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How Virginia Woolfe helped play a prank on the British Navy

Postcard of the Cambridge Hoax. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1910, one of the most elaborate pranks to date was played, successfully, against the British Navy. Irishman and professional prankster, William Horace de Vere Cole, devised a plan where he and others pretended to be Abyssinian (or Ethiopian) royalty, to obtain a tour of the Royal Navy Ship, the HMS Dreadnought. 

For the prank, Cole himself dressed as the prince, with others acting as his entourage. Many of the attendees painted their faces to appear as they were native Ethiopians. With them, Virginia Woolfe — yes that Virginia Woolfe — was in attendance and dressed as a man. 

An image of the HMS Dreadnought from 1906. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The event is today known as the Dreadnought hoax and is Cole’s most successful prank to date. In later years, he took on pranks to discredit or embarrass political leaders, or just to have fun. For instance, on his honeymoon, he’s said to have dropped horse manure in a town that could only be reached by boat. (We can only assume the unsuspecting wife knew what she was getting into.) 

The team of pranksters in costume; Virginia Woolfe is on the far left. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It’s also worth noting that Cole earned little, if any, money from his pranks. Coming from a well-to-do family, he focused on his love of practical jokes rather than obtaining work or finishing his studies. He did serve in the Yorkshire Hussars, an auxiliary of the British Army during the Second Boer War. However, he was shot and removed from the army due to his injury. Cole also donated his earnings to widows of the war. 

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. Professional theater costumier and makeup artist, Willy Clarkson, was asked to help prepare them for the big event. 

Cole in a portrait from the early 1900s. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The group wore heavy and elaborate dress robes and covered their faces in dark makeup to look authentically Ethiopian. It’s mentioned that the group avoided any drinks or food, lest they mess up their makeup. 

The Dreadnought was chosen as it was commanded by the Stephens’ cousin. Ultimately, he did not recognize either of them. 

A telegram was sent to the Dreadnaught after Cole found a Post Office with all female employees. He thought they could more easily pass, with fewer questions asked of them. 

The message stated, “Prince Makalen of Abbysinia [sic] and suite arrive 4.20 today Weymouth. He wishes to see Dreadnought. Kindly arrange meet them on arrival.” And thus, the plan went into action.

The group arrived at Dreadnaught and received an intricate tour. The Royal Navy attempted to fly an Ethiopian flag but did not have one on hand. Instead, they flew a Zanzibar flag and played their national anthem. 

Throughout the prank, Cole et all went to ridiculous lengths, such as requesting prayer mats, speaking in made-up words, and presenting false military honors. We can only assume that the Royal Navy was either deeply naive or being extremely polite.

In any case, word of the prank spread as Cole himself contacted the media and sent their picture to the Daily Mirror. The Royal Navy was heavily mocked for falling for the prank. Newspapers wrote articles about their ignorance, cartoons poked fun of the event, and more. Others even sent mocking telegrams directly to the ship. Further reports showed how unsafe the event was, with potential enemies being able to obtain passage aboard the ship and learn its capabilities.

The Navy demanded arrests to be made, but ultimately no crimes were found to have been committed. 

Decades later, Virginia Woolfe talked about the event, confirming many details of the hoax.