales tricks – an experience he would later draw on.

He opened a second title, the Battersea Hansard, but it struggled. This failure set him determinedly forth on a road that would lead to serious fraud. Writing a bogus prospectus, he drew in investors and then amalgamated his titles, closed them down and re-opened new firms unencumbered by debts.

It became a method he turned to again: when a company was in trouble, he’d set up a second, merge them both and then close the first. Creditors would be told the firm that owed them goods, services or cash no longer existed. He also set up mining firms to exploit gold in Australia – a favored ruse as there were riches to be had, but no easy way for London-based investors to easily check if the mining firms were actually spending shareholders’ money on finding and extracting seams .

After his dabbling in local print, he founded a national title, The Debater, and then the politically influential John Bull.

David tells us how the John Bull character was invented by the Scottish satirist John Arbuthnot, and how it is fitted with Bottomley’s beliefs: this fictional story of a no-nonsense Englishman had him a cloth merchant battling foreign enemies through the courts. This was when wool was the UK’s key economic driver, so it made sense. Arbuth not wanted an end to European conflicts so British capitalists could get on with exploiting other nations as much as possible, and Bull’s exploits were a vehicle to promote such opinions.

Bull developed into an image of the honest, stalwart yeoman, representing across the political spectrum shorthand for the Englishman who disliked foreigners and hated taxation.

In the Victorian period he became a fixture in Punch magazine, and was the purest, patriotic Englishman.

“He was less of an imperialist than an isolationist,” wrote David. “He disliked wars because it meant higher taxes on beer, tea, spirits, tobacco and cigars. His fattening and his growing satisfaction with the world around him, were products of the same historical dynamics which were undermining Radicalism and converting the defense of the over-taxed middle-classes into a partisan Conservative message.”

Bottomley’s image of John Bull became intertwined with his own.

“Pudgy, pompous, curly haired,” Time Magazine claimed. “Bottomley looked like John Bull. To millions of Britons, he was John Bull.”

John Bull’s editorial approach was reactionary: “The suffragettes had no place on John Bull’s island. Nor did the trade unionists, nor such advocates of working-class Ireland as James Larkin or James Connolly, nor the thousands in Liverpool, Birmingham and London who followed them. Also excluded were the Jews, all migrants. Bottomley’s conception of a valued crowd had no place for any of these social movements.”

Added to this political journey, he fought against Victorian piousness. He loved horse racing, gambling and drinking. He had no concept of fidelity, keeping a string of women in flats dotted around the West End.

As this excellent biography reveals, Bottomley’s politics live on in today’s so-called populist movements, the cult of the right-wing Brexiteer and the xenophobic nationalism represented by Tory MP Suella Braverman’s Home Office.

He can also be found in a less threatening but revealing place: the character of Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows was based on Bottomley and his “flamboyant, gabby, vulgarian” politics, which were a source of particular distress to Grahame.

Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism. By David Renton. Routledge, £24.49


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