Horatio Bottomley and the TLS

A couple of weeks ago, the TLS published a long article by Neil Berry about that awful old rogue, Horatio Bottomley. Mr Berry took the standard line on him, deploring his dishonesty, vulgarity and jingoism, which is fair enough up to a point – but actually Bottomley’s magazine, John Bull, is much more interesting than that.

I wrote a letter which has been published in this week’s TLS. Here it is:

Neil Berry’s article about Horatio Bottomley (April 9) properly deplores his chicanery and hypocrisy, and the rabid populism of his war writings. There is, however, a case to be made in Bottomley’s defence.

John Bull was more than a purveyor of fake news. It lingered over standard tabloid fodder, such as sexual misconduct by the clergy, but it also frequently exposed scandals and very properly embarrassed government departments. In 1910, for example, it reported on cruelty and abuse at the Akbar training ship (a reformatory institution for boys). When C. F. G. Masterman, an Establishment figure, produced an official report on the affair that whitewashed those responsible, Bottomley attacked him relentlessly. During the Great War, Bottomley was certainly distasteful in his rhetoric against the “Germhuns” – but an examination of the magazine shows a more complex record. (The examples I shall give here are all taken from the issue of November 18, 1916.)

The page that sets the magazine’s tone is one publishing the grievances of soldiers and sailors, especially those in training. Titled “Tommy and Jack’s Page”, it is headed by Bottomley’s pledge: “No Case of hardship or injustice, no instance of beggarly cheeseparing, shall go unchallenged or unremedied”. These grievances are often about insufficient rations, inadequate clothing supplies or petty regulations, but the page also draws attention to the number of suicides at Catterick camp, and the failure to have a resident doctor posted there.

The magazine also raises the issues of profiteering and the inefficient use of manpower: “Why is it that potato farmers are allowed to use soldiers for lifting their crops, only to sell at grossly inflated prices?” and “Why are soldiers ‘rotting’ at home through over-training, while thousands of care-worn and war-worn men can get no leave at all?”

John Bull voiced the concerns of the common soldier, often exposing class privilege. “On some golf links in Sussex”, ran one story, “a raw recruit encountered a person dressed in civilian trousers and a military tunic. The boy did not know he was an officer, and failed to salute … The unfortunate boy is now enjoying 14 days in the cells.” The magazine presented the war as a righteous cause, but also as a contract between government and people; the people should wholeheartedly support the war effort, but the government must ensure that the people are treated justly. Far from merely endorsing official policy, John Bull was given to outbursts such as this:

The Foreign Secretary is a pompous and solemn ass; the Home Secretary is an oleaginous, smug, self-righteous prig; whilst as to some of the Treasury Bench underlings – ye gods! Have you seen their faces on the films?

The extent to which soldiers regarded Bottomley as their spokesman was shown in 1917, when he was among the celebrities invited to France to see the Army at work, on the understanding that he would then spread the good word back at home. The mutiny at the Étaples training ground broke out while he was there, and it was Bottomley the mutineers sought out with their grievances. How significant his intervention was is uncertain.

Like Neil Berry today, the fastidious and high-minded of the time shied from Bottomley’s vulgarity. When Wellington House, the official propaganda organization, was founded in 1914, it was under the direction of Masterman, Bottomley’s enemy. Bottomley was given no part in the official, originally very genteel, propaganda campaign (just as Kipling too was originally excluded, for being too violently opinionated). In time, though, John Bull’s success meant that Bottomley was brought into the official fold; he made vastly successful tours of the country preaching patriotism (from which, typically, he profited considerably).

Everything Neil Berry says about Bottomley’s vulgarity and dishonesty is true but, as so often with populists, we should not assume that all his followers were merely dupes. The magazine said some things that needed saying, and that very few other papers would publish.

George Simmers

Horrid old Horatio did, in his way, tell truth to power. The magazine very forthrightly pointed out where the government was letting its citizens down. Establishment types like Masterman disliked this. Bottomley was not a gentleman. He brought to light issues that civilised folk would prefer to be swept under the carpet.

It strikes me how we British do not make heroes of our muck-raking journalists. Is this because later historians and commentators have an instinctive sympathy with the sort of people that the muck-rakers embarrass?

As the letter says, all my examples are from one issue – the copy I found in a Cecil Court oddments box some years ago, and which I have written about before on this blog. John Bull has been on my research list for a while, but with libraries closed for the past year, I’ve done nothing.

Soon, though, I should be able to take a trip to Boston Spa. I shall be especially interested in the copies from August 1914. Bottomley had previously been – if not a pacifist, someone who was very definitely against military adventures. I want to see how he negotiated the passaage from anti-military to rabid nationalist. Much thes ame way that the pankhursts did, I suspect, when they turned The Suffragette into Brittannia.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted April 22, 2021 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Good to read and learn all this – thank you.

  2. Don Reed
    Posted June 29, 2021 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Having bought the Oxford Book of Parodies, I took mild issue with the usual inadequacies of that immensely self-satisfied outfit (OUP) and set out to find out when the parodists had been born and departed.

    (Standard information that any university — let alone a self-appointed creme de la creme institution — should be shame-faced to have omitted.)

    Your parody on page nine led me here. If the rest of the experience of dealing with Parodies is a bust, I still come out ahead.

    Yours is the first even-handed portrait of Bottomley I’ve ever seen.

    And being consistently 40 Years Behind Schedule, I was shocked that I was only six weeks older than the day you posted your work.

    I thank you.

    Don Reed

    P.S. If you have a chance, pick up Michael Powell’s memoir, A Life In Movies. I have been fascinated by it.

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