The Dreadnought Hoax

February 10: The Dreadnought Hoax, a practical joke at the British Navy’s expense,occurred on this day in 1910. Among the conspirators was Virginia Woolf (thenVirginia Stephen) and, though she played only a minor Abyssinian potentate, sheafterwards expressed pride in her contribution: “I am glad to think that Itoo have been of help to my country.”

The most detailed accountwe have of the fun was written decades later by Adrian Stephen, Virginia’syounger brother and one of the Hoax masterminds. The idea came from HoraceCole, who with his college friends several years earlier had similarly dupedthe mayor of Cambridge by dressing up as the Sultan of Zanzibar and entourage.For this new and more daring leg-pull—the Dreadnought, just three years old,was the Navy’s showcase ship—the pranksters became the Emperor of Abyssinia andtrain. Their last minute telegram to the Navy announcing their arrival andintention was sent only after they had left Paddington station—Cole and Stephennow studying Swahili in the train’s luncheon car (this from a grammar textprovided by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), the rest of thegroup gathering their beards and nerves in a compartment.

The red carpet was on thedock, the marines saluted, the band played—the Anthem of Zanzibar, it turnedout, but appropriate enough given the earlier prank. Having accepted theAdmiral’s apology that the only sailor who knew the Abyssinian language was onleave, the group chatted away in pidgin Swahili. Apart from a few slippingmoustaches, the joke came off without a hitch, and the group returned to Londonin high spirits.

Cole, unable to keep thefun under his hat, leaked the story to the DailyMail, and soon the entire nation was enjoying the joke. But then questionswere raised in Parliament about the nation’s security and the Admiral’scompetence, and soon some naval personnel intent on rough justice were knockingon several Bloomsbury doors. One of the hoaxsters, the artist Duncan Grant, wasbundled off in a cab, taken to a field, and given two ceremonial taps of acane. Cole was given six taps on his bum, though after negotiation and in theBritish spirit of fair play he was allowed to administer six taps on the navalbums also.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at