Horatio Bottomley and the Rise of John Bull Magazine

Howard Cox & Simon Mowatt. Media History. Volume 25, Issue 1. February 2019.

This paper emphasises the significance of John Bull magazine as part of the media history narrative of Britain in the period leading up to World War I. Launched by Horatio Bottomley in 1906, the magazine was able to generate a significant readership among working class men by offering an appealing mixture of topical political, social and economic content in a relatively high quality penny magazine. The magazine’s success in this period is partly explained by the support received from its publisher Odhams Press. In addition, innovative features of the magazine stemmed from the high profile of Bottomley himself, the role it played in providing early initiatives in consumer protection, its facilitation of small-scale betting, and the creation of the John Bull League, an affiliated organisationin which readers were able to subscribe for membership and which was effectively utilised to garner support for a new form of Business Government.


In the long, late twilight of Wednesday 19 May 1915, Margot Asquith was being driven from the House of Commons to her home in 10 Downing Street via Charing Cross railway station. Her mood was sombre in the extreme. Shortly before setting out, she had watched her husband announce to a thinly populated House his decision to bring to an end the Liberal government that had ruled Britain since 1906. In its place would be formed a cross-party coalition of national unity, charged with the task of winning the war against Germany and its allies. As her car headed towards the Strand, Margot’s eyes were assailed by the sight of huge posters emblazoned with the question ‘Are we to be governed by Northcliffe and Bottomley?’ Mrs Asquith was only too aware of the part played by Alfred Harmsworth and his newspapers in plotting the downfall of the longstanding Liberal regime. Of Horatio Bottomley she appears to be much less well informed. In her diary entry for this momentous date she notes parenthetically ‘I believe a scurrilous, vile rag called J. Bull is edited by a horrible man called Bottomley.’

Margot’s relative ignorance of Bottomley and John Bull magazine seems almost incredible and certainly betrays her lack of awareness of key developments in Britain’s popular media culture. By the middle of 1915, the weekly circulation of John Bull was running in excess of one million, making it the nation’s most widely-read magazine. The editorial line peddled by this penny journal had for some time railed against the expansion of Germany’s army and navy. With the outbreak of the war Bottomley had seized the opportunity to further raise his profile by holding a series of recruiting rallies throughout Britain. He had also been commissioned by Lord Rothermere to write a weekly column for the Harmsworths’ newly launched Sunday Pictorial, a request he acceded to only on the agreement that it would carry his by-line as editor of John Bull. Margot Asquith’s fervent diary entry wish that ‘The public is getting very tired of the Harmsworth Press’ could hardly have been more out of sympathy with the popular thirst for cheap newsprint. Very soon the Sunday Pictorial was selling over two million copies per issue, and the words of Horatio Bottomley were thus being broadcast still more extensively across the British nation.

John Bull magazine had come of age during the emerging Edwardian crisis, culminating with the outbreak of the war in August 1914 and the subsequent fall of the Liberal government. This era of heightened political awareness featured issues such as Irish Home Rule, Suffragism and the rise of Trade Union power, each of which deeply concerned many of Britain’s working population. The popular news media of the early twentieth century, breaking free of the direct political control that had characterised much of the press before 1900, provided commentary and viewpoints with which their readers could align their own views. As a result, the controllers of mass circulation newspaper chains such as the Harmsworth brothers Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere were able to claim popular authority based on their own constituency of readers. During this period leading up to the war John Bull succeeded in generating a sufficiently broad readership, such that it afforded Bottomley a good measure of popular influence, by blending together political comment—especially through the medium of cartoons—with other features such as sporting competitions and a willingness to adopt campaigns which, at least notionally, represented the views of its readers.

Adrian Bingham has pointed out that the popular news press has been largely neglected in constructing the narrative history of Britain. While John Bull is something of an exception to this, as exemplified in the studies of British culture between 1914 and 1918 by writers such as George Robb and Adrian Gregory, its significance has tended to be attributed to the magazine’s fiercely belligerent editorial stance during the war. The main purpose of the current essay, however, is to explore the factors that explain the rise in popularity of John Bull in the period leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914 and to illustrate how the magazine was used by Bottomley to open the way for his own campaign of political reform. The paper begins by examining how Bottomley was able to successfully launch John Bull into an already well stocked market for popular weekly magazines in 1906, and the role played in its early success by the publishing firm of Odhams Ltd. It then traces the career of Bottomley in the years before he launched the magazine in an effort to understand the characteristic features he brought to the magazine’s editorial style, before going on to analyse how the subject matter of the magazine developed in ways that facilitated its increasing engagement with a large, albeit predominantly lower-middle class male, readership in late Edwardian Britain. Finally, it follows through the development of Bottomley’s political manoeuvring culminating in his ultimate disgrace and imprisonment in 1922, and the implications of this for the fate of his magazine. Crucially, the paper seeks to realign the importance of John Bull within media history away from its well known role as a tub-thumping advocate for the British military campaign against Germany after August 1914, towards its earlier, dual role, as an innovative popular weekly magazine that provided Bottomley with a platform from which to conduct a sustained attack on the existing system of party politics in Westminster.

Establishing a Market for John Bull Magazine

Some of the key ideas that were to feature in Bottomley’s new magazine had germinated a few years earlier following his decision to purchase an ailing London evening newspaper called the Sun which he attempted to revive. His strategy to expand the Sun’s circulation involved adopting the form of journalism which had for many years been the preserve of the popular Sunday newspapers, most notably the News of the World. Along with the sensationalist reporting of criminal cases, which provided the mainstay of this style of newspaper, Bottomley introduced novelties which were to provide innovative features of John Bull. One of these was called ‘Sunspots’ and effectively took the form of a lottery in which a small number of copies of the newspaper had ‘Sunspots’ printed within their pages and for which the fortunate customer would receive a small prize. Since the running of any private lottery had been suppressed in Britain since the early nineteenth century this rudimentary marketing device was contravening the law and the Sun was eventually prosecuted and fined a trivial £25. Another feature Bottomley introduced into his newspaper was a regular column penned by himself that carried the provocative title The World, the Flesh, and the Devil and which provided readers with gossip on prominent figures of the political, legal and financial world.

