24 Feb 2020

As April Fool's Day approaches, it seems a good time to recall a maritime practical joke from just over a century ago. The Dreadnought Hoax of 1910 was reported in the newspapers, caused questions to be asked in Parliament, and resulted in embarrassment to the Royal Navy.

It was recalled with merriment for many years and is of further interest today because two of its participants, though not well-known at the time, were later to become famous members of the Bloomsbury Group.

By Stawell Heard, Librarian, Acquisitions and Cataloguing

It was two former Cambridge students, Horace de Vere Cole and Adrian Stephen, who hatched a plan to pull the leg of the Royal Navy.

Previous pranks 

Cole was a serial prankster and whilst at Cambridge he and Stephen had successfully hoaxed the city’s Mayor into hosting the Sultan of Zanzibar’s uncle and his entourage.

The guests were not from Zanzibar at all, but were actually Horace Cole, Adrian Stephen, two friends from Cambridge and another from Oxford (who acted as interpreter).

After being formally received by the Mayor, the distinguished guests had visited a bazaar (where Cole spent prodigiously) and were then given a tour of some Cambridge colleges. The Dreadnought Hoax was to follow a similar model.

The Dreadnought Hoax

A source of pride for the Edwardian Royal Navy was HMS Dreadnought, built in 1906. The first of the Dreadnought class of warship, it marked a technological advance and was a product of the Anglo-German naval rivalry in which Britain was determined to maintain supremacy.

It was the Royal Navy and its original dreadnought, then at Weymouth, which were to be the target of the hoax.


HMS ‘Dreadnought’ (1906) with awning rigged, anchored in the Thames Estuary

This time the visitors came from Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). Besides Horace Cole and Adrian Stephen, the party consisted of Anthony Buxton and Guy Ridley (two friends of Cole’s) and Adrian’s sister Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) and artist friend Duncan Grant.

Cole played a Foreign Office official, Buxton was the Abyssinian Emperor, Virginia Stephen, Duncan Grant and Guy Ridley played members of the Emperor’s entourage, and Adrian Stephen acted as interpreter.

On 7 February, the hoaxers mustered at Adrian and Virginia’s home in Fitzroy Square, London. There they were dressed up by the theatrical costumiers Clarkson’s.

Cole wore a top hat and tails. Adrian Stephen wore a beard and some make-up to give him the appearance of being suntanned. According to his own account he: 

‘wore a bowler hat and a great coat and looked, I am afraid, like a seedy commercial traveller.’

The attire of the other members of the party is today rather controversial since it involved them wearing skin-darkening make-up in order to play Abyssinians. They also wore beards and robes.

Thus attired, the group travelled by taxi to Paddington station and boarded a train for Weymouth.

As they were travelling, another friend was arranging for a telegram, signed ‘Hardinge’, to be despatched to the Dreadnought’s Admiral. Sir Charles Hardinge was then permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office and the telegram was giving notice of the impending visit of the distinguished Abyssinian guests.

The members of the group playing Abyssinians could not eat because of fears that doing so would affect their make-up. Cole and Adrian Stephen passed the journey in the dining car with Stephen trying to learn some Swahili, which he and Cole fancied was the language spoken in Abyssinia (incorrectly, as it turned out).

As the train pulled into Weymouth, it became clear that the telegram had had the desired effect as a naval officer was waiting for them on the platform and the group proceeded over a red carpet, which had been laid down in the station, and boarded a launch which took them out to HMS Dreadnought.

A band struck up as the party approached the gangplank. The party boarded and were met by Dreadnought’s Admiral and Captain.

Adrian Stephen was surprised to recognize the latter as someone he had met several times at a club with which he went country walking. Also nearby was a cousin of Adrian and Virginia’s who was chief of the Admiral’s staff.

He apparently failed to realize that Adrian, who stood six foot five in height, was the interpreter. Perhaps more understandably, given that she was dressed in robes and wore a beard, he also failed to recognize his cousin Virginia from among the Abyssinian guests.


