HMS Dreadnought was the pride of the British Navy and in 1910 it was visited by a group of foreign dignitaries, including the Emperor of Abyssinia who inspected the fleet and bestowed medals on several of the officers.
The visit might have been soon forgotten except that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax dreamed up by the king of pranksters Horace de Vere Cole.
Cole was born at Castle Blarney in Ireland in 1881 so he can be said to have ‘kissed the Blarney Stone’ at a very tender age. His father’s family was wealthy since his grandfather, William Henry Cole, had made a fortune in the American quinine trade.
That wealth bought the Coles a mansion in London, an estate in Berkshire and a place in society and Cole’s father, a major in 3rd Dragoon Guards was duly lined up to marry the aristocratic Isabel Stracey. Instead, he chose to marry the Irish beauty Mary de Vere.
Cole contracted diphtheria when he was ten years old and as a result, his hearing was seriously impaired. He learned to hide his disability with bluster and ever more outrageous behaviour. And when his father died of cholera soon after, his mother remarried and the young Cole was packed off to Eton school.
He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he began his long career as a practical joker. Reading that the Sultan of Zanzibar was in the country, he sent a telegram to the Mayor saying that the Sultan would be visiting Cambridge. Dressed in exotic robes and make-up, Cole and his friend Adrian Stephen found a full civic greeting party on the platform when they arrived at the station.
The council laid on a civic reception and a tour of the university for the Sultan played by Stephen with Cole translating their gibberish language as his bilingual uncle. The pair nearly came unstuck when an elderly lady, who had once been a missionary, asked to speak to the Sultan in his native tongue. Cole averted disaster by explaining that she could only address the Sultan if she became part of his harem.
This was a dress rehearsal for the Dreadnought hoax that was to follow several years later. The pride of the Edwardian fleet was anchored off Weymouth when Admiral Sir William May received a signal from the Admiralty informing him that the Emperor of Abyssinia and his party would shortly be arriving for an inspection of his ship. The signal was genuine but only because Cole had duped the Admiralty by posing as an official from the Foreign Office.
Cole’s gang of imposters duly arrived and again included his friend Adrian Stephen and Stephen’s sister, the young Virginia Woolf wearing a fake beard. Again there was a great civic reception and a full guard of honour awaiting them.
The party was guided through the protocol by Cole playing the part of the Foreign Office attaché Herbert Cholmondely while Stephen translated the words of welcome into the basic Swahili he had practised beforehand.
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!’
The truth didn’t come out until a few weeks later when Cole gave details to the Daily Mirror which published the photo above taken before the gang set off from London. The Royal Navy became a laughing stock and ‘Bunga! Bunga!’ a music hall joke.
Cole was an incorrigible practical joker throughout his life and other pranks he played included:
- Challenging well-known people to a street race then as they took the lead shouting ‘Stop thief!’ until they were arrested.
- Giving away free theatre tickets to bald-headed men whose scalps would spell out a rude word when seen from above.
- Posing as Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald who he closely resembled and lecturing groups of workers on the evils of socialism.
- Organising parties where all the guests discovered that the one thing they had in common was the word ‘bottom’ in their surnames.
- Driving around London in a taxi with a naked tailor’s dummy and beating it around the head whenever he spotted a policeman while shouting ‘ungrateful hussy!’
- Secretly scattering manure around St Mark’s Square in Venice leaving the locals wondering how a city with no horses could have acquired such detritus.
- Selling the title and regalia of the crown of Croatia to an American millionaire.
On the face of it, Cole was very well connected. His brother-in-law was the future Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain but his outrageous behaviour did not endear him to the establishment. His pranks did not come cheap either – the Dreadnought hoax alone was said to have cost him £5,000, or £285,300 in today’s money – and he funded them by selling his Berkshire estate.
Cole married twice but not happily. His first wife eloped with a waiter and his second gave birth to a daughter fathered by the artist Augustus John. Thanks to poor financial decisions and the economic crash of the 1920s Cole found himself impoverished and forced to rely on the charity of his family while living with his daughter in the south of France where he died of a cardiac arrest in 1936.