With April Fools still prowling about, it seems like appropriate to mention one of the most outlandish pranks of the Edwardian era. (Remember this earlier hoax from 1809?) In our time of hyper-security and identity checks, it's impossible to imagine a group of artists and writers in cheesy costumes bluffing their way onto a royal navy ship – but that's exactly what happened in what became known as the "Dreadnought Hoax."
On February 7, 1910, six members of the Bloomsbury group planned an elaborate lark. Dressed in improvised costumes and with fake beards pasted on their faces, they presented themselves as a party of Abyssinian princes with their Foreign Office guides to the crew of the HMS Dreadnought, flagship of the home fleet. The costumes were not particularly good - see the photograph above - and one fake beard even disguised a woman, the writer Virginia Woolf (far left in the photo).
Yet they succeeded in fooling not only the captain and crew of the Dreadnought, but an admiral as well. They were welcomed on board the ship with full honors, marines at attention, the band playing, and African flags flying. The ship's officers invited the visitors to dine with them, which the visitors politely declined, claiming the food and drink would be inappropriately prepared for their diets. In reality, they feared the glue holding their beards in place would not survive a meal.
The mastermind of the plot, infamous practical joker Horace de Vere Cole, described the hoax in a letter to a friend:
"It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter.... "I was so amused at being just myself in a tall hat [Cole played the part of one of the English guides] – I had no disguise whatever and talked in an ordinary friendly way to everyone – the others talked nonsense. We had all learned some Swahili: I said they were "jolly savages" but that I didn't understand much of what they said...It began to rain slightly on the ship and we only just got the princes under cover in time, another moment and their complexions would have been running – Are you amused? I am...Yesterday was a day worth living."
But while Cole was amused, many others were not. Within days the details of the hoax became widely known, with the newspapers devoting much page-space to the story as well as printing cartoons like the one, right, that areappalling to us now. The Edwardians may have been elegant, but they could also be audaciously arrogant and insensitive - imagine the international incident that this "hoax" would cause today!
Even in 1910, parliament demanded answers about the lack of security, while the navy was forced to endure the humiliation of being the butt of the entire affair. Even Cole was almost (almost) sorry about that, noting that the officers "were tremendously polite and nice – couldn't have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality."
Above: Photograph of the participants in the Dreadnought Hoax, 1910. From collection of Horace de Vere Cole. Below: "Once Bitten, Twice Shy", cartoon from the Daily Mirror, February, 1910.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.