Episode 14 - The Bad, The Worst, and The Stupid (Naughty Englishmen Week)
Updated: Apr 19
Sam's Episode Notes: Basil Zaharoff and Perfidious Albion (la perfide albion) - Acts of treachery or self-serving moral duplicity by British governments, rulers or agents. Essentially, British dickheadedness. Honourable mentions today go to William Melville, Queen Victoria's spymaster who nearly blew her up in a plot to arrest Irish Fenian dissidents. But I don't want to say too much because I want to talk about him in future podcasts. It was a really close run thing on who to talk about, BUT I've chosen the original lord of war, Basil Zaharoff, known to his friends as ZedZed: A Greek salesman working for Britain's Vickers arms company who essentially ramped up WW1 and became an absolutely key figure in international politics both for his own benefit, his employer's, and Britain and France's as well. Basil Zaharoff was intimately tied to London and Paris for much of his life, but he was born in the town of Mugla in south-western Turkey in 1849. And very quickly grew up to be a grade A fucker of very few morals. His first jobs were as a brothel hawker, touting girls in the street, and an official arsonist for the Constantinople fire service. Yes, they were corrupt enough to have fire starters on tap to burn down the mansions of the wealthy and then charge extortionate sums to put out the fires and save or steal the family silverware. As he grew older he moved between Britain, where he was a trader of various sorts and quite often stole his own goods, and the US, where he invested in railroads. And married local women in both simultaneously – a builders daughter in Britain and, posing as variously a count or prince in the US, a New York heiress. So, having married in Britain, he's now a British citizen and ready for a life in persuit of perfidious albion. So it was no surprise that a man of such high calibre very quickly got involved in arms dealing, and very quickly got a reputation for being very, very good at it, by being very, very bad. His first job was for a Swedish arms company, Nordfelt. Where he did two bastard things. Nordfelt had two bad inventions. The first was a ridiculous 10-barelled machine gun – which went head to head with the American Hirmam Maxim's machine gun in 1886-1889. The maxim gun was far, far better. Lighter, simpler, cheaper. But it was also sabotaged by Basil's agents and broke in trials, whilst he launched a PR campaign among European militaries to discredit the weapon as badly made, expensive and too difficult to use. Eventually, Nordfelt bought out Maxim, and a couple of years after that Vickers, one of the world's biggest arms makers, bought out that company, at which point the supposed problems with the gun all disappeared and it was flogged at huge profit all over the world. The second was one of the world's first torpedo-firing submarines, developed in around 1886. And it was a death trap. It was steam powered and so hot inside that the crews would faint within minutes, it couldn't steer properly, and had a nasty habit of flipping upside down when firing its torpedoes. Of course, he touted it as a wonder weapon. So what did he do? He told the Greeks the Ottomans had bought one, so they needed to buy one. He then told the Ottomans that the Greeks had bought two, so they needed two. He then sold another to the Greeks before going to the Russians and telling them about this new and dangerous arms race on the black sea. And they bought two. At the same time, a Spanish engineer, Isaac Peral, developed a working submarine which solved all of these problems. Basil intercepted the design from the Spanish naval HQ and, when Peral refused to sell him the design, set about sabotaging both the submarine, and Peral. Four seperate sabotages were uncovered and overcome, so instead Basil bought a Spanish arms company and newspaper, started shagging the local heiresses to get their ears, and used this position of power to launch a huge PR campaign against Peral and the submarine, forcing the Spanish to drop the invention. Just to seal the dickish-move deal, Basil's arms company sold faulty, useless weapons to the Spanish, and lobbied for Vickers to be given sole rights to build the Spanish navy. So, now a major salesman within Vickers, Basil had free reign to continue his tactic of scaring both sides of a conflict into buying weapons from him by drumming up conspiracy theories and resentment. He bought banks and newspapers throughout Europe to launch PR campaigns and issue loans to buy guns. In fact, in the run up to WW1, Zaharoff had press releases printed in both Germany and France, saying that the weapons the other possessed were far superior and so they needed to make more themselves. The weapons on both sides were the same – being made in local French and German factories which were owned by Vickers, and making copies of the same guns. And, of course, all this time he was feeding back information from his contracts in the central powers to the Governments in Britain and France, acting not only as a war provocateur, but also running a huge network of spies and agents in the military headquarters of all the major powers. He bought himself fame and prestige by building retirement homes for sailors and offering 'war widow' packages to politicians in Britain and France. Often in the form of a large envelope of cash left on a politicians' desk. He became a trusted confidant of the allied leadership, ferrying secret messages between George V (who hated him but trusted him), prime minister Lloyd George, and the French Prime Minister, Clemenceau. It's rumoured his agents knew so much about the central powers plans in WW1 that he was consulted before any major allied assault. Probably his most audacious act in WW1 was to turn Greece to the allied side as a buffer against the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary. Given that King Constantine of Greece was the brother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm, and Greece geographically was slap bang between two major central powers, that seemed pretty unlikely. But by setting up several newspapers and press agencies within Greece to publish propaganda favourable to the allies, in just a few months he managed to force the royals to abdicate in favour of more agreeable leadership. He actually tried to buy the Ottomans out of WW1, travelling to Switzerland with £10 million in cash on behalf of Lloyd George in 1917 – but was intercepted at the border and refused entry. In fact, Zaharoff acted as Britain's agent in Greece following WW1, encouraging the 1919-1922 war in which Greece, which had been promised lands in Turkey by Britain at the hands of Zaharoff, invaded and was absolutely crushed. He was made a Knight Grand Cross for his clandestine services to Britain in WW1 after writing to the British government to demand “chocolate for Zedzed”, which for some reason is a phrase which just makes my skin crawl – after which he styled himself Sir Basil. Which he shouldn't have been allowed to do because he also had French citizenship. He had other dealings in his life – running the Monte Carlo casino in return for favourable terms for Monte Carlo in the Treaty of Versailles, investing in oil and aviation and donating huge amounts to various universities, but it's the dirty work of this dirty man that will go down in the history books. He died aged 87 in November 1936.
