Horace de Vere Cole, born in 1881, came from a prominent and prosperous Anglo-Irish family with powerful connections. His sister, Anne, married Neville Chamberlin, the British Prime Minister who, unfortunately, would be forever associated with the appeasement of Nazi Germany. Yet, even with a controversial figure like Neville Chamberlin as his brother-in-law, Horace de Vere Cole’s own reputation for scandal, in many ways, is the more prominent of the two. By the time of his death in 1936, Horace had cemented himself as one of the greatest pranksters of the modern age.
Horace was carrying out his humorous schemes even in his earliest days. His first major prank occurred while he was receiving education in Cambridge. When Horace read in the news that the Sultan of Zanzibar was touring Britain, he decided it was the perfect time for one of his favorite schemes—impersonation. He spread rumors that the sultan was soon going to arrive in Cambridge. With the city expecting a royal visit, Horace de Vere Cole and his accomplice, Adrian Stephen, dressed up in African garb and presented themselves before an excited reception in Cambridge. Stephen, pretending to be the sultan, and Horace de Vere Cole, acting as the translator, were given a tour through the city and its University, orchestrated by the town officials. After the tour was complete, the imposters were ushered back to the train station, where they secretly shed their costumes and put an end to their successful prank.
During his life, Horace pulled off a respectable list of pranks. He impersonated more people, including Prime Minister MacDonald, and even dressed up as a construction worker to disrupt traffic. Horace also liked challenging prominent people, such as athletes and politicians, to footraces. Then, when his opponents took a lead in the race, he would shout that they were thieves running away with his money—sometimes leading to arrest, but always causing embarrassment. Another of his street-side pranks consisted of him leaving a cow udder hanging suspiciously out from the front of his pants. When onlookers became curious, disgusted or outraged, Horace took the further step of cutting off the udder, causing horrified reactions from the spectators.
Horace de Vere Cole also carried out more sophisticated pranks. While on his honeymoon, of all times, in Venice with his first wife, Horace decided to pull off a peculiar prank. During the night, he spread horse manure throughout the streets of St Mark’s Square. When the morning sun shone in Venice, the city was perplexed by the presence of horse manure in a city that did not even have horses. He also, curiously, was said to have hosted a party where all of the attendants had the word “bottom” present in their family names. These guests arrived at the party without any knowledge of their commonalities, but the reality of the situation soon became apparent when the introductions began. In another elaborate scheme, Horace gave out free theatre tickets to a specific group of people. All the men he gave his ticket to were bald, and when they sat down in their designated seats in the theatre, people from the balcony could clearly see that their shiny, bald, heads legibly spelled out a word crass enough to make a sailor gasp.
By far, Horace de Vere Cole’s most famous exploit occurred in 1910, when the HMS Dreadnought was anchored near Weymouth. The ship was informed that the emperor of Abyssinia wanted to tour the great vessel. The crew expressed their willingness to show off their ship to a foreign monarch, and sure enough, a Foreign Office official brought the Abyssinian emperor and his entourage to the HMS Dreadnought. Little did the crew of the ship know, however, that the “Foreign Office” official was actually Horace de Vere Cole. The costumed guests that Horace led onto the navy vessel were none other than his pals, Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen and Stephen’s sister, who would later be known as the famous writer, Virginia Woolf. Horace and his accomplices were given a tour of the ship and its impressive guns, with Adrian Stephen replying with exotic fragments of Swahili, Greek and Latin as the pranksters were led through the vessel. One of the phrases he used, “Bunga Bunga,” later became sensationalized in Britain after the scandalous prank came to light.
When the British Royal Navy realized it had been duped by the country’s greatest prankster, they were understandably bitter—especially when the people of Britain began to mock them with the “Bunga Bunga” quote. Nevertheless, they never pursued any legal repercussions against Horace. A group of naval officers did, however, personally visit the master prankster at his home to show their disapproval.
Pranking, unfortunately, seemed to be the only thing at which Horace de Vere Cole could excel. In marriage and in money, his luck was very poor. In 1936, the great prankster of Britain died in France after suffering a heart attack.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.