Horatio Bottomley was born in Bethnal Green, London on 23 March 1860. He spent 14 years growing up in an orphanage and then joined a firm of legal shorthand writers where he learned something about the court system. His first experience of the courts was in 1885 where he defended a printing and publishing firm of his from bankruptcy and the fact that substantial funds were missing from its accounts.
He then moved on to promoting Western Australian gold mining projects, some genuine but others based on misrepresentation and fraud. He then moved on to British stocks. He developed a considerable talent for persuading members of the public to part with their money in order to invest in his various schemes. In 1888, he founded the Financial Times and was its first Chairman as a means of puffing his projects. In 1908 he was charged with conspiracy to defraud but the chaos of his record systems produced a hung jury and instead he was forced into bankruptcy in 1912, forcing him out of Parliament.
In 1906 he established the patriotic journal John Bull. John Bull was originally strongly anti-Serbian but by 15 August 1914 Bottomley had reversed its position and supported the war effort. Bottomley argued that Germany "must be wiped off the map of Europe", with her colonies and navy divided between Britain and France. He also attacked the Kaiser and Germans (called "Germhuns") generally and those living in Britain: "As I have said elsewhere you cannot naturalize an unnatural beast—a human abortion—a hellish fiend. But you can exterminate it". Bottomley advocated the confiscation of all German property, the internment of all Germans and the requirement of naturalized Germans to wear a distinctive badge. Bottomley also campaigned to get the Kaiser's banner removed from St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Bottomley also strongly attacked that section of the Labour Party which opposed the war, and argued that Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald should be court-martialled for high treason. MacDonald responded to these attacks by claiming Bottomley to be of "doubtful parentage, who had lived all his life on the threshold of jail". Bottomley retaliated by producing a facsimile of MacDonald's birth certificate which showed he was illegitimate.
Although it is illegal for servicemen to send complaints to the press, Bottomley set up a column in John Bull where servicemen were encouraged to send an account of their grievances, upon which a company which advertised in the paper would send a parcel to them. The government thought about prosecuting Bottomley for this but they did not bring proceedings against him because they saw the usefulness of such a "safety valve". Within six months of the Great War one serious journalist wrote that "next to Kitchener the most influential man today is Mr. Horatio Bottomley".
In 1915 Bottomley wrote articles for the Sunday Pictorial, with their success making him "the most famous journalist in Britain" through a mixture of "down-to-earth religiosity, patriotism and Radicalism".
He spoke on many recruiting platforms (sometimes taking a large fee for doing so and at other times without payment). He displayed on these occasions a ready wit, and a considerable talent for popular oratory. His first recruiting speech was made six weeks after the beginning of the War at the London Opera House, held a few weeks after the official recruiting function held there yielded less results than Bottomley's. 25,000 people went to the Opera House, with 5,000 being admitted. After making a recruiting speech at Hull 1,000 men enlisted, his greatest success. His patriotic lecture tour speeches had a higher tone than his newspaper articles and the more money he was paid for a speech the higher the tone Bottomley would employ.
He pressed for a more aggressive prosecution of the War by Great Britain and attacked anybody he deemed less patriotic than himself. He advocated the unconditional surrender of Germany and a march on Berlin.
In 1918 he returned to Parliament as an Independent MP for Hackney South (with almost 80% of the vote). In May 1919 Bottomley founded The People's League hoping it would be 'a great Third Party' that would represent 'the People' against organised labour and organised capital. He supported General Dyer after the Amritsar massacre. Bottomley became a famous and popular figure for his patriotic and political activities. He was also well known for numerous Court appearances in libel and other cases, in which he frequently acted for himself, often with success. He was on one occasion described by Mr Justice Henry Hawkins as the ablest advocate Hawkins had ever listened to, as a result of which the judge offered Bottomley his wig.
Bottomley created the "John Bull Victory Bond Club" (a forerunner of Premium Bonds), purportedly as a mechanism for small savers to lend money to the Government, receiving prizes rather than interest; again a combination of fraud and mismanagement sank the scheme in 1921. He was charged with fraud, perjury and false accounting. In 1922, Bottomley was convicted of fraudulent conversion of shareholders' funds, sentenced to seven years jail and expelled from Parliament.
A famous story says that the prison chaplain of Wormwood Scrubs found him making mail sacks and asked him "Bottomley! Sewing?" to which he replied "No, reaping". He also became again bankrupt. On one occasion when he attended the Bankruptcy Court from Wormwood Scrubs but dressed in his civilian clothes, a friend remarked on the creases in his coat. Bottomley replied, "Never Mind. When I get back, I change for dinner." He was released from gaol in 1927 and, after parading himself around seedy music-halls in a mawkish one-man show, died in penury on 26 May 1933.
In May 1931, whilst directing his latest play Cavalcade at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the English actor, playwright and composer of popular music Noel Coward, lost a black leather wallet. Coward reported the loss to the theatre manager and offered a 10-shilling reward to anybody who found it. The theatre manager noted the offer of a reward together with a description of the wallet and its contents in his appointment diary. When he lost it, Coward’s wallet contained two five-pound notes, three one-pound notes and five ten-shilling notes. In addition to the money, Coward's wallet also contained several telephone numbers jotted onto scraps of paper. In February 1981 during pre-production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, American actor Henderson Forsythe found Noel Coward’s missing wallet stuffed inside of a broken tuba that had fallen upon him whilst he had been rummaging in a storage cupboard. The wallet contained the exact amount of money reported missing. Curiously, Coward’s wallet also contained a small studio photograph of Bottomley. Before his death, Noel Coward had never publicly acknowledged any connection with Bottomley. The discovery of the wallet provoked speculation that Noel Coward had been planning a dramatic performance about Bottomley’s strange life. This speculation arose because at the time that Cavalcade was playing at the Theatre Royal, Bottomley was appearing in a music hall nearby, performing the above mentioned one-man show about himself. Horatio Bottomley died in May 1933 and no record of a Coward penned musical about his life has ever been discovered.