Written by Dr Steven Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, with additions by Michael Page
One Monday evening in December, 1917, Surbiton in Surrey received a visit from Mr Horatio Bottomley, a figure the wartime Daily Mirror newspaper had called ‘London’s Answer to the Zeps’ because of his powerful oratory at public meetings.
With London now under attack from the air by ‘Zeps’ (German Zeppelins), together with growing food and fuel shortages across the nation (as the fourth Christmas of the relentlessly grinding conflict rapidly approached), and mounting public concerns about what was really happening on the Western Front in France, Bottomley – who edited a patriotic magazine called John Bull – had made himself a leading propagandist in favour of the British war effort. He regularly urged Britons to fight on and ‘never weaken’. He also appears to have enjoyed his image as a ‘bullish’ man who could weaponize information and ‘zap’ the enemy via effective speech-making.
His visit to Surbiton in late 1917 saw him give a lecture at Surbiton Assembly Rooms, where he again sought to inspire and rouse his audience, and also employed a mixture of humour and passion to deliver what was billed as a ‘vivid description’ of scenes on the Western Front. According to the local Surrey Comet, this talk was entitled ‘What I saw in the Trenches’, and his lecture ‘proved to be a remarkable attraction, the building being filled in every part’. In fact, this was fairly typical of the enthusiasm Bottomley often generated at his lectures and public meetings during the course of the Great War.
A big problem with Bottomley, though, is that he often exaggerated his stories and peppered his talks with some serious untruths. Indeed, Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933) was quite a colourful and controversial gentleman in many ways. At various stages in his career he was a financier, a newspaper proprietor, a journalist, a magazine editor, a propagandist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Member of Parliament (twice). In 1922, while serving as Independent MP for Hackney South, he was found guilty of financial fraud at an Old Bailey trial and was given a seven-year prison sentence. Towards the end of his life, after his release from gaol, Bottomley led a poverty-stricken existence, reduced to trying to earn a living by entertaining people in Music Halls.
Bottomley had first entered Parliament in 1906 as the Liberal MP for Hackney South. He also founded the magazine John Bull in the same year, a popular and very pro-Empire publication, which carried a combination of news on current affairs, social gossip and sensationalist scandal, and which often pedalled blatant scare-stories and conspiracy theories. Bottomley also used the magazine to very much push his own (often outspoken) personal views of politics and world events and the secret ‘forces’ supposedly at work behind the scenes. However, in 1912, he was forced to resign his seat in Parliament after he was declared bankrupt.
He was not finished, though. The outbreak of war in 1914, in a sense, was good news for Bottomley. The Great War helped restore his career and he became a well-known pro-war propagandist, constantly urging everybody to put their full weight behind the fight against Imperial Germany and the ‘uncivilized Hun’. He especially loathed pacifists and those he perceived as ‘treasonable’. At one point in the war, he publicly accused the Labour Party leaders Ramsay MacDonald and James Keir Hardie of being the leaders of a ‘pro-German Campaign’, and he demanded that MacDonald be tried as a traitor. Bottomley also used his magazine John Bull to claim that there was a ‘Hidden Hand’ secretly at work within the nation, a subversive group of conspirators who were out to undermine the British war effort.
The magazine saw high circulation during the war. But it was his stirring and hyper-patriotic oratory at public meetings that appeared to have the most impact. It is estimated that he addressed over 300 public meetings during the course of the war, including a very large one in Trafalgar Square. The meeting at Surbiton was also a good example, which he used to drive home his message about the ‘Hun’.
In the account of this meeting published in the Surrey Comet, Bottomley was noted for what the paper called his ‘many gifts of oratory’, and apparently ‘riveted the keen attention of the large audience for nearly an hour and a half’. Prefacing his talk with a reminder that the Surrey Volunteer Regiment was ‘in great need of recruits’, Bottomley told the Assembly Rooms gathering that he was ‘one of the band of people who, some years before the war broke out, went about the country proclaiming the fact that Germany meant mischief’. He said they were preaching ‘the doctrine that ever since the Kaiser had come to the throne he and his advisers had been engaged in an unbroken conspiracy to throw dust in the eyes of the whole world and, above all, of Great Britain’.
For that warning, Bottomley said, he and his friends had been called ‘all sorts of names, but that did not distress them’. Since the war had broken out, he had been ‘going about all over the country’, first to obtain recruits for the Colours and then ‘to hearten and inspirit the mind and conscience of the people’. He said that the British Empire was ‘not done with yet’, and he wanted to ‘arouse them to a true sense of the fact that, despite all shame and frauds, there was no Power on God’s earth… capable of bringing that old Empire down to the ground’.
After further reflections on the nature of the conflict, Bottomley revealed that he had been ‘filled with a keen desire to go and see that grim thing for himself’. He said he had been out to France more than once, which had included a visit to the Western frontline. Moreover, he claimed that, when he had been invited to be a guest at the headquarters of Sir Douglas Haig, he had refused, as he wanted to be ‘free from every restriction’, including military censorship. He had ‘no use for the censor’.
Instead, he had spent time with the soldiers in their rest camps and in the military hospitals, and had also made a ‘pilgrimage amongst the ruins of Arras’, which had at one time been one of the most beautiful cities in France, but was ‘now without one complete building’. He had also visited the trenches, where he was given a tin-hat and a gas-mask. He had also personally witnessed, he said, some aerial combat.
Bottomley also gave some details to the Assembly Rooms audience of his visits to Vimy Ridge, Beaumont Hamel, and the Somme area. As the Surrey Comet observed, Bottomley ‘drew a vivid word picture’ and, at the close of his lecture, ‘a number of photographs of the places visited by Mr. Bottomley were projected on the screen’.
The Surbiton Assembly Rooms talk by Bottomley must have been quite a revelation to the people who attended that evening. The public were thirsty for reliable news during the later stages of the Great War, and there is evidence that some people were becoming increasingly cynical and distrustful about what they were reading in the national and local press. Bottomley was able to skilfully create the impression (rightly or wrongly) that he had somehow defied the censors, and was giving his audience a unique and direct eye-witness account of conditions at the Front. It is difficult to discern what was accurate and what was less reliable in his talks, but the Assembly Rooms meeting still provides the historian with an important insight into what was happening at local level in wartime Surbiton, and some useful evidence on the impact a well-known ‘national’ personality could exert.
Bottomley’s lecture at Surbiton also included some comments that reflected his wider patriotic and characteristic message: at one point he referred to ‘the Huns’ as ‘a race of barbarians’, who were capable of ‘hideous’ atrocities. Questioned about the probable end of the war, Bottomley said it ‘began on the Western Front, and it would end there’. In hindsight, the last comment was arguably one of the only truly reliable things Bottomley ever really said.
Michael Page adds: Horation Bottomley also visited Surrey in 1915, addressing a meeting in Guildford on 24 September. He was introduced as ‘England’s War Orator’ and gave a very upbeat and remarkably inaccurate assessment of the situation at that time, confidently stating that ‘as far as the theatre of war was concerned on the western front we have the Germans absolutely at our mercy’. He ended his speech, by stating that it was his belief that the war was part of God’s masterplan for the Anglo-Saxon peoples, who, once they had been proved to be worthy, would lead mankind into a future Golden age.