Despite having increased the sales of his newspaper over the period in which he acted as its proprietor, Bottomley was unable to turn a profit on the Sun and in 1904 he sold it to a rival concern. When John Bull was launched two years later, however, two of the features from his evening newspaper were quickly incorporated. From the outset, the opening pages of every copy of John Bull were devoted to the revived feature of The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Bottomley’s recently achieved status as a Member of Parliament gave the gossip contained therein even greater credibility. Bottomley confided in his readers in the same way as Private Eye‘s Lord Gnome was to do in later years and, like the EyeJohn Bull also featured satirical cartoons lampooning the politicians of the day in a style that mimicked the popular, but more expensive, Punch magazine. Following the first anniversary of his new magazine in 1907, in an echo of the earlier Sunspots idea, Bottomley introduced the ploy of printing every copy of John Bull magazine with a unique serial number and each week ten of these would be eligible for a small prize; the winning numbers being published in the following issue of the penny paper and thereby providing an incentive for readers to maintain their weekly purchase of the magazine.

Bottomley had launched John Bull into a market for weekly magazines that was already more than adequately populated. Figures from the annual Mitchell’s Newspaper Press Directory show that when George Newnes first brought out his penny weekly Titbits in 1881 the total number of magazines in circulation, excluding those of a religious character, was in the region of 775 titles. By 1903, the last year in which a comparable figure is available, the number had risen to around 2220. Although these figures include monthly and quarterly magazines, it was the rising popularity of weekly magazines that had been such a marked feature of this era of rapid growth, having been exploited in particular by the Harmsworth publishing businesses during their formative years. Large scale, vertically integrated organisations such as Harmsworth’s Amalgamated Press, Pearson, Newnes and Cassell’s were able to invest in modern plant and equipment to produce a wide range of titles to compete with longstanding illustrated weekly offerings such as Punch, The Graphic and the London Illustrated News.

The inaugural issue of John Bull was dated 12 May 1906, and was published by Wertheimer, Lea & Co. who had printed various documents for Bottomley in the past but whose equipment was not suited to the production of a modern magazine. This sixteen-page issue contained no illustrations or advertising material. Its contents were as follows:

  • Editorial: The World, the Flesh and the Devil
  • John Bull in Parliament
  • John Bull in the City
  • John Bull in the Country
  • John Bull at Play (a story)
  • John Bull’s Open Letter (to H.M. King Edward VII)
  • About Ourselves
  • ‘Letters from the Other World’ by A.P. Sinnett (a story)

When Wertheimer, Lea & Co. expressed their unwillingness to continue with the production of the magazine they instead put Bottomley in touch with the printing establishment of Odhams Ltd, which was seeking new business opportunities in the magazine publishing field. The Odhams firm had meandered along unremarkably since its formation in 1847 but by 1906 it had been placed largely under the control of Julius Elias (later Lord Southwood), an exceptionally dynamic individual whom Odhams had taken on initially as a clerk in the mid-1890s. Aware of Bottomley’s unreliable record in relation to the settlement of his debts, Elias viewed the opportunity to print John Bull with many misgivings. He did however correctly recognise the magazine’s huge potential appeal and thus the critical role that it might play in facilitating Odhams’ transformation into one of Britain’s leading publishing houses. Elias therefore accepted Bottomley’s commission and the first issue of John Bull printed by Odhams, namely Volume I, Number 1, was dated Saturday 9 June 1906.

With Odhams providing a more professional printing service for the magazine, the appearance of John Bull took on a more appealing form, including an illustrated cover that featured a drawing of the John Bull character displaying the journal’s contents. Issues of the penny magazine now extended to 24 pages and in addition to the earlier editorial material were a number of new features. These included contributions from high-profile personalities from the world of business and commerce, theatre and book reviews and, in what were to become key themes of the magazine, the exposure of ‘scams’ in the public sphere and the provision of horse racing intelligence by W. Lotinga, also operating as ‘Larry Lynx’ in The People. The magazine’s pages now contained illustrated advertising material—including those promoting the services of turf accountants—together with a political cartoon that usually featured the figure of John Bull as a popular champion of the common people.

The working relationship that developed between Bottomley and Odhams, mainly in the person of Julius Elias, was for the most part a fractious one, but each recognised the benefit of the collaboration in allowing John Bull to thrive. Displaying his business acumen, Elias exploited Bottomley’s haphazard financial management of John Bull as a means to wrest control over the day-to-day running of the weekly journal. By October 1908, although Bottomley still owned the magazine through his company John Bull Ltd, the Odhams firm was taking credit in the magazine as both the printer and publisher of John Bull. This allowed Elias to manage the operation far more effectively and utilise some of the revenues it generated to widen its sales still further; notably by means of extensive publicity using the medium of outdoor billboard and placard advertising. Topical posters for John Bull were regularly created to highlight issues of interest across different parts of Britain in an effort to widen the geographical scope of the magazine’s readership. Odhams also appointed an advertising manager to drum up further revenue from the weekly publication, although Bottomley’s dubious personal reputation and his insistence on offering space to advertisers himself limited the effectiveness of the strategy for some years before the war.

