England,  ER,  Western Europe

The Dreadnought Hoax

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

The Bloomsbury Group were a band of influential intellectuals who bummed around Bloomsbury, London during the first half of the 20th century.  Some of the members include Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey.  According to historian Ian Ousby, “although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts”.  They also perpetrated one of the biggest pranks in British Military History.

I guess they were sitting around bored one afternoon in 1910 when Horace de Vere Cole got the bright idea to see if they could prank the British Navy.  He sent a telegram to the HMS Dreadnought telling the crew to expect some foreign dignitaries from North Africa.  At that time the HMS Dreadnought was the jewel in the crown of the British Navy.  Six of the Bloomsbury Group appeared in outlandish costume on February 7, 1910 at Paddington station where they received a VIP coach to the peer at Portland Harbor.  They were in black face with fake beards and robes claiming to be a delegation of Abyssinian princes  The group included Duncan Grant, Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, and Horace de Vere Cole, the instigator.  They were met by the Commander-in-Chief of the Dreadnought with all ceremony and pomp befitting their station, and all the sailors standing at attention on deck.

The Commander himself gave the delegation a tour of the ship, and the “Abyssinians” were much amazed muttering “Bunga, Bunga!” at each new marvel.  In reality, the group spoke in heavily accented Latin, mostly quoting the Aeneid, and plain old gibberish.  There was a tense moment when Buxton sneezed and almost lost his fake beard, but they were able to pull it off.  Virginia Wolfe’s cousin was one of the naval officers on the ship, but did not recognize her under the black face and fake beard.  The company was invited to dine with the officers, but they declined through Adrian Stephen who was acting as interpreter.  In reality, they were afraid the food would smear their make up.  They left to the sounds of God Save the King.

Cole then sent a picture of the group and a three page account of the prank to the Daily Mirror.  By February 12, the newspapers were full of the story and the Navy had a lot of egg on its face. He described it as:

“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.”

Sailors were greeted with cries of “Bunga! Bunga!” and one newspaper suggested the Dreadnought change its name to the Abyssinian.  The ship was immediately sent out to sea until the story blew over.  The Navy was howling for the group to be arrested, but they had technically broken no laws.