How a Bearded Virginia Woolf and a Band of ‘jolly savages’ Fooled the British Navy

Virginia Woolf, left, and the Bloomsbury group hoaxers. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer

This is a great story about one of the greatest practical jokes played by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers on one of the world’s greatest military powers.

A previously unknown letter has surfaced, detailing the “shriekingly funny” Dreadnought hoax, when members of the Bloomsbury group donned beards and costumes to disguise themselves as Abyssinian princes and gained access to the pride of the British naval fleet.  The Bloomsbury group was a collection of writers, artists and economists who had assembled loosely at the University of Cambridge in the early 1900’s.  Among them were author Virginia Woolf and economist John Maynard Keynes.

The letter was written by Horace de Vere Cole, who described how he and five friends, including the novelist Virginia Woolf and painter Duncan Grant, deceived an admiral and the crew of the battleship HMS Dreadnought, flagship of the home fleet, on February 7, 1910.  Four of them pretended to be Abyssinians and two claimed to be their Foreign Office guides.  Even Woolf’s cousin, one of the naval officers on board the ship, failed to recognize the author in her fake beard.

Cole wrote the letter to a friend a day after the hoax.  Explaining that, “the idea was mine, but the carrying out was the work of six,” Cole wrote: “The interpreter, the four princes and an officer went over the ship talking gibberish fluently … We departed to the band strains and the company of marines drawn up and the staff at the salute once more.

“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!

“They were tremendously polite and nice – couldn’t have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality.”

The hospitality even extended to a carriage for the group’s journey to London from Weymouth.

Added Cole: “I was so amused at being just myself in a tall hat – 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 the living.”

A descendant of the letter’s original recipient brought the correspondence to light recently.  It’s now being offered for sale by Rick Gekoski, a London dealer in rare books and manuscripts, who said, “Just imagine trying to do such a thing now.  This is elegant and audacious, very Edwardian.”

The letter is accompanied by an original photograph of the friends in “Abyssinian” costume, annotated by Cole with their fake names.

Martyn Downer, the author of Cole’s biography, The Sultan of Zanzibar, described the letter as particularly interesting as most of Cole’s papers were destroyed or lost.  “Although he was born to a great fortune, he lost it all and ended his life in great penury,” he said.

As you might expect, the British Navy did take revenge on one of the hoaxers, albeit not in an official manner.  Three sailors abducted Grant and took him to Hampstead Heath, where they were reported to have caned him.


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