In the information age, pranksters are a dime a dozen.
With the medium of the internet and platforms like YouTube, it’s hard to go a week without hearing about or seeing a prank video.
However, back in the pre-internet days, a prankster – let alone a good one – was hard to find.
Today’s article is about one legendary prankster who lives on in infamy.
His name was Horace de Vere Cole, and he was a very bored Irish-born Englishman from a background of wealth and nobility.
The Cambridge Zanzibar Hoax.
Cole studied at Trinity College in Cambridge where he pulled a few different pranks, the most famous of which became known as the Cambridge Zanzibar hoax.
In early 1905, during his second year At Trinity College, Cole and his friend Adrian Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s brother) heard that Sayyid Ali bin Hamud Al-Busaid, eighth Sultan of Zanzibar, was visiting England.
Originally, the two lads wanted to arrange for a fake state visit of the Sultan to Cambridge, although they realized his picture had recently been printed in the press, so there was a risk their fake Sultan would get caught out.
So they decided that Cole would impersonate the Sultan’s uncle, and sent a telegram to the Mayor of Cambridge asking him to arrange a suitable reception for the Sultan’s uncle and a tour of Cambridge and the Trinity College.
The two students borrowed some robes and turbans from the theatrical costume designer Willy Clarkson, applied some fake tan and took the train to Cambridge from London.
When they stepped off the train they were greeted by a luxury carriage which took them to the guildhall where they met the Mayor and Town Clerk.
They were then taken on a tour of the town by the two, including a tour of the college they were studying at, being seen by some of their friends who didn’t even recognize them!
After an hour they demanded to be returned to the station, although they couldn’t travel back to London as that would mean breaking the College’s 10 PM campus curfew.
So when they got to the station they ran out a side exit, took a cab home, and got back into their normal clothes!
The next day, Cole gave an interview to the Daily Mail detailing the prank which went viral.
The Mayor was so livid he wanted the two students imprisoned, but the public had loved Cole’s prank and it would have badly damaged the Mayor’s rep so he decided not to.
Pranks, pranks, and more pranks.
Cole relished playing pranks aimed at deflating pompous figures of authority, especially after the Zanzibar prank.
He targeted politicians, businessmen and military officers.
He held a striking resemblance to the then-Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald of the Labour Party.
He once gave a public speech, acting like the PM, where he launched into a massive attack on the Labour Party’s policy, leaving everyone attending very confused and a little concerned!
On one occasion, Cole got a bunch of his friends to dress up as workmen while he dressed up as a foreman and directed them to dig a giant trench across Piccadilly!
On another, he dared an old school friend – newly elected Member of Parliament Oliver Locker-Lampson – to run ahead of him on a busy street with a 10-yard head start.
As Locker-Lampson took off and Cole gave chase he yelled out “Stop! Thief!” after planting his gold Rolex in his friend’s pocket.
A nearby policeman tackled the horrified Locker-Lampson and started to arrest him before Cole arrived and explained it was a prank.
Cole once bought eight strategically-placed tickets to a play he thought to be pretentious and gave the tickets to eight different bald men.
Before they went in, Cole painted a big black letter on each of their heads so when the lights shone on the audience they spelled out the word “B-O-L-L-O-C-K-S!”
He also once hosted a dinner party where all the guests discovered during the party that they all had the word “bottom” in their surnames.
Another popular prank of Cole’s that he did repeatedly was to walk around with a cow’s udder poking out the fly of his trousers.
Whenever he felt he’d caused enough uproar he would pull out a pair of scissors and chop the appendage off!
On April Fools’ Day, 1919, Cole was honeymooning in Venice with his first wife.
He dropped loads of horse manure onto the historic San Marco Piazza. Venice has no horses in it and can only be reached by boat.
The Dreadnought Hoax.
In the early 1900s, Britain’s navy was one of the most powerful fighting forces on the planet and a key part of their Empire.
However, despite their stiff-upper-lip attitudes, the officers of the Navy did enjoy playing pranks on each other.
The officers of the HMS Hawke and the HMS Dreadnought were locked in a prank war, and one of the Hawke’s officers came his trusty friend Horace de Vere Cole for a little help taking their rivals down a notch or two.
This was to be Cole’s magnum opus.
Cole enlisted the help of five friends including two cousins of Navy Commander Willie Fisher; Adrian Stephen and his sister Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen), as well as Guy Ridley, Anthony Buxton and artist Duncan Grant.
Cole started by getting a telegram sent to the “C-in-C, Home Fleet” stating that “Prince Makalen of Abyssinia and suite arrive 4:20 today at Weymouth. He wishes to see Dreadnought. Kindly arrange to meet them on arrival.”
The five of them put on robes and turbans supplied from his old friend Willy Clarkson, as well as fake beards and fake tan so that they resembled members of the Abyssinian royal family.
Adrian Stephen took on the role of acting as the group’s “interpreter.”
Cole and his entourage went to Paddington Station in London and Cole claimed he was “Herbert Cholmondeley” of the Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth.
The stationmaster complied and gave Cole and co. a special VIP carriage all to themselves!
As they stepped off the train in Weymouth, they saw that the navy had given them a full military honor guard, and played the national anthem of Zanzibar as well as waving the Zanzibari flag as they couldn’t find the Abyssinian flag.
The group as given a tour and inspected the fleet, gibbering words of Latin and Greek which Adrian Stephen would then “interpret,” using Adrian to try and bestow fake military honors on the officers.
The officer giving the group the tour was none other than Commander Willie Fisher himself – Adrian and Virginia’s cousin, and not even he recognized the two!
The aftermath of the hoax.
The group posed for a photo with Commanding Officers of the Royal Navy and the Dreadnought, which Cole sent to the Daily Mail the next day.
Once again, the story went viral and the Navy became the butt of public ridicule.
The Navy demanded the group be arrested, however they had broken no laws in their prank, so they all got away it.
Well, all of the group (except Virginia) did have to undergo a symbolic spanking on the buttocks from junior Royal Navy officers as some form of recompense!
So there you have it, the life, the times, and some of the most brilliant pranks of Horace de Vere Cole.
The next time you see a YouTube video of someone hiding in a bin and jumping out at someone, just remember it can’t beat posing as royalty and getting a tour of a battleship!