In 1910, one of the most elaborate pranks to date was successfully played against the British Navy. Irishman and professional prankster, William Horace de Vere Cole, devised a plan in which he and others pretended to be Abyssinian (or Ethiopian) royalty, to secure a visit to the Royal Navy ship, HMS Dreadnought.
For the prank, Cole himself disguised himself as a prince, with others acting as his entourage. Many participants painted their faces to appear as ethnic Ethiopians. With them, Virginia Woolfe – yes this Virginia Woolfe – was present and dressed as a man.
The event is known today as the Dreadnought Hoax and is Cole’s most successful prank to date. Years later, he played pranks to discredit or embarrass political leaders, or just for fun. For example, on his honeymoon, he allegedly dumped horse manure in a town accessible only by boat. (We can only assume that the unsuspecting woman knew what she was getting herself into.)
It’s also worth noting that Cole made little, if any, money from his pranks. Coming from a wealthy family, he focused on his love of pranks rather than finding work or finishing his education. He served in the Yorkshire Hussars, an auxiliary of the British army during the Second Boer War. However, he was shot and taken out of the military due to his injury. Cole also donated his earnings to War Widows.
The Dreadnought Hoax
Cole invited five friends to play a part in the prank. Adrian Stephen and his sister Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolfe), Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and Duncan Grant. Willy Clarkson, stage costume designer and professional makeup artist, was asked to get them ready for the big event.
Cole in a portrait from the early 1900s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The group wore thick and elaborate evening dresses and covered their faces with dark makeup to look authentically Ethiopian. It is mentioned that the group avoided all food or drink for fear of spoiling their makeup.
The Dreadnought was chosen because it was commanded by the Stephens’ cousin. In the end, he didn’t recognize any of them.
A telegram was sent to the Dreadnaught after Cole found a post office with all the employees. He thought they could get through more easily, with fewer questions asked.
The message read: “Prince Makalen of Abbysin [sic] and more arrive at 4:20 am today in Weymouth. He wishes to see Dreadnought. Please make arrangements to meet them on arrival. And so, the plan went into action.
The group arrived at Dreadnaught and received a complex tour. The Royal Navy attempted to fly an Ethiopian flag but did not have one on hand. Instead, they flaunted a Zanzibar flag and played their national anthem.
Throughout the prank, Cole and all went to ridiculous efforts, such as asking for prayer rugs, speaking in made-up words, and presenting bogus military honors. We can only assume that the Royal Navy was either deeply naive or extremely polite.
Either way, rumor of the prank spread when Cole himself contacted the media and sent their picture to the Daily Mirror. The Royal Navy was heavily mocked for falling into the trap. Newspapers wrote articles about their ignorance, cartoons made fun of the event, and more. Others even sent mocking telegrams directly to the ship. Other reports have shown how dangerous the event was, with potential enemies able to gain passage aboard the ship and learn its abilities.
The Navy demanded arrests, but ultimately no crime was found.
Decades later, Virginia Woolfe opened up about the event, confirming many details of the hoax.