Shropshire Star

Sensational trial of England's "greatest hypocrite"

Bottomley v Bigland, the hottest ticket in town, and one of the most sensational trials ever held in a Shropshire court.

Fraudster MP Horatio Bottomley, whose downfall was precipitated by a sensational Shropshire court case.

And one of the most consequential too, as it precipitated the downfall of a national figure – Horatio Bottomley, MP, businessman, press magnate, orator, tub-thumping patriot... and swindler.

Fraudster MP Horatio Bottomley, whose downfall was precipitated by a sensational Shropshire court case.

Which, as Bottomley had brought the case against his former associate Reuben Bigland, counts as a spectacular own goal.

The venue was Shropshire Assizes, in the old Shirehall in The Square at Shrewsbury, and such was the interest that hundreds of applications for seats had to be turned down and there was a queue for the few that were still left as the trial opened on Friday, February 17, 1922.

It was a case that made headlines around the world.

The old Shirehall – seen here in 1968 – was home to Shropshire Assizes.

Reuben Bigland, the defendant, was accused of inciting three people to extort money from Bottomley in Wellington during the Wrekin bye-election in November 1920, in which a pro-Bottomley candidate was standing.

However the extraordinary evidence which unfolded created a sensation. It was devastating for Bottomley, a charismatic figure with, to say the least, a highly chequered past. One of his money-making schemes was the Victory Bonds Club launched in 1919 in which subscribers bought shares for £1 each and were in with a chance of receiving big cash prizes.

The substance of the prosecution was that Bigland had approached three people, who were working under Bottomley in support of Independent candidate Major General Sir Charles Townshend, a few days before the poll at The Wrekin with threats of spreading defamatory information about Bottomley.

To one Thomas Phillips he had allegedly said: "You tell Bottomley I shall flood the place with pamphlets unless he makes it worth my while not to do so."

Bigland, a Birmingham printer, flatly denied the allegations. He had known Bottomley since 1912, and they had worked together on his schemes but he had become guilt-stricken when it became apparent that he was in league with a crook and, to clear his conscience, had gone to meet Bottomley at the Charlton Hotel in Wellington with the intention of handing back a dodgy £1,000 he had received.

He had been involved in the printing for Bottomley's war savings scheme, which offered a first prize of £2,500, second prize of £1,500, and third prize of £1,000.

Bigland told the court that in 1918 Bottomley had owed him about £500.

"For the money I owe you and for services rendered, you shall have a third prize in War Stock Combination," Bottomley told him.

For cover-up purposes the £1,000 win was arranged in the name of Bigland's niece, a Miss Saunders. Bottomley arranged for someone in London to win the first prize and a soldier in the trenches, second.

The "services rendered" element, the court was told, had been introducing Bottomley to a man named John Greeny. The arrangement was that Bigland would publish a scurrilous pamphlet about Bottomley, and that Greeny would take the rap when Bottomley sued for libel.

"Bottomley said he wanted to get a verdict in the law courts to frighten everyone else from doing such a thing," Bigland said.

Mr Justice Darling – who had sat on that libel case and had summed up in Bottomley's favour – asked: "You mean that Greeny agreed to lose that action?"

Witness: "Yes. He agreed to put in a nominal defence so that really Bottomley would only have to address the jury as to damages. Bottomley got a verdict for £500, but really he paid £100 and costs to Mr Greeny."

Bigland went on to say he went to Wellington to tell Bottomley that he intended to give himself up.

Cross-examined, he said he had been "mixed up with England's greatest humbug and hypocrite."

In his summing up Mr Justice Darling, who had been so favourable to Bottomley in the previous libel case, clearly now had the scales drop from his eyes. He held up the winning ticket of Bigland's niece.

"If Bigland had come before you and told this story with nothing to support it, then it was indeed a 'cock and bull' story. But there is no 'cock and bull' story about these exhibits," he told the jury.

Bottomley had gone to great lengths to avoid going into the witness box – which would have meant he would have been cross-examined on oath – and the judge damningly highlighted that fact.

The jury retired for just two minutes before returning with a verdict declaring Bigland not guilty.

In contrast, Bottomley's downfall was assured. In May he appeared at the Old Bailey on 23 charges. There the jury took only 25 minutes to find him guilty.

Describing them as heartless frauds against people who had trusted him, the judge sentenced him to seven years' penal servitude.

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