Odhams’ management and promotion of the magazine, and the good quality of the finished product when it left their printing works, were therefore contributory factors in explaining the success of John Bull during its formative years. Nonetheless, it was the inherent appeal of its contents that truly brought the title into favour with such a large readership. According to one of Bottomley’s biographers, Julian Symons, the target audience of John Bull was broad and well defined, ‘Its ideal reader a bluff beer-drinking race-going British workman, strong in the arm although perhaps a little weak in the head, fond of the wife and kiddies but ready to go out on the spree with the boys. It was British, that was the dominant note always; a fearless Public Defender of the Truth, a sporting periodical.’ Regardless of how accurate or otherwise this characterisation of the typical reader may have been, there is no doubt that two attributes of the magazine identified by Symons—its commitment to the public interest and the opportunities it provided for small-scale betting—emerged as key features in promoting John Bull‘s popular appeal. In an era when gambling was heavily controlled by the state, yet few mechanisms existed to provide protection of the public against fraudulent businesses and other forms of corporate malpractice, the potential demand for a populist, crusading magazine was enormous.

The Early Career of Horatio Bottomley

Horatio Bottomley was 46 years old when he took the decision to launch John Bull. Up until that point his career had taken many twists and turns. One key characteristic of his activities had been a willingness to chance his arm and, in many cases, flaunt the law in doing so. Early in his career Bottomley had become familiar with the workings of the judiciary and its legal exponents by virtue of his employment first in a solicitor’s office and then by the firm of Walpole’s for whom he provided shorthand transcriptions of courtroom proceedings. With a natural gift for oratory, Bottomley rapidly gained an insider’s proficiency in the techniques of advocacy simply through his daily exposure to the arguments of barristers in the law courts of central London. It was a skill that stood him in good stead for many decades to come.

It was typical of the restless nature of Horatio Bottomley, however, that he soon turned away from his career in the legal world, towards the realm of publishing. In 1884 he embarked on his first foray in this field when he started a local newspaper, the Hackney Hansard, featuring topical political debates. To this publication he quickly added a number of other titles including an involvement in the fledgling Financial Times newspaper. Within a year of taking his first step into the world of commercial publishing, Bottomley formed the Catherine Street Publishing Association before joining forces with the owner of a printing establishment named Douglas MacRae. When the two men ended their partnership acrimoniously the following year, Bottomley petulantly ceded his ownership of the various newspaper titles controlled by the company to McRae, but retained the printing works that had originally been contributed to the business by his former partner. At first this move into printing appeared to leave Bottomley in a field of enterprise for which he had little aptitude or inclination. However, almost immediately he tendered successfully for the contract to publish the official Hansard record of debates in Parliament. This was a substantial undertaking which provided him with an opportunity to extend the business through amalgamation with four other leading firms in the newspaper publishing field. Thus it was that in 1889 Bottomley floated these five enterprises together on the London Stock Exchange as the Hansard Publishing and Printing Union with a capital value of £500,000.

The Hansard Union gave Bottomley his first real opportunity to engage in the role of financial entrepreneur. Unfortunately, given his profligate spending habits and his relentless pursuit of a luxury lifestyle, the financial affairs of the company began to suffer accordingly. Following a barrage of complaints from shareholders, a formal investigation into Hansard’s financial affairs was unable to account for a substantial portion of the firm’s capital and the company was placed in the hands of the Official Receiver. In January 1893 four directors of the Hansard Trust were prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the shareholders and Bottomley found himself back in the High Court, now as a defendant against charges that carried the threat of imprisonment. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the Attorney General was able to bring in support of the prosecution’s case, at the conclusion of the Hansard trial Horatio Bottomley and his co-defendants were able to win a verdict of not guilty. Bottomley’s ability to secure an acquittal against all the odds was gained in large measure by his successful courtroom rapport with the presiding judge, Mr Justice Hawkins, and served to enhance his reputation as Britain’s leading lay lawyer, provided him with a veneer of financial credibility that he was determined to exploit to the full.

During the 1890s Bottomley used the financial expertise he had gained from floating the Hansard Trust to become a company promoter. The discovery of gold in Western Australia provided him with the perfect opportunity to entice unwary investors into depositing some of their savings in newly capitalised gold mining companies in the hope of realising fast and substantial financial gains. At the height of the boom, Bottomley floated a total of 23 new gold mining companies in a single year with an aggregate capital value of ten million pounds. Although a small number of these enterprises were going concerns, the vast majority proved to be completely worthless and their share capital was subject to continual bouts of restructuring, leaving the hapless investors with merely a greater stock of waste paper for their troubles. The most notorious of these dud companies was the Joint Stock Trust and Finance Corporation—itself a reconstruction of the failed Associated Finance Corporation. The stated purpose of the Joint Stock Trust was that of financial investment rather than gold mining. Nonetheless by the first decade of the twentieth century the company had assumed ownership over a number of Bottomley’s bankrupt mining concerns, including the disingenuously named Selected Gold Mines of Australia.

After the Australian gold-rush boom had finally dissipated in the early 1900s the restructuring of Bottomley’s corporate empire became increasingly desperate. In 1907, an action brought on behalf of a shareholder in the Selected Gold Mines of Australia forced this company into liquidation and thereby brought into scrutiny the financial integrity of the Joint Stock Trust, for which it was a major creditor. There followed an examination of the affairs of the Joint Stock Company by the Official Receiver and in December 1908 Bottomley and three of his associates were summoned for trial on a charge of conspiracy to defraud its shareholders. Once again, however, Bottomley rose to the occasion by conducting his own defence and secured a fortuitous acquittal. During the course of the trial at the London Guildhall the presiding Alderman had fallen seriously ill and was forced to stand down. Within a few days his replacement contracted influenza and so a third Alderman was required to assume the role of trial judge. This lack of continuity certainly helped Bottomley’s cause in what was a relatively complex case. Moreover, in his cross-examination of the chief witness for the prosecution Bottomley had skilfully thrown doubt on the credibility of the key testimony set against him. At the conclusion of the evidence the presiding Alderman, who had not even been present when the prosecution lawyers had made their opening submission, instructed the jury to acquit the defendants of fraud. Needless to say, it proved to be only a temporary respite from bankruptcy for Bottomley.

