Photo of the Day

The front page of the Daily Mirror.  In what became known as “The Dreadnought Hoax,” the six convinced the Dreadnought’s officers that they were the “Emperor of Abyssinia” (now Ethiopia) and his entourage, and they were received with high honours.


The Dreadnought Hoax

In 1915 during the First World War, HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank a German submarine—the only battleship ever to do so. Among the telegrams of congratulation was one that read “BUNGA BUNGA”

One of the lighter moments of Virginia Woolf’s life is when she took part in a very public practical joke cooked up by her brother Adrian Stephen and his friend and classmate Horace Cole. On February 10, 1910, the three of them, along with three other friends, dressed up as a group of foreign diplomats from Abyssinia and British Foreign Office officials. The six disguised friends requested to be taken on a tour of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the most important warship in England at the time.  The captain and crew of the ship were fooled, and they showed Woolf and company the secret areas of the ship. The group even imitated the foreign language!  Horace could not let the joke end there.  He alerted the press about what they had done, and this photograph was printed in the newspaper.

February 7th, 1910 was the date for one of the most famous practical jokes in British military history.

Renowned prankster Horace de Vere Cole alongside his motley crew of writers and artists including Virginia Woolf decided to answer a request from his friend – an officer aboard HMS Hawke – to hoax their fierce rivals on HMS Dreadnought.

Virginia explained:

“The officers of the Hawke and the Dreadnought had a feud. … And Cole’s friend who was on the Hawke had come to Cole, and said to him, ‘You’re a great hand at hoaxing people; couldn’t you do something to pull the leg of the Dreadnought?”

Horace obliged.

Together, Cole and company masqueraded in Abyssinian dress coupled with skin darkened and turbans to fool the Captain, crew and Commander-in-chief of the Battleship HMS Dreadnought.

The Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage were received with full ceremonial pomp on the deck of the Royal Navy flagship, with sailors standing to attention to receive the Prince.

The Abyssinian party acknowledged the greeting with bows as they shuffled onto the ship, dressed in their long, flowing robes, and for the next forty minutes, the Commander gave them a guided tour of the vessel.

The Abyssinians paused at each new marvel while murmuring the appreciative phrase “Bunga, Bunga!” in their native tongue.

The group inspected the fleet. To show their appreciation, they communicated in a gibberish of words drawn from Latin and Greek; they asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers.

In February 1910, one Herbert Cholmondesly of HMFO demanded a special train from London’s Paddington Station to convey four Abyssinian princes to Weymouth docks. In fact, the troupe who boarded HMS Dreadnought that morning were pranksters, recruited by the noted adventurer William Horace de Vere Cole, the ‘Cholmondesly of the FO’. Under the elaborate disguises as African potentates were novelist Virginia Woolf, sportsman Anthony Buxton, artist Duncan Grant and a judge’s son Guy Ridley. Their interpreter was Woolf’s brother Adrian. Red carpet and a guard of honour awaited them at Weymouth, with Admiral Sir William May himself welcoming the company.

“The Emperor of Abyssinia” and his suite. From left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley.

The Dreadnought Hoax was a practical joke pulled by Horace de Vere Cole in 1910. Cole tricked the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, the warship HMS Dreadnought, to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals. The hoax drew attention in Britain to the emergence of the Bloomsbury Group, among whom some of Cole’s collaborators numbered. The hoax was a repeat of a similar impersonation which Cole and Adrian Stephen had organised while they were students at Cambridge in 1905.

Cole and Adrian Stephen sought diversion while they were students at Cambridge. After a series of minor hoaxes, they decided to do something more elaborate. Stephen wanted to take command of a platoon of German soldiers and lead them across the French frontier to cause an incident like the Saverne Affair or the Captain of Köpenick. Cole’s idea was more feasible — to pose as the Sultan of Zanzibar and make a state visit to Cambridge.

The Sultan was actually visiting England at the time and details had been published in the newspapers. A telegram was sent to the Mayor, ostensibly from a government official. Cole, Stephen and three other friends then dressed up in robes and turbans and arrived at the station where they were met by the Town Clerk who took them to an official reception by the Mayor at the Guildhall.

After the reception, charity bazaar and tour of the sights, they were taken back to the station, where they made their escape. The story was then given to the Daily Mail by Cole and so became famous. The Mayor wanted the student sent down but was persuaded by the Vice-Chancellor that this would damage his reputation further.

