Horace De Vere Cole – Master of Pranks

Horace de Vere Cole was a well-known prankster who once hosted a dinner party where all the guests had the word “bottom” in their surnames.

In today’s digital age, pranksters are a dime a dozen with the rise of platforms like YouTube. However, back in the pre-internet days, finding a good prankster was rare.

Horace de Vere Cole, an Irish-born Englishman from a wealthy and noble background, was one of the legendary pranksters of his time.

The Cambridge Zanzibar Hoax

Cole studied at Trinity College in Cambridge where he became famous for his pranks, including the Cambridge Zanzibar hoax.

In 1905, when Sayyid Ali bin Hamud Al-Busaid, the eighth Sultan of Zanzibar, visited England, Cole and his friend Adrian Stephen wanted to arrange a fake state visit of the Sultan to Cambridge. However, they realized it was risky as the Sultan’s picture had recently been printed in the press.

Instead, Cole impersonated the Sultan’s uncle and sent a telegram to the Mayor of Cambridge asking for a suitable reception. They borrowed some robes and turbans, applied fake tan, and took the train to Cambridge where they were greeted by a luxury carriage.

They toured the town and the college they were studying at, even being seen by friends who didn’t recognize them. After an hour, they demanded to be returned to the station, ran out a side exit, took a cab home, and changed into their normal clothes.

The prank went viral after Cole gave an interview to the Daily Mail, and although the Mayor was furious, he didn’t press charges as it would have damaged his reputation.

More Pranks

Cole loved pranking pompous figures of authority, especially after the Zanzibar hoax. He targeted politicians, businessmen, and military officers, and even resembled the then-Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

He once gave a public speech acting like the PM, attacking the Labour Party’s policy, which left everyone confused and concerned.

Cole was known for his elaborate pranks, such as dressing up as a foreman and getting his friends to dig a trench across Piccadilly or tricking his friend into carrying his gold Rolex by yelling “Stop! Thief!” and planting it in his pocket. He also enjoyed buying tickets to a pretentious play and giving them to bald men with black letters painted on their heads, spelling out an expletive when the lights shone on the audience. Cole’s infamous cow’s udder prank involved walking around with the appendage poking out of his trousers before abruptly chopping it off with scissors. On April Fools’ Day in 1919, Cole dropped horse manure onto the historic San Marco Piazza in Venice during his honeymoon. In the early 1900s, Cole led the Dreadnought Hoax, enlisting the help of friends to impersonate members of the Abyssinian royal family and trick the officers of the HMS Dreadnought.

Upon their arrival in Weymouth, the navy greeted them with a grand military honor guard, playing Zanzibar’s national anthem and waving their flag since they could not find Abyssinia’s flag. The group was given a tour and inspected the fleet, speaking in Latin and Greek and having Adrian Stephen “interpret” to bestow fake military honors on the officers. The officer leading the tour was Commander Willie Fisher, Adrian and Virginia’s cousin, who did not even recognize the two. The aftermath of the hoax included a group photo with the Commanding Officers of the Royal Navy and the Dreadnought, which Cole sent to the Daily Mail. The story went viral, causing the Navy to become the subject of public ridicule. The Navy demanded that the group be arrested, but since they had broken no laws, they got away with it, except for Virginia, who did not receive punishment. The group had to undergo a symbolic spanking on their buttocks from junior Royal Navy officers as a form of recompense. This is the life and times of Horace de Vere Cole, whose pranks were some of the most brilliant. So the next time you see a YouTube video of someone jumping out of a bin to scare someone, remember that it can never beat posing as royalty and getting a tour of a battleship!


1. Who was Horace De Vere Cole?

Horace De Vere Cole was a notorious prankster and practical joker from England. He was born in 1881 and gained notoriety for his elaborate and often outrageous hoaxes.

2. What were some of his most famous pranks?

Cole’s most famous prank was the Dreadnought hoax of 1910. He and a group of friends dressed up as a delegation from Abyssinia and managed to gain access to the HMS Dreadnought, a British battleship, where they were received with full military honors. Another famous prank was when he convinced the mayor of Venice to give him the keys to the city, claiming to be a representative of the King of Haiti.

3. How did Cole pull off these elaborate hoaxes?

Cole was a master of disguise and deception. He would often spend months planning and preparing for his hoaxes, researching his targets and carefully crafting his personas. He was also a skilled actor and convincingly played the part of his various characters.

4. Was Cole ever caught or punished for his pranks?

Cole was never officially punished for his pranks, although he did receive some backlash from those who were fooled by his hoaxes. He was once sued for fraud, but the case was eventually dropped. Cole was also briefly arrested during one of his pranks, but was released without charges.

5. What was Cole’s motivation for pulling these pranks?

Cole’s motivation for his pranks was primarily to entertain himself and his friends. He enjoyed the challenge of pulling off elaborate hoaxes and the thrill of seeing people fall for his deceptions.

6. Did Cole ever do anything besides pranking?

While Cole was primarily known for his pranks, he also had a successful career as an artist and illustrator. He was a founding member of the London Group, a collective of modernist artists, and his work was exhibited in galleries throughout Europe.

7. Did Cole ever express regret for his pranks?

There is no record of Cole expressing regret for his pranks. In fact, he seemed to relish in his notoriety and continued to pull off hoaxes throughout his life.

8. What is Cole’s legacy?

Cole’s legacy is that of a master prankster and practical joker. His hoaxes are still talked about and studied today, and he is considered one of the most notorious pranksters in history.

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