By the time of his acquittal Bottomley had not only launched John Bull but in 1906 he had also achieved a lifelong ambition to become a Member of Parliament. Through his mother’s family connections, Bottomley’s upbringing had brought him into the circle of radical Liberals led by Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh had championed the interests of the growing urban working classes and in 1860 had founded the National Reformer, a campaigning newspaper on which Bottomley gained some early experience in the publishing world. Bradlaugh had captivated Bottomley from an early age, stirring his ambition still further through his election to Parliament in 1880 as the Independent Liberal candidate for Northampton. Bottomley’s desire to emulate his political mentor saw him accept the Liberal candidacy for the safe Tory seat of Hornsey in the by-election of 1887. His energetic, populist campaign limited the majority of the Tory candidate, Henry (Inky) Stephens, to less than 2000 votes, earning the fledgling politician a commendation from Gladstone himself. An aborted challenge for the safe Tory seat of North Islington in 1891 was followed by a bid in the general election of 1900 for the constituency of South Hackney. This was a traditional Liberal seat that had been narrowly lost to the Unionist candidate Thomas Herbert Robertson in the general election of 1895. By this time Bottomley had marshalled a substantial group of his own supporters and together they mounted a concerted campaign which only narrowly failed to overturn Robertson’s majority. Nevertheless, Bottomley was now determined to fight the seat again and in 1906, after years spent wooing the local electorate through public meetings in the borough, he comfortably ousted his rival Robertson. He achieved this victory in spite of an additional challenge from an independent Liberal, the Rev. William Riley, who was endorsed by the local Liberal association and widely supported in the national press. Thus Bottomley took his seat in Parliament as part of the Liberal landslide of 1906 that brought to power the reforming regime of Herbert Asquith’s predecessor Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

Raising the Profile and Readership of John Bull to 1912

Horatio Bottomley may have been elected as a Liberal M.P. but as far as John Bull magazine was concerned no such party affiliation was consistently adhered to. The opening issue of the paper contained a reflective section entitled About Ourselves in which the editor stated boldly the view that all political parties were ‘organised hypocrisies’ and that the intention of John Bull was to be ‘non-party, unsectarian [sic] and human.’ Such forthright language set John Bull apart from mainstream penny weeklies aimed at the working classes in which political, social and economic issues took a back seat to more conventional forms of entertainment. A content analysis of John Bull in the first six months of 1910 illustrates how distinctive Bottomley’s magazine was compared with the leading penny weeklies of the Pearson, Newnes and Harmsworth organisations. The figures reproduced in Appendix 1, on the basis of Reed’s analysis, show the similarity in the editorial composition of Pearson’s Weekly, Titbits and Answers at this time, with fiction, humour and entertainment accounting for over one half of all the editorial content in each case. In contrast, the contents of John Bull heavily featured public affairs, social problems, business and economics, with fiction practically non-existent. The strident campaigning style of John Bull, which strongly reflected the personality of its editor, enabled the magazine to popularise such traditionally serious items of news and opinion to a far wider audience than had been the case hitherto. Of particular significance in this respect was John Bull‘s use of political cartoons, where the work of Frank Holland was used extensively. For example, in the lead up to the second general election of 1910 a cartoon by Holland provided a satirical view of the stance adopted by Asquith’s Liberal party, despite the fact that it was on this very platform Bottomley himself was seeking re-election.

The circulation of John Bull was certainly well established when Bottomley was twice returned as Liberal M.P. for South Hackney in 1910. Although independently collected sales figures for British magazines before the First World War are scarce and impossible to verify, there is general agreement that John Bull quickly gained a substantial readership. One biographer of Bottomley, Alan Hyman, notes that the editor was claiming the magazine’s circulation had reached half a million as early as its first anniversary in 1907. Hyman himself states that by the autumn of 1912 it had reached 1.5 million. This latter figure seems generous compared with that cited by Minney, the biographer of Odhams’ chief executive Julius Elias, who states that the circulation of John Bull was approaching one million by a date that can be fixed at around the middle of 1911. David Reed, on the other hand, using figures published by the Advertisers’ Protection Society in its February 1913 Monthly Circular, states that at the end of 1912 John Bull‘s registered sales were only just breaching 400,000 per week and that the one million mark was not achieved until July 1915. McEwen’s well-respected survey of press circulation in Britain during the First World War gauges John Bull‘s weekly sales to have been running at ‘about one million by the outbreak of the war’ which, given the other evidence available, seems quite plausible. Audited sales figures that were published in the magazine itself at the beginning of 1916 lend credence to the idea that, before the outbreak of the war, John Bull‘s weekly circulation was running towards one million, but that this threshold was only consistently exceeded during 1915.

One feature of John Bull that served to raise its profile before the war and acted to set it apart from rival publications was the way it interacted with its readership. Almost as soon as he had launched the magazine Bottomley had offered readers the opportunity to subscribe to an organisation called the John Bull League. The objective of the League was to develop a nationwide organisation through which to publicise the magazine and promote its various campaigns. The League quickly developed a system of branches across the leading towns and cities of Britain, with the branch members organising events ranging from lectures on important issues of public concern to theatrical evenings and whist drives. These occasions frequently began with a rallying speech from Bottomley himself. By 1911, a gala day organised by the League at the Crystal Palace is reported to have attracted an attendance of around 20,000 enthusiastic supporters. The activities of the League’s various branches were regularly reported on in the magazine itself.