The Dreadnought Hoax was a similar impersonation which was suggested to Cole by a friend who was an officer on HMS Hawke to hoax their rivals on HMS Dreadnought, including Commander Willie Fisher — the Stephens’ cousin — who was on the staff of the Admiral. As Virginia Woolf later recounted:

“In those days the young officers had a gay time. They were always up to some lark, and one of their chief occupations it seemed was to play jokes on each other. There were a great many rivalries and intrigues in the Navy. The officers like scoring off each other. And the officers of the Hawke and the Dreadnought had a feud. … And Cole’s friend who was on the Hawke had come to Cole, and said to him, ‘You’re a great hand at hoaxing people; couldn’t you do something to pull the leg of the Dreadnought?'”

HMS Hawke

This involved Cole and five friends — writer Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf), her brother Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and artist Duncan Grant — who had themselves disguised by Willy Clarkson with skin darkeners and turbans to resemble members of the Abyssinian royal family. The main limitation of the disguises was that the “Royals” could not eat anything or their makeup would be ruined. Adrian Stephen took the role of “interpreter.”

On 7 February 1910, the hoax was set in motion. Cole organised for an accomplice to send a telegram to HMS Dreadnought which was then moored in Portland, Dorset. The message said that the ship must be prepared for the visit of a group of princes from Abyssinia and was purportedly signed by Foreign Office Undersecretary Sir Charles Hardinge.

Cole with his entourage went to London’s Paddington station where Cole claimed that he was “Herbert Cholmondeley” of the UK Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth; the stationmaster arranged a VIP coach. In Weymouth, the Navy welcomed the princes with an honour guard. An Abyssinian flag was not found, so the Navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar’s national anthem.

The group inspected the fleet. To show their appreciation, they communicated in a gibberish of words drawn from Latin and Greek; they asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers. Commander Fisher failed to recognise either of his cousins.

When rain threatened their make-ups, the ‘princes’ requested the permission to inspect the ship. Inside, they overacted to a ludicrous degree: they handed out visiting cards printed in Swahili. Being at a loss of what to say, Buxton improvised Virgil’s Aeneid in a strange accent, lest the Navy recognised Latin. They asked for prayer mats at sunset and tried to bestow Abyssinian honours on senior officers. ‘Bunga-Bunga,’ they exclaimed whenever they were shown some great aspect of the ship; this except Virginia Woolf who had to try hard to disguise her womanish voice.

Yet, their disguises were so good that an officer who knew both Woolf and Cole previously failed to recognise either. They had another close shave when Buxton sneezed and one-half of his moustache flew off, but he stuck it back again before anyone noticed.

In a letter, Cole wrote to a friend that the hoax was “glorious” and “shriekingly funny.” The group intended to mock what they saw as an outmoded Victorian imperialism, and they succeeded, at least in the popular press. The Mirror published the cartoon above and the Royal Navy was a laughingstock for weeks afterwards.

The self-assured man from the F.O. (de Vere Cole) held his nerve and steered the Abyssinian delegation through all the protocol while Stephen did his best to translate the words of welcome into the rudimentary Swahili he had been rehearsing. (Although when the moment came, he forgot his Swahili and resorted to mispronouncing chunks of Latin and Greek dredged up from his student days.)

The naval top brass suspected nothing and the royal guests were duly ushered aboard for a full tour of the ship and its famous guns. In response to descriptions of the Dreadnought’s awesome firepower, the visitors reportedly nodded appreciatively and replied: ‘Bunga! Bunga!’

Things could have come unstuck when they were offered an invitation to lunch, but Adrian Stephen hastily explained that food would be unacceptable on religious grounds.

Adrian and Virginia also found themselves shaking hands with their cousin, who was an officer on the ship, but even he failed to recognize them through their disguises.

After a few hours, Adrian declared the state visit was over and asked to be taken back to Weymouth. During the ride home, the pranksters decided not to tell the press about their little joke in order to spare the navy any further embarrassment. The next day, Cole wrote a letter to a friend praising the naval officers:

“They were tremendously polite and nice – couldn’t have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality.”

Always the attention-seeker, Cole decided to the press anyway without telling the others.

The next day Cole sent the pictures and the details of his hoax (which cost him some 4,000 pounds) to the Daily Mail. It was anonymous, of course, but the Parliament and the public were outraged at this audacity: Dreadnought was, after all, the royal navy’s latest and best ship. When the identities were finally revealed, it contributed greatly to the fame of Woolf’s nascent Bloomsbery Group.