Tom's notes: John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton
“English Eccentrics and Eccentricities”, by John Timbs, 1866
· “The Women-Hating Cavendish”
o “He was an excellent mathematician, electrician, astronomer, and geologist; and as alchemist shot far ahead of his contemporaries. But he was a sort of methodical recluse, and an enormous fortune left him by his uncle did little to change his habits. His shyness and aversion to society bordered on disease.”
o Couldn’t make eye contact with anyone
o “In all his habits he was punctiliously regular”
· “Fat Folks, Lambert and Bright”
o Lambert; 52 stone at his death (330kgs)
§ very strong.
§ “he was able to kick to the height of seven feet, standing on one leg”
§ Excellent swimmer who could swim with 2 men on his back
§ He had to have a special carriage made for him to travel to London
o Goes on to refer to many other fat people
· “Epitaphs on Fat Folks”
Therefore, good people, here 'tis seen,
You plainly may see here,
That fat men sooner die than lean,
Witness Fat Johnny Holder.
· “Count Boruwlaski, the Polish Dwarf”
“The Spendthrift Squire of Halston”
“In the great civil war, Mytton of Halston was one of the few Shropshire gentlemen who joined the Parliamentary standard. From this gallant and upright Parliamentarian, the fifth in descent was John Mytton, the eccentric, wasteful, dissipated, open-hearted, open-handed Squire of Halston, in whose day and by whose wanton extravagance and folly, a time-honoured family and a noble estate, the inheritance of five hundred years, was recklessly destroyed.”
· Born 1796
· Father died when he was 18 months old
· John Mytton had to wait 20 years until he could take his inheritance
o Wealth accumulated massively in this time
o Estate worth 10,000GBP per year – Just under 1 million
· As a child; a scapegrace
o Expelled from Westminster and Harrow schools, once for fighting a teacher
o Home tutored but he was a git; once put a horse in his tutor’s room
o Managed to get places at 2 universities but did nothing at them
§ 3 cases of port sent to Cambridge
· Aged 19, joined the 9th Hussars in France
o Never saw fighting
o Just gambled badly!
· 1818 married daughter of Sir Thomas Tyrrwhitt Jones of Stanley Hall
o She died in 1820
o “After his wife's decease, the wayward extravagance which marked the career of John Mytton has probably no parallel”
o He married again but this ended very quickly as his wife ran off
· He decided to go into politics and became the MP for Shrewsbury by giving his constituent 10 GBP to vote for him!
o He found politics very boring and so gave up after one visit to parliament
· It looks as if at this point Mytton sold land to pay off debts
o An advisors tells him that we can save his Shrewsbury Estate if he just lives off 6,000 GBPs per year.
o Mytton told him this was impossible!
· To escape his debtors, he fled to Calais
o A biographer of Mytton, a chap called Nimrod, wrote:
o But what did I see before me—the active, vigorous, well-shapen John Mytton, whom I had left some years back in Shropshire? Oh, no; compared with him, 'twas the reed shaken by the wind; there stood before me a round-shouldered, decrepit, tottering, old-young man, if I may be allowed such a term, and so bloated by drink! But there was a worse sight than this—there was a mind as well as a body in ruins; the one had partaken of the injury done to the other; and it was at once apparent that the whole was a wreck. In fact, he was a melancholy spectacle of fallen man."
· He ended up in a French prison, then was transferred to an English prison and died at the age of 38
· In the last 15 years of his life, he squandered the equivalent of 40 million pounds
So how did he blow all of this money?
· Mytton would go duck shooting and often took of all of his clothes in the excitement of the chase despite dreadful weather
· He once invited a doctor and clergyman around and in the evening when they left my carriage, he dressed up as a highwayman, told them to ‘stand or deliver’ and fired a blank shot at them
o On another occasion he tried to jump a tollgate with a horse and carriage, unsurprisingly this failed
· He once entered his drawing room to entertain guests in full hunting gear riding a bear, the bear bit him on the calf when he used the stirrups to speed him up. The bear then attacked a servant.
o On another occasion a friend woke up from a drinking session with two bulldogs and a bear staring at him in his bedroom
· On one of the few occasions that he won money gambling, he was journeying home counting his winnings when a carriage window opened and blew all of his money out into the rainy night
o He once fought for 20 rounds with a miner in a bareknuckle fight because he had disturbed his hunt
o He also once found a beggar on a walk on his estate, he swapped clothes with him and returned to his house, begged for food and got into a fight with his servants
· One evening he was beset by hiccups. So he set alight to his cotton shirt to frighten the hiccups away. He quickly went up in a blaze and had to be put out by 2 people who happened to hear his cries.
· For a bet, he rode his horse into the Bedford Hotel in Leamington Spa, up the grand staircase and then jumped over diners and out of a window
o Another horse was killed after he was given a whole bottle of port
o His favourite horse was allowed to roam freely around Halston Hall
· He had 2000 dogs, his favourites fed on steak and champagne
o He bred dogs for fighting and was often seen fighting his dogs himself