The contents of a typical issue of John Bull from the middle of 1911 are itemised in Appendix 2 and these include, on page 848, a number of reports from branches of the John Bull League. This page of the magazine was also used to promote another publication entitled Mrs Bull, a companion magazine that had been launched around this time in an effort to capture a female audience. Later on in this issue of John Bull, on page 851, readers’ attention is drawn to a new Missing Words prize competition run by Mrs Bull magazine. This may well have been an attempt to test the suitability of such competitions for including in John Bull itself. As is well known, the appeal of competitions had been instrumental in promoting the likes of Titbits and Answers during the 1880s and 1890s. More recently one of Pearson’s magazines, London Opinion, that was printed by Odhams had run a weekly competition in 1907 based on limericks which proved so popular that many post offices ran out of the postal orders required as an entry fee. Nevertheless, there would have been an understandable hesitation to use such competitions as a device to expand the popularity of a more serious, crusading publication such as John Bull. In the event, Mrs Bull failed to find a long-term readership in the market for cheap weekly women’s magazines, and prize competitions rapidly emerged as a key feature of John Bull during 1911. As with the competitions in London Opinion, entry to the Missing Words game required the remittance of a sixpenny postal order and thereby brought in further revenue for the magazine.

Not surprisingly it was the area of sport that provided an important focus for competitions designed to entertain and further expand the magazine’s readership. Indeed, between 1910 and 1920 the proportion of space in John Bull devoted to sport grew fourfold. As part of this, the magazine continued to provide readers with horse racing intelligence by Willie Lotinga, and in October 1911 it purchased Lotinga’s Weekly from Amalgamated Pictorials Ltd. Around this time, John Bull also began to provide its own horseracing sweepstakes for the benefit of its readers and in doing so it sought to circumvent the law against off-course betting that had outlawed the practice in Britain since 1853. By the late nineteenth century this had led to the widespread practice of street betting but in 1906 a Street Betting Act was passed which significantly tightened the laws on such informally organised gambling. These controls on bookmaking encouraged the emergence of offshore turf accountants who accepted funds transferred to their offices telegraphically and held deposit and credit accounts on behalf of British based clients. From the outset John Bull magazine had provided a forum in which the services of these turf accountants could be advertised, but Bottomley also recognised the opportunity of setting up the magazine’s own horse racing competitions in which the entries could be sent to an address in Switzerland. For a public starved of the opportunity to place small bets on traditional racing events, such as the Epsom Derby, such sweepstakes held tremendous popular appeal and John Bull was prepared to flaunt the betting laws in order to profit from them.

In addition to horse racing, many of the competitions were based on the increasingly popular spectator sport of professional association football. Competitions that offered generous prizes in return for correctly forecasting the outcome of a combination of soccer matches had begun to be popularised from the introduction of a programme of scheduled football league games in the late 1880s, but it was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that the issuing of such football betting coupons become widespread in spite of strenuous opposition from the Anti-Gambling League. In January 1912, John Bull launched a competition offering prizes totalling £3000 in which contestants were required to correctly predict the three matches in one week’s fixtures that would feature the highest number of goals and then to forecast the exact score of each one of these games—a challenge that was effectively impossible to achieve. Another competition in the same issue was based on the FA Cup and invited competitors to predict in January the pairings for the two semi-finals and the score of each match, along with the score of the final itself. Not surprisingly, when a winner of one of these football competitions was announced it was greeted with widespread scepticism in other quarters of the press.

Notwithstanding the growing emphasis on sporting competitions, John Bull continued with its policy of supporting the public interest by acting as a champion of consumer interests, and the magazine investigated a range of activities that were felt to adversely affect the welfare of less well educated members of society. The organisation that Bottomley created for this purpose was known as the John Bull Exposure Bureau. Staffed by retired police officers and private investigators, the Bureau partly responded to concerns submitted by readers and partly pursued issues which were perceived to be of popular interest and likely to be advantageous to the magazine’s financial position. A number of the cases exposed by the investigations of John Bull resulted in libel actions against the paper, including one long-running case brought by the National Cash Register Company for example.

Of the causes taken up by the Exposure Bureau the most attention-grabbing was its scathing revelations regarding the activities of the Prudential Assurance Company—Britain’s largest insurance company. The anti-Prudential campaign began on 25 March 1911 and was spread over twelve consecutive issues of the magazine. Numerous charges were laid against the Prudential, including the claim that the company engineered the lapsing of policies through the practice of deliberate mis-selling by Special Agents who canvassed existing clients to take out unnecessary additional policies. Articles in the magazine also pointed out that the company’s agents were put under pressure to make good the non-payment of premiums among those policy-holders for whose accounts they were responsible. In the issue of 29 April 1911 John Bull listed the names of over one hundred Prudential agents who, it was claimed, had been driven to commit or had attempted to commit suicide. Naturally these accusations were bitterly disputed by the company and a war of pamphlets ensued from both sides.

The publicity ensuing from the campaign against the Prudential, which all told lasted for over a year, was used extensively to raise the profile of John Bull by featuring in its poster and billboard advertising campaigns (see Figure 2). However, as with many of the other investigations undertaken by the Exposure Bureau, the end result was a series of legal proceedings as the two parties each submitted counter-claims of libel. Bottomley had claimed defamation in respect of statements made about him by the Prudential in a pamphlet defending their business practices, but he had subsequently been forced to discontinue his action in the face of the evidence mounted by the company. This had left him liable for a significant amount of legal costs at a time when his overall financial condition was becoming untenable and, as a result, he was forced to file for bankruptcy. In many respects this proved to be a turning point for John Bull magazine.