Upon learning that a young woman had taken part in the prank, the press discovered Virginia’s identity, as well as the identity of the others, and appeared at their homes asking for interviews, which they granted. The public fascination with the hoax lasted a few weeks before it eventually died down.

One article, published in the Evening Post in New Zealand in April of 1910, states that two unnamed hoaxers were caned, yet according to a 2005 article in the Guardian, only Duncan Grant was caned.

The prank spurred the British military to tighten restrictions on all future state visits by foreign ambassadors.

The only loser from this affair, it appeared, was the Abyssinian Emperor Menelik II. When he visited the country next, he was greeted by the howlers of ‘Bunga, Bunga’ and denied the permission to visit any ship by the cautious navy which didn’t want a repeat of the embarrassing affair.

Royal Navy officers are reported as taking revenge, in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 12 May 1910.

Born into a wealthy Anglo- Irish family in 1881, the young de Vere Cole was educated at Eton and went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he pulled off his first great hoax.
On reading that the Sultan of Zanzibar was in Britain, he sent a telegram to the mayor’s office informing him that His Majesty would shortly be visiting Cambridge. Dressed in exotic robes and make-up, de Vere Cole and his friend Adrian Stephen found a full civic greeting party on the platform when they arrived at Cambridge station at the designated time.

The council laid on a civic reception and a tour of the university for the Sultan (played by Stephen) and the bilingual uncle serving as his translator (de Vere Cole). The hoaxers even enjoyed a guided tour of their own college before they nearly came unstuck. An elderly lady, who had once been a missionary, wished to speak to the Sultan in his native tongue.

The quick-thinking de Vere Cole averted disaster by explaining that she could only address the Sultan if she became part of his harem. The joke lasted all the way back to the station, where the two frauds legged it onto the next train to London. Some might have hung up their hoaxing boots after such a triumph. But for de Vere Cole, it was merely the start of a life as a hoaxer.
The truth took some weeks to emerge. When it did, the Admiralty was appalled as the Royal Navy became a national laughing stock and ‘Bunga! Bunga!’ became a music hall joke. It was even shouted at the real Emperor of Abyssinia when the poor man arrived in Britain soon afterwards.

By February 12 the British newspapers were full of the story of the stunt. “Bunga Bungle!” the Western Daily Mercury trumpeted.  One newspaper suggested that the Dreadnought change its name to the Abyssinian.

Humiliated and furious, the Navy sent the warship out to sea until the episode blew over. It wanted to bring formal charges against the pranksters but dropped the idea for fear that it would simply attract more publicity to the case. Finally, it settled on a more informal punishment. In the style of British boarding schools, the participants (though not Virginia Stephen) were each symbolically tapped on their buttocks with a cane. None of the participants went on to perpetrate any more hoaxes except for Cole, who was known throughout his life as an inveterate prankster.

“Prince Musaka Ali and his suite” were in fact students (L-R) Adrian Stephen, Robert Bowen Colthurst, Horace Cole, Leland Buxton and ‘Drummer’ Howard. In this guise, they hoaxed the Mayor and citizens of Cambridge.

At the time, Britain was locked in an arms race with Germany which wanted to build a fleet of battleships to rival the English Dreadnought Class ships.

Secrecy was paramount if Germany was to be denied access to the ship designs. Imagine the horror of top brass then when it was revealed that the battleship HMS Dreadnought had been fooled into hosting a fake State Visit in which a bunch of upper-class pranksters pretended to be Abyssinian princes.

News of The Dreadnought Hoax was broken by the newspaper “The princes’ were shown everything,” the paper gushed. “At every fresh sight, they murmured in chorus ‘Bunga Bunga’ which was interpreted as ‘Isn’t it lovely?’”

Horace de Vere Cole was one the world’s greatest ever prankster. Born into great wealth and privilege, Cole dedicated his life to pricking pomposity in other people through a series of extraordinary jokes and hoaxes.

It was hardly an auspicious start when de Vere Cole could not resist a practical joke while on honeymoon in Venice.

Abandoning his new wife one night, he travelled to the mainland to purchase a load of manure which he then sprinkled around St Mark’s Square under cover of darkness.

On April Fools’ Day, 1919, the citizens of Venice, Italy (you know, the city with canals instead of streets), woke up to find horse droppings scattered on the pavement of the Piazza di San Marco.

