This post was most recently updated on March 15th, 2019
The Dreadnought Hoax
Whilst Frances and Elsie never intended to fool the establishment, other hoaxers deliberately set out to pull the wool over the eyes of those in authority.
Horace de Vere Cole, a member of the Bloomsbury Set (profiled here) was well known as a prankster. When in 1910 the crew of the naval ship Hawke wanted to play a trick on their counterparts on the rival ship Dreadnought, one of Cole’s friends turned to him for help.
Cole and five Bloomsbury Set friends, including the writer Virginia Woolf, dressed up as members of the Abyssinian royal family, complete with turbans, skin darkeners and flowing robes. Cole enlisted an accomplice to send a telegram to the Dreadnought, purportedly from the Foreign Office, telling its officers to prepare for a royal visit.
The group travelled by train in a VIP carriage to Portsmouth where the Dreadnought was docked. There, they were welcomed by a guard of honour – though the Navy was apparently lacking in Abyssinian paraphernalia so instead flew the flag and played the national anthem of Zanzibar.
Once on the ship, the group had great fun, talking in a mixture of Latin and Greek which was translated by their “interpreter”, asking for prayer mats, and attempting to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers.
When the hoax was uncovered in London, Cole contacted the press and sent a photo of the costumed group to a national newspaper. The Navy’s embarrassment at having been fooled by a bunch of writers and artists was exacerbated by the fact that the Bloomsbury Set were pacifists – and that two of their number were cousins of one of the Dreadnought’s officers, Commander Willie Fisher.
Huffing and puffing, the Navy demanded that Cole be arrested but to no avail – the “Abyssinian princes” had not broken any law.