Bottomley, John Bull and the Campaign for Political Reform

The most important implication of Bottomley’s bankruptcy was that it obliged him to resign his seat in Parliament. The consequence of this for John Bull was that the magazine now used its pages even more actively to campaign for a new direction in British politics. Bottomley had for many years been thoroughly disenchanted with the longstanding two-party system that governed Britain. Faced with growing industrial strife and the emergence of the Trade Union-backed Labour Party, Bottomley campaigned for a new style of consensus administration—a National Assembly—drawing an increased proportion of its members from amongst the country’s business leaders. Once he had formally resigned from his position as a Liberal M.P., Bottomley took the opportunity to transform the John Bull League into a Business Government League. Membership cost sixpence and the stated aims of the League were:

  • To stamp out Cant and Self Righteousness
  • To abolish Cranks and Killjoys
  • To create a Robust and Self-Reliant Public Opinion
  • To promote a Common Sense Business Government for a Common Sense Business People

A campaign for political reform was launched in John Bull during April 1912 and was consolidated at a great rally in the Queen’s Hall the next month. This was followed by a schedule of meetings up and down the country during the summer of 1912, organised by his principal accomplice Henry Houston, in which Bottomley sought to further raise his national political profile.

The initially rather vague objectives of the Business Government League were given greater substance by Bottomley in the pages of John Bull. Central to Bottomley’s concerns at the outset was the rising power of organised labour, along with the emergence of the Independent Labour Party, and the ineffective response provided by the two main parties (see Figure 3). A long-running strike in the coal industry during the spring of 1912 provided an opportunity to set out the way in which a Business Government should tackle such practical problems of industrial relations. Bottomley proposed a system of bilateral negotiations to be initiated between the mine owners and the unions, with the Board of Trade drafting a proposed Suggestion for Settlement after receiving submissions from the two sides. A memorandum outlining the Board of Trade’s proposal would be debated and passed through Parliament, which would then become binding on the two parties if the bilateral negotiations failed to achieve a mutual agreement. The final recourse, however, would be to utilise military force, with the additional threat of government sequestration of the privately-owned mines and imprisonment of any miners who refused to resume work. A continuing theme of John Bull‘s editorial at this time was the slogan ‘Wanted: A Man’ with Bottomley himself voicing the rallying cry with his demand for a Business Government.

The decision to convert the John Bull League into the Business Government League had the effect of transforming the existing multi-faceted organisation into an overtly political one. Whilst this enabled Bottomley to lay concrete plans for a genuine political confrontation with the existing power structures at Westminster, most directly through the fielding of Business Government candidates at parliamentary elections, it is also likely to have failed to retain the support of many of the existing John Bull League members. More than two years after its creation, an item in John Bull speaks of the upcoming inauguration of the Business Government League, claiming that the North East London branch, centred on his former Parliamentary constituency of South Hackney, has a membership numbering almost 10,000. This strongly suggests that the main function of the Business Government League as an organisation had become one of maintaining Bottomley’s political profile amongst his former constituents. In the event, any proposed inauguration of the League was overtaken by the deepening political crisis in Europe.

The urgency with which Bottomley promoted the cause of political reform and a more business-like form of government in Britain was intimately connected to the growing economic and military threat posed by Germany. During 1912 and 1913 John Bull featured much material that was hostile to the regime in Berlin. In January 1912, for example, the paper ran an item entitled ‘How to Fight Germany’ over three consecutive issues, and the following month Bottomley penned an article in which he urged the Foreign Office to mount a protest over the German government’s policy of expanding its army and navy. The piece concluded that if the protest were ignored by the authorities in Berlin then ‘we would without further ceremony, sink every blessed German ship to the bottom of the sea. We could do it now. Tomorrow may be too late.’

Although it is well documented that following the outrage in Sarajevo the principal focus of John Bull‘s wrath was the government of Serbia, once war had been declared the editorial line quickly reverted to being one of unalloyed anti-German sentiment. After August 1914 Bottomley used John Bull to support his newly adopted role as Britain’s chief recruiting sergeant. In the issue of 12 September 1914, the magazine trumpeted John Bull‘s Great Patriotic Rally at the Royal Opera House on the following Monday evening, at which Bottomley was the principal speaker. The event drew a crowd estimated at 20,000, of whom only 5000 were able to be accommodated within the auditorium—the rest waiting outside. As De Groot has argued, ‘Bottomley’s populist tactics were enormously influential in motivating the common man to contribute to the war effort, especially early in the war when his recruitment drives produced undeniable surges of commitment. No mainstream politician rivalled him in the crowds he attracted, nor in his ability to rouse working class bigotry.’

The combination of Bottomley’s skills as an orator and opinion maker, combined with the substantial readership of John Bull magazine, propelled the man and his medium into ever higher public profile during the course of the war. Bottomley’s belligerence towards Germany was magnified by the editorial line in John Bull, making him much sought after for the purposes of recruiting young men into the forces; particularly among those sections of the male population who subscribed to his weekly publication.

One early display of patriotism in the pages of John Bull was the ire with which its editorial treated the pronouncements of the popular press. In their desperation to provide readers with news of the war during its first few weeks, the mass circulation Fleet Street papers peddled stories that Bottomley lambasted as fake news. On 15 August 1914 his leading piece in The World, the Flesh and the Devil railed that ‘Under the Business Government, every editor who either knowingly or recklessly publishes false war news will be shot’ as he praised Churchill’s decision to establish an official War News Bureau. Three weeks later he pointed the finger directly at Northcliffe and his Weekly Dispatch for publishing unpatriotic stories of the French army in disarray. However, John Bull‘s stance towards Northcliffe and his papers altered completely when, in 1915, Harold Harmsworth (by now Lord Rothermere) launched the Sunday Pictorial and commissioned him to pen a leading article each week. Bottomley’s conversion to the cause of the popular press was well demonstrated in December 1915 when John Bull‘s editorial castigated the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, for his attack on Northcliffe and for the government’s policy of newspaper censorship in general. ‘The Press must and shall be free’ he boomed, ‘The Censorship must go!’ Displaying his new-found loyalty to the captains of Fleet Street, Bottomley continued his role as the leading columnist for the Pictorial throughout the course of the war and beyond, as the paper’s circulation climbed beyond two million.

