In the midst of the stress and anguish in the past Downton Abbey (for those in the US who won’t be seeing it for another 4 months or so, I won’t give away the story – just suffice it to say that my heart was in my throat) a bit of levity was thrown in when Neville Chamberlain, appearing as the health minister, talked about his brother in law, the famous prankster Horace de Vere Cole. I had never heard about this man, and his pranks that were so famous to everyone in England at the time, and so I did a bit of googling and found out more about this man who should take his rightful place as the Patron Saint of April Fool’s Day.
He was born in Ireland, and at one point was the heir to a great fortune. His aristocratic family sent him to Eton, though he left early to go fight in the Boer War. He was shot and badly wounded almost immediately upon arrival. He survived his life threatening injuries, and he developed an attitude of whimsey and disparaged anyone who took themselves too seriously. He also rebelled against his aristocratic upbringing, becoming a socialist, and he took aim at anyone who abused their authority.
After coming home, he went to Cambridge to be educated where he wound up learning more about becoming a prankster than much of anything else, it seems. He eventually became a poet, and was part of the Bloomsbury Set which included Virginia Wolf, and the artist Augustus John. I’m not sure what it says about his poetry that he is more remembered for his outlandish hoaxes than his verses, but perhaps he was more of a performance artist and wrote his poetry through his practical jokes.
He’s had a few spectacular hoaxes, and claimed over 100 in total. The earliest big one was when he heard that the Sultan of Zanzibar was touring England. He and his friend Adrian Stephen made themselves up in “oriental” garb, and sent a telegram to the mayor, announcing that the Sultan was arriving any moment. The town clerk met their train at the station, and gave a full procession to the Guildhall with a formal reception. Cole and Stephen toured the town and all the colleges, including Trinity where they were students. The only potential hiccup came when a retired missionary wanted to speak with the sultan in his native language, and Cole, who was posing as the sultan’s uncle who was also his interpreter, told the woman that she could only speak to the sultan if she wanted to join his harem. They were escorted back to the station, and caught the next train leaving.
He had other smaller pranks that he loved to play on people who took themselves too seriously. Once he gave out tickets to the theater for a play that he thought was too pompous. He chose bald men, and gave them tickets that were strategically placed so that when the lights went down, the reflection on their bald heads from the lighting on stage spelled out an expletive, complete with the dot over the i. He had a “schtick” where he’d dare someone to a race, slip his watch in their pocket before starting, let them get a head start, and then yell “stop theif!” He caught out a member of parliament with that trick, as well as some others.
He is most famous for his prank on the HMS Dreadnought, the flagship in the British Navy’s fleet, anchored off Weymouth. The Admiral Sir William May received a note from the Admiralty informing him that the Emperor of Abyssinia would be arriving for an inspection of the ship very soon. The Admiralty had been fooled by a man pretending to be from the Foreign Office – Horace de Vere Cole. He and a group of actors (including Virginia Woolf and her brother Adrian Stephen – posing as the translator) showed up to a grand welcome in the Weymouth station. Horace de Vere Cole put everyone through the protocol while Stephen tried to translate the words of welcome into the Swahili he had been studying on the train down. As it was, he wound up mispronouncing Latin and Greek he remembered from school.
None of the commanders suspected anything, and the guests were taken aboard for a tour complete with the famous guns. The group responded to the descriptions of the guns’ power with nods of appreciation and the words “Bunga! Bunga!” They declined an invitation to lunch, explaining that the food wouldn’t have been prepared to their exacting religious standards.
After a few weeks the truth came out, and of course everyone was completely pissed off and the Navy became a laughing stock. “Bunga! Bunga!” became the national chant for a while, and even the real Emperor of Abyssinia received the shout when he arrived in England shortly after. The impact of the hoax was felt throughout popular culture. Some thought the hoaxers were traitors, and others thought they were heroes by protesting the militarism of the British Empire.
He was never able to outdo that prank, and spent the rest of his career doing things like posing as a workman and shutting down Central London streets at rush hour. One can only imagine how much fun he would have had if he could have put his pranks on youtube.
Horace wound up losing much of his fortune in risky land speculation. His first wife ran off with someone else, and his second wife had a child by another man (Augustus John) while still married to de Vere Cole. He lived out his life in self-imposed exile in Paris, and died penniless.