Venice awoke to the perplexing question of how a city with no horses could have acquired such detritus. That puzzled the Venetians a bit, that did, and somewhere along the Piazza sat one Horace de Vere Cole, chuckling to himself.

The incorrigible Horace de Vere Cole. Like his exotic name, there was nothing conventional about Horace. Born to near Blarney Castle in Ireland, he left school early to fight in the Boer War.

Within weeks of arriving in South Africa, he was shot and badly wounded. Surviving the war against the odds, as well as suffering severe deafness, the result of a childhood illness, gave Horace his devil-may-care attitude and taste for elaborate practical jokes.

He also rebelled against his posh upbringing, becoming a socialist and fierce critic of anyone who took themselves too seriously or wielded authority unfairly. His stated aim was to prick the pompous and the vain. In a world not unlike our own, MPs, bishops and petty town hall officials were all favourite and deserving targets of his pranks. The mayor of Cambridge, for instance, set detectives on Horace after he was duped, while the officers of HMS Dreadnought retaliated by caning him in a London street.

The celebrity status he earned at Cambridge set the course of Horace’s life. It isolated him from his upper-class family (one uncle was Governor of the Bank of England and his sister married future prime minister Neville Chamberlain), throwing him instead into the seedy world of pre-war London clubs. The denizens of this world included music hall artistes and bohemian painters like Augustus John who later fathered a child by Horace’s wife.

Through his friendship with novelist Virginia Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen, an accomplice in his Cambridge exploits, Horace also knew many of the Bloomsbury set of artists and writers such as Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey. Horace’s poetry was more than accomplished and, apart from practical joking, was the only occupation he pursued.

Virginia Woolf, Adrian Stephen and  Duncan Grant all joined Horace for the  Dreadnought Hoax, motivated as they were by a love of risk-taking and a desire to ridicule a Royal Navy then at its height of power and influence. Their fancy dress and elaborate make-up (even Virginia posed as a black man and wore a false beard) was provided by the same theatrical costumier in London who had prepared the “Sultan of Zanzibar” and his entourage. The colourful troupe were then photographed for posterity before embarking by train for Weymouth in Dorset where HMS Dreadnought was moored. Horace did not travel in costume, deciding instead to act as the princes’ diplomatic escort with furled umbrella and tailcoat. His typical masterstroke was to arrange for a telegram, purportedly from the Foreign Office, to be sent from London to the Admiral of the Fleet in Weymouth only an hour before the Abyssinians arrived, thus giving the flustered officer little time to check the message’s authenticity.

News of the hoax caused a sensation and fiercely divided opinion. In a parallel with today, the government was trying to make big budget cuts and the building of battleships was a hot topic for debate.

William Horace de Vere Cole’s pranks are legendary. The most well-known is probably the Dreadnought hoax of 1910, in which Cole and five friends (including a young Virginia Woolf) disguised themselves as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his posse, and were given a full VIP tour of the British warship, the H.M.S. Dreadnought.

The late Horace de Vere Cole did not merely make a few councillors squirm. The embarrassment which he caused over several decades was to reverberate through academia, the Admiralty and right up to Downing Street itself.

Cole took every seat in the stalls at a pretentious and terrible play and stood in the street handing out free theatre tickets to a series of extremely bald passers-by giving them all free tickets. The performance was wrecked because as soon as the lights went up, the circles and the gallery saw one short and expressive word spelt out by the baldheads of strategically placed men in the stalls.

When viewed from the dress circle, the assembly of shiny bald heads in the carefully chosen seats clearly spelt out an expletive – complete with a dot over the ‘i’.

Other gags are timeless classics. Cole often targeted his peers. For example, playing on the innate good manners of the well-bred English gent… Horace’s personal favourite was the often repeated string joke when posing as a road surveyor, he would persuade two City businessmen to hold opposite ends of a piece of string around a street corner while he undertook some measurement. Then he would retire to a pub to watch the mounting anger and confusion of his abandoned victims. In a similar vein, he set up a party for people with names like Winterbotham, Ramsbotham, Higginbotham and Boddam-Whettam before slipping away leaving all the “bottoms” to introduce themselves.

He was also fond of spontaneous pranks. When he stumbled on a road crew without a foreman one day, Cole leapt into the breach and directed the men to London’s busy Piccadilly Circus, where he had them excavate a huge trench in the street. A nearby policeman obligingly redirected the heavy downtown traffic all day, and it was several hours before the city noticed the unauthorised hole.

