The Dreadnought Hoax

That’s Virginia Woolf on the left, dressed up as an Abyssinian prince. In 1910 she participated in an elaborate practical joke to trick the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, H.M.S. Dreadnought, to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals.

Arriving by VIP coach, the impostors spoke in Latin, shouted “bunga bunga” at the impressive warship, asked for prayer mats and bestowed “military honors” on the officers. At one point Anthony Buxton sneezed his whiskers off, but he stuck them back on before anyone noticed. When it was over they revealed the hoax by sending a letter and a group photo to the Daily Mirror.

This was, amazingly, a typical day for Horace de Vere Cole (far right), an Edwardian dynamo of practical jokes. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Cole had visited his own college posing as a sultan of Zanzibar. He once impersonated prime minister Ramsay MacDonald at a Labour Party meeting, telling members to work harder for less money. And he later slipped his watch into an MP’s pocket and dared him to run to the nearest corner — then had him arrested for pickpocketing.

He could improvise, too. He once told a group of workmen to dig a hole in the middle of Piccadilly Circus; it took a week for public officials to refill it. And he once shared a taxi with a naked female mannequin; he had the cabbie stop in front of a policeman, opened the door, and banged the dummy’s head on the pavement, shouting, “Ungrateful hussy!”

It’s not recorded whether anyone ever played a joke on him. “Everything is funny,” wrote Will Rogers, “as long as it is happening to Somebody Else.”