Horace de Vere Cole

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The Dreadnought Hoaxers in Abyssinian regalia; Cole is third from left.

William Horace de Vere Cole (5 May 1881 in Ballincurrig, Co. Cork, Ireland – 25 February 1936 in Paris, France) was an eccentric prankster and poet born in Ireland. His best known trick was the Dreadnought hoax on 7 February 1910 when he fooled the captain of the Royal Navy warship HMS Dreadnought into taking Cole and a group of his friends, including Virginia Woolf, for an Abyssinian delegation.


As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Cole had posed as the Sultan of Zanzibar — who was visiting London at the time — to make an official visit to his own college accompanied by his friend Adrian Stephen (the brother of Virginia Woolf).

With his mane of hair and bristling moustache, Cole was often confused with British prime minister Ramsay Macdonald, causing dismay in public when he launched into a fierce attack on Labour Party policy. His own sister Annie married Neville Chamberlain.

Following the Sultan of Zanzibar prank, Cole executed a series of bold jokes and escapades principally aimed at deflating pompous figures of authority. His targets included members of parliament, city businessmen and naval officers. On one occasion he directed a group of like minded friends dressed as workmen as they dug a trench across Piccadilly. On another, Cole dared an old schoolfriend from Eton, the newly elected Member of Parliament for Ramsey in Huntingdonshire, Oliver Locker-Lampson, to dash before him on a London street to the nearest corner with a 10-yard head start — having already slipped his gold watch into the MP's pocket. As soon as Locker-Lampson began to pull ahead, Cole yelled "Stop thief!" and a policeman promptly detained Locker-Lampson. Cole then explained that it was all a joke and both men were told to proceed on their way quietly. Unfortunately, Cole then began waving his stick around in a dangerous manner as though conducting an imaginary band and both men were then arrested and taken into custody. While no charge was brought against Locker-Lampson, Cole was found guilty of a breach of the peace and fined £5.

According to legend, Cole once hosted a party in which the attendees discovered that they all had the word "bottom" in their surnames.[1]

According to another story he bought tickets for particular seats at a theatrical performance and distributed them to bald men whose heads spelled out an expletive that was legible from the balcony above.[2]

On his honeymoon in Italy in 1919, Cole dropped horse manure onto Venice's Piazza San Marco — a city with no horses that could be reached only by boat.

Once heir to a great fortune, Cole married twice and died in poverty in France.

Cole has also been suspected of the Piltdown Man hoax.[2]

See also[edit]

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^ Ash, Russell (2007). Morecock, Fartwell, & Hoare: A Collection of Unfortunate But True Names. London: Headline. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-312-54535-2. 
  2. ^ a b "A Fool There Was". New York Times. Retrieved November 22, 2016. 

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