HMS Dreadnought no.2655

                                                                                 HMS Dreadnought no.2655

The party inspected the assembled guard of honour, Adrian Stephen attempting to appear convincing while translating the Admiral’s words to the Emperor. These described the servicemen who comprised the guard of honour.

What Stephen actually said he could not accurately recall later, but much of it consisted of Greek and Latin quotations from Homer and Virgil, which he deliberately mispronounced. Stephen later recalled in his published account that:

''I found that this worked excellently, and even began to improve on it as in some emergencies that occurred more than once such as telling the Emperor to mind his head in a doorway, I would remember what I said last time and use the same phrase again. This may have given us a little plausibility, especially as Anthony Buxton [the Emperor] was very quick in picking up some of my words, and using them in his replies. I remember, though, hearing two officers who were eavesdropping behind some corner remark on the oddness of our lingo.'

There was a nasty moment when one person told Stephen

‘that there was one man in the Fleet who could speak to the Abyssinians in their own tongue, but mercifully added that he was away on leave.’

The Captain then showed the party over the ship, including her guns, which were turned in various directions.

The officers offered the party some refreshments, but, fearful of the effect this might have on their make-up, Stephen declined, explaining that the party’s religious beliefs required food to be prepared in particular ways.

Then there was another difficulty to deal with. Duncan Grant’s moustache was starting to detach in the wind and rain, but Stephen managed to reattach it when no one was watching.

Having looked over the ship, the guests, accompanied by an officer, boarded the launch to return to shore and were driven back to the station.

After the hoax

It is believed that Cole informed the newspapers, at least one of which reproduced a photograph of the hoaxers in their costumes, and the prank became more widely known.

Questions were asked in Parliament about the nature of the reception given to the pranksters, how such a stunt could be prevented in future, and whether the King’s flag had been insulted. The satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon showing two Frenchwomen employing their feminine charms to wangle a tour of a warship from a midshipman.


‘Venus in the Mediterranean’: Punch magazine’s take on the Dreadnought Hoax

                                    ‘Venus in the Mediterranean’: Punch magazine’s take on the Dreadnought Hoax

In the aftermath of the hoax, a bizarre ritual was carried out separately to two of the hoaxers, Horace Cole and Duncan Grant.

Both men were taken from their homes and subjected to symbolic canings. Adrian Stephen felt some remorse for the prank, writing later that:

They treated us so delightfully while we were on board that I, for one, felt very uncomfortable at mocking, even in the friendliest spirit, such charming people.’

The Dreadnought Hoax was remembered for many years to come. Adrian Stephen published his account of it in 1936 and Virginia Woolf fictionalized it in her short story A Society published in 1921, and later recalled it in a talk delivered first to the Women’s Institute in Rodmell in 1940. Their accounts broadly tally, but differ in some of the finer detail.

In some respects the leg-pulling of those in authority gives the Dreadnought Hoax a timelessness. 

In other respects it was of its time. In choosing the Edwardian Navy as their target, the hoaxers selected an organization which was a source of particular national pride.

The fact that they felt able to wear dark make-up and impersonate Abyssinians would be hugely controversial today. The fact that they were prepared to attempt the deception and got away with it reveals an ignorance of Abyssinians on the part both of the hoaxers and their naval hosts.

The Dreadnought Hoax in the Caird Library

The Caird Library has a 1983 reprint of The Dreadnought Hoax by Adrian Stephen (Caird Library ID: PBA0143) which can ordered to view in the Reading Room via the Caird Library catalogue. 

Virginia Woolf’s account is included in Georgia Johnston’s journal article ‘Virginia Woolf’s talk on the Dreadnought Hoax’ in Woolf Studies Annual, Vol. 15, 2009, pages 1-7, 9-45 (available to access in the Caird Library via our subscription to JSTOR)

The cartoon ‘Venus in the Mediterranean’ appeared in Punch, or the London Charivari of 9 March 1910, page 167 (Caird Library ID: PCH)