During 1915 Bottomley began to test the appetite among the electorate for political reform through the support of Business Government candidates at by-elections. Even before he had been forced to resign from his Parliamentary seat, the John Bull League had put forward a candidate at the Bristol East by-election in November 1911, as a result of which the Member for South Hackney had been severely criticised by the Liberal Whip. Following the outbreak of the war, the main parties at Westminster had agreed to observe an electoral truce, stipulating that by-elections would not be contested. Under these wartime circumstances, the fielding of an Independent candidate provided the local electorate with the opportunity to register their discontent with the existing state of affairs. The first by-election in Great Britain where the truce was not adhered to was in the Labour stronghold of Merthyr Tydfil in November 1915. The ballot arose due to the death of Keir Hardie and the nominated official Labour Party candidate, J. Winstone, was challenged by C.B. Stanton, a pro-war Labour rival who won the poll with a majority of 4000 votes. Although there was no suggestion that by supporting Stanton the electorate had favoured a Business League advocate, John Bull nevertheless heartily endorsed the outcome, noting that ‘Our own meeting at Merthyr has evidently borne fruit.’

Suitably encouraged by the outcome in Merthyr, Bottomley mounted a direct challenge to the Liberal-led coalition government at a by-election in Cleveland the following month, putting forward R. Knight as a Business League candidate against the high-profile Liberal M.P. Herbert Samuel. Bottomley used the opportunity to launch a Business Government Party under whose auspices he had offered to finance any anti-government candidates at upcoming by-elections. At the same time, as part of a campaign to drum up opposition to the government’s proposal to set up a Central Control Board on Liquor Traffic, Bottomley had created the ‘League of the Man-in-the-Street’ to oppose the projected licensing laws and to broaden his appeal to public opinion. In canvassing the local electorate in Cleveland to support his candidate, Bottomley addressed twenty meetings in the constituency in which he urged the male voters to reject coalition plans to interfere with working-class drinking habits. As a result of these protestations, his nominee Knight was dubbed in the local press as ‘the right-to-get-drunk candidate’ and was heavily defeated. Compared with the election of December 1910, when Samuel had stood against a Unionist candidate, he increased his majority from 1527 to 5859, polling almost 500 more votes in the process.

In the pages of John Bull, Bottomley put the best gloss he could on the catastrophe. He noted that ‘In his first address to the electors of the Cleveland Division, Mr Herbert Samuel said: “If Mr Knight should poll several hundred votes it would mean a most serious message to the Government.” And Mr Knight polled 1453!’ This edition of the magazine also included a cartoon by Frank Holland entitled Storming the Citadel that showed Samuel and the leaders of the coalition under attack from the challenge of a Business Government. Northcliffe’s Times, itself looking to discredit the Asquith regime, commented that the ‘surprising dimensions of the minority vote’ indicated that ‘there must be a good deal of unorganised discontent in the country to account for these votes, the majority of which were not cast on the merits of the drinks orders.’ Nonetheless, a chastised Bottomley withdrew from the fray. In the issue of John Bull for 15 January 1916, the World, the Flesh and the Devil opened with an item entitled The By-Elections which stated ‘Not without considerable hesitation have we determined to abstain from intervening in any of the pending by-elections. One or two of the constituencies were very tempting, and great pressure was brought on us to run Business Government candidates. But, as we said before, Discipline must be our motto for the duration of the war—or, at any rate, as long as our poor human nature can endure it.’

Bottomley’s pledge to refrain from active engagement in by-elections did not prevent him from providing vocal support to the right wing aviator Noel Pemberton Billing in the contest for Mile End later in January 1916. In John Bull, he proposed that ‘The electors of this typical East End constituency have a fine opportunity of distinguishing themselves by administering to the Government a much-needed tonic’ and Symons notes that Bottomley’s associate Henry Houston organised a non-stop meeting at a local cinema where a series of audiences were addressed by, among others, Bottomley, Pemberton Billing and the veteran Labour leader Ben Tillett. In the event, Billing was narrowly defeated in Mile End, but successfully campaigned for the seat of Hertford two months later.

Thanks to his high-profile contribution to Rothermere’s Sunday Pictorial, by the beginning of 1916 John Bull was no longer the sole means through which Bottomley was able to promote his vision of Britain and its future political development. At the same time, the management at Odhams were actively exploring ways in which the company could reduce its financial dependence on the fortunes of its principal magazine. Already in 1914 Elias had acquired two existing magazine titles centred on the emerging British film industry and had begun to successfully promote these to a growing audience. The following year, looking to further consolidate its engagement with its readership, Odhams launched its first internally conceived magazine which it named The Passing Show. The company’s circulation and advertising departments, created to serve the needs of John Bull, were now also put at the service of its fledgling rival which was heavily promoted in John Bull itself. Less controversial than Bottomley’s organ, under the supervision of Odhams’ advertising manager, Philip Emanuel, the new magazine was soon generating levels of advertising revenue beyond those achieved through John Bull.