Revelling in his growing notoriety, Horace embarked on a series of pranks and jokes. After one newly elected MP boasted that he couldn’t be arrested, Horace slipped his watch into the politician’s pocket and challenged him to a running race. When the MP pulled ahead, Horace shouted out: “Stop thief! He’s stolen my watch!” causing both of them to be arrested. In the resulting furore, Home Secretary Winston Churchill wryly commented that Horace was “a very dangerous man to his friends.”

With his mane of hair and bristling moustache, Cole was often confused with British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, causing dismay in public when he launched into a fierce attack on Labour Party policy. His own sister Annie married Neville Chamberlain.

Cole would occasionally impersonate prime minister and Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald, giving speeches that contradicted MacDonald’s actual political views.

Later, he capitalised on his resemblance to Ramsay MacDonald by arranging for the Labour leader to be temporarily ‘lost’ in a tax in the London traffic while Cole went to a party meeting in his disguise and gave a speech, telling the workers to work more for less.

A regular prank was to wander the streets with a cow’s udder poking through his fly. At the moment of optimum outrage, he would then produce a pair of scissors and snip off the offending protrusion.

One might expect this sort of jolly japery from, say, a bunch of students during a university rag week. For de Vere Cole, however, it was a lifetime’s work – much to the dismay of his brother-in-law, who was a rising star in the Tory Party at the time.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his private life was a shambles. His first marriage, to an Irish heiress, collapsed in tandem with a disastrous attempt at land speculation in Canada.
When he married again, the joke was on him when his second wife gave birth to a son. The child, it turned out, had been fathered by the artist Augustus John.

His most famous escapade was the “Dreadnought Hoax” in 1910 when Cole led a party of friends, including a youthful Virginia Woolf, on a tour of the Royal Navy’s greatest battleship dressed as Abyssinian princes. The successful hoax sealed Cole’s reputation making him one of the greatest celebrities of his day. The Dreadnought Hoax was rumoured to have cost £5,000, (Horace insisted on real jewels for his “princes”) and a similar amount may have been spent on an elaborate heist to sell the title and royal regalia of the crown of Croatia to an American millionaire. Horace funded his practical jokes with the proceeds from the sale of his mansion in Berkshire but imprudent property speculation, divorce and the financial meltdown of the Twenties destroyed his wealth, forcing Horace to live overseas on the charity of his family.

As the Sultan of Zanzibar

The relentless joker died shortly before he could see his sister, Anne, and her husband – Neville Chamberlain – finally take up residence at No10 Downing Street.

Cooped up in the South of France with his young daughter and second wife Horace tried to write his autobiography but, sadly, it remained uncompleted at the time of his early death in abject poverty in 1936 aged 55 and is now believed lost. Only recently have his remaining letters and papers emerged to reveal a complex and contradictory man whose story offers a fascinating glimpse into the rickety, chaotic and often bizarre world he inhabited.

As things turned out, perhaps Chamberlain would rather have gone down in history as the Prime Minister whose brother-in-law hid an udder in his trousers rather than as the architect of appeasement. We shall never know.

Humiliated and broke, de Vere Cole died of a heart attack in 1936. A year later, his sister and brother in- law entered No10. What a pity for that bleak era in British history that Horace de Vere Cole was not around to lighten the mood.

The Pranks of Horace de Vere Cole – The Museum of Hoaxes

King of the pranksters – the uproarious story of the Prime Minister …

William Horace de Vere Cole –

Privileged prankster who died penniless | Express Yourself | Comment …

The Dreadnought Hoax (1910) – The Museum of Hoaxes

The Dreadnought Hoax: Young Virginia Woolf and Her Bloomsbury …

The Dreadnought Hoax: Young Virginia Woolf and Her Bloomsbury …

The Dreadnought Battleship Hoax – When A Group Of Students …

Virginia Woolf and the Dreadnought Hoax – The Virginia Woolf Blog

How a bearded Virginia Woolf and her band of ‘jolly savages’ hoaxed …

Virginia Woolf and Friends Dress Up as “Abyssinian Princes” and Fool …

Horace de Vere Cole and the Dreadnought Hoax | Stuff You Missed in …

Papers Past | THE DREADNOUGHT HOAX. (New Zealand Herald …

The Dreadnought Hoax | Iconic Photos

BUNGA! BUNGA!–The Dreadnought Hoax | Picture BritainPicture Britain

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.