The Pranksters and the Great Dreadnought Hoax.

Virginia Woolf, far left, and Horace de Vere, third from left, and their merry group of hoaxers.
Virginia Woolf, far left, and Horace de Vere Cole, third from left, and their merry group of hoaxers.


In February of 1919 a wire was sent to the admiral of the HMS Dreadnought, the flagship of the British Navy’s home fleet.  The wire explained that some very important dignitaries were going to come aboard the ship where it was docked at Weymouth and to give these dignitaries a wonderful reception.  It was signed by the head of the British Foreign Service.  The signature was a forgery.

An electric wave of excitement went through the ship as the crew and support staff whispered among themselves:  Abyssinian princes would be arriving soon.

When the princes and their two guides arrived near the harbor by rail coach, a red carpet had been rolled out for them.  A special car took them to the ship.  Bystanders craned their necks with curiosity.  The foreigners had on luxurious, colorful brocade robes and wore silken turbans on their heads.  They had dark moustaches and beards.  Three of them were quite short.  Their guides were decked out in cravats and top hats.  The princes, who seemed very shy, were asked to inspect the marine guard.  After they were aboard the ship they were given a grand tour.  They were amazed at light bulbs and other modern conveniences, and uttered strange phrases.

While on the upper deck, rain had started pelting down and the princes’ own two guides had herded them down the stairs quickly.  One of the top-hatted guides had noticed the rain causing the moustache of one of the princes beginning to slip because of the water collecting on his face.  The moustache was re-adjusted effectively without notice on the way down the staircase.  Soon, the entourage thanked their hosts for a wonderful time and returned to shore.

Back on the rail coach they wished to eat a meal.  The top-hatted guide explained to the galley staff that the princes could not eat unless the meal servers wore white gloves.  It was their custom.  The train made a short stop so a staff member could scurry off and try to purchase white gloves.  Successful, he gave the gloves to the servers so the princes could eat.

When the group arrived back in London, professional photographers took photos of the exotic princes and their two guides.  Within a half hour of the photo shoot, the princes were returning their rented prince costumes.  They had removed their false beards and moustaches.  Who had perpetrated this elaborate hoax?  It was spearheaded by Horace de Vere Cole.  He was a renowned prankster who was not hurting for money and probably had too much spare time on his hands.  He mainly dabbled in poetry writing and took art classes.

Word of the hoax got out and eventually the newspapers picked it up, identifying the “princes” and their guides.  They were Duncan Grant, artist, Anthony Buxton, naturalist and author, a brother and sister team, Adrian Stephen and Virginia Stephen, and the guides, Guy Ridley and Horace Cole.

Some of the funniest moments during the hoax had occurred when Adrian Stephen, a prince, was asked questions by some of the naval officers and he had to reply in an Abyssinian tongue.  He resorted to rattling off passages from ancient Greek and Latin literature, but changing it enough to not be recognized as such.

That wonderful British sense of humor quashed early demands for the imposters to be jailed and punished.  Cole was content with his new title, Prince of Pranks, and his desire for hoaxes faded away.  One of the two shortest princes would be better known by her married name, Virginia Woolf, the writer.  She had cut her hair off short for the occasion.  Virginia did not want to be discovered as a woman, so she limited her speech during the charade.  “Chuck-a-choi” and “bunga-bunga” were her only two comments.

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