By the time the war ended Bottomley’s reputation across Britain comfortably transcended his role as editor of John Bull magazine, and with a general election looming he was anxious to restore his position as a Member of Parliament by standing for election in his local constituency of South Hackney. In order to discharge himself from bankruptcy Bottomley raised money by selling off his debts to a group of obliging creditors. This enabled him to successfully put up for re-election as an Independent Liberal candidate for his old constituency in December 1918, defeating a Lloyd George-supporting Coalition Liberal by a margin of over 8000 votes. His return to the House of Commons gave Bottomley the platform to renew his political campaign and in May 1919 he launched The People’s League in an attempt to create a new force in British politics that, in Cowling’s words, could oppose both organised Labour and organised Capital. At the same time he sought to build on his links with Lord Rothermere whose opposition to the Lloyd George regime had grown considerably following the end of the war. Bottomley supported Rothermere’s son, Esmond Harmsworth, in the latter’s successful campaign to gain election as the Unionist candidate at the Isle of Thanet by-election in 1919. Throughout 1919 and 1920 Bottomley and Rothermere worked, together or in parallel, in an effort to build an effective opposition to the coalition government. By 1921 Bottomley had been able to form the basis of a small Independent group in Parliament with an office and Whip of its own.

The Odhams concern had also made substantial progress during the war and in July 1919 the directors of the company issued a prospectus with a view to raising its capital from £350,000 to £495,000. At this point Odhams controlled six of its own publications and was about to launch a new high quality picture magazine called Pan, as well as providing printing services for dozens more publications. Amongst the various weeklies printed by Odhams was a Sunday newspaper called the National News which was owned by Sir Henry (later Lord) Dalziel and in 1917 this was purchased by Bottomley along with the Sunday Evening Telegram. Both publications were in a poor financial state and in 1920, when Odhams Ltd formally took over John Bull Ltd to provide Bottomley with much needed funds, it was agreed that these two newspapers would be left under the control of Bottomley. The Sunday Telegram was soon closed down but Bottomley, deluding himself that the success of the Sunday Pictorial had in large measure been due to his weekly contribution of opinion, decided in 1921 to relaunch the National News as a direct competitor to Rothermere’s flagship Sunday paper, recasting it as the Sunday Illustrated.

The decision to launch the Illustrated not only set Bottomley on a collision course with Rothermere, it also created a demand for supporting funds that led him to adopt methods of financing that were nothing short of reckless. In a bid to boost his finances, he had turned once again to his favoured device of lotteries through the medium of John Bull. Just as, during the war, the prize money for its word-play competition ‘Bullets’ had been paid in War Bonds in order to mollify government concerns over lottery contraventions, so in 1919 a scheme was launched whereby readers were encouraged to purchase, through John Bull, £1 shares in government issued Victory Bonds, but with the interest paid in prize money to the winners of a lottery. It was, in effect, a precursor to the system of Premium Bonds which Bottomley had advocated in Parliament as a means of raising government funds from small savers. However, with his debts continuing to rise, particularly as a result of his circulation war with Rothermere, the Victory Bond scheme simply provided him with a source of funds that could easily be embezzled. Within months of his launch of the Illustrated, Bottomley was embroiled in a court case with a long-time adversary that would ultimately bring about his financial ruin. In August 1922, he was convicted at the Old Bailey on charges of fraudulent conversion relating to his Victory Bonds scheme and sentenced to the maximum term of seven years in prison, of which he served five.

As the Victory Bond scheme collapsed and Bottomley’s public persona became increasingly sullied, so the circulation of John Bull suffered accordingly. In the autumn of 1921 Elias and his Board of Directors had taken the decision to sever their links with Bottomley entirely, sacking him with compensation to the tune of £25,000. Sales of the magazine quickly plummeted to 300,000 per week, but Elias felt strongly that killing off the paper would be bad for Odhams’ reputation and decided instead to change the magazine’s format to that of a more serious journal. A new group of contributions were brought in that included Herbert Asquith and Earl Haig who had recently begun the British Legion and who ran a regular feature for ex-servicemen. Also, in a foretaste of the newspaper circulation wars of the 1930s, canvassers were sent from door-to-door to reintroduce this new version of the magazine. The campaign to revitalise Bottomley’s journal proved to be a remarkable success, and by the middle of 1922 John Bull‘s circulation had returned to the one million mark.


Between 1906 and 1912 Horatio Bottomley, with considerable assistance from Julius Elias of Odhams, created the template for one of Britain’s most widely-read penny weekly magazines. Inaugurated in the flush of pride that accompanied his first election to the House of Commons, at the heart of John Bull‘s success was Bottomley’s unquenchable drive and political ambition along with his gift for successfully courting controversy. Featuring a compelling mixture of hard-hitting campaigns against corporate misdemeanours and acute political observations supported by humorous cartoons, the magazine found a willing readership amongst a substantial tranche of working men. In particular, the magazine’s success signalled an emerging popular appetite for a more accessible form of vernacular politics: one which was prepared to take on the established interests of late Edwardian Britain.

John Bull‘s political message was centred on Bottomley’s plausible belief that the existing two-party system governing Britain had begun to seriously flounder in the wake of a range of intractable social and economic problems. Indeed, one of the magazine’s key achievements lay in its ability to engage a substantial popular audience in topical matters of political debate and economic discourse by developing a format that was, certainly for the early twentieth century, lively and provocative. Moreover, Bottomley was able to mobilise his constituency of readers both in print and in person, thanks to the innovation of the John Bull League and its nationwide structure of branch members.

Bottomley’s concerted attempt to garner popular support for a Business Government carried a real threat because it was founded on the manifold readers of John Bull who were prepared to subscribe to the John Bull League and thus provide the magazine’s editor with a national audience of signed-up members. While it is certainly true that such progress as had been achieved in this campaign by 1914 was sidelined by the outbreak of the war, it remains the case that John Bull had provided him with a substantial popular constituency upon which to build his campaign for political reform. It was this aspect of the magazine, more perhaps than the conventionally attributed role it played in shaping popular opinion during the war itself which, arguably, ought to be recognised as a prime contribution to the media history narrative of late Edwardian Britain.