There’s so much information on the internet about the Dreadnought Hoax that it’s difficult to say anything new about it. So, instead I’ll look at how the hoax was recalled by two of its participants, the lgbt siblings Adrian Stephen (1883-1948) and Virginia Stephen (1882-1941), better known by her married name of Virginia Woolf.
First, here’s the YouTube video which describes the Dreadnought Hoax.
As with the preceding Zanzibar Hoax it is believed that the press got hold of the Dreadnought story from Horace Cole himself. In his account Adrian Stephen was certain of this fact, though it appears he didn’t actually ask Cole if that was the case. Virginia was equally sure it was Cole.
As far as Adrian and Virginia were concerned their prank was over and done with as soon as they got home, but Horace Cole insisting on all the participants gathering together and posing for photographs the next day. Adrian and Virginia believed that these photos were just meant to be private momentos. They were both surprised to see one of those photos splashed all over the front page of the Daily Mirror a couple of days later.
Below is a reproduction of the front page of the Daily Mirror on 16th February 1910. The Daily Mirror was, and still is, one of the more sensationalist and unreliable national newspapers in the UK. It has often courted controversy for the accuracy of its content. The Dreadnought story covered three pages and it wasn’t long before other newspapers took up the story.
The Daily Mirror reminded its readers that Cole had been the ring-leader of the 1905 Zanzibar Hoax and printed the “momento” photo for which the Zanzibar hoaxers posed in costume in addition to the new Dreadnought photo. This is another reason to be sure it was Cole who gave the newspaper the story – only he and Adrian Stephen had been involved in both hoaxes and only they had both photos.
One of the most famous legacies of the Dreadnought Hoax may actually have been invented by the press. That is the phrase “bunga bunga”. Nowhere in either account by Adrian Stephen or Virginia Woolf did they ever say that they used the words “bunga bunga” at any time during the hoax. Both refer to it in relation to events that happened after the press published the story. Adrian mentions that it was first included in a newspaper interview. He supposed this was with an assistant to the costumier who supplied their Arabian costumes and make-up. It certainly wasn’t a first-hand account – he wasn’t there.
It doesn’t appear that Horace Cole ever wrote his own personal account of either the Zanzibar Hoax or the Dreadnought Hoax. He was content just to pass the story on to the press. After his death in 1936 there was renewed interest in both hoaxes, and Adrian Stephen was persuaded to write his own account. A small book was the result. But this time his sister Virginia was a well-known writer and was married to Leonard Woolf. Together Virginia and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, and it was they who published Adrian’s book.
Adrian states clearly from the start that he doesn’t think he has the right talent to write an account, but he manages to give a very readable and engaging little book. It is presented in a straight-forward manner which supports his other claim that he lacks the imagination to exaggerate. His book was a hit. Not a best-seller but popular enough to help keep the memory of the hoax alive to be reprinted by Chatto and Windus in 1983.
Virginia Woolf, even with her reputation as an accomplished writer, never had her account published in print. Instead she decided to turn it into a talk that she gave to the Women’s Institute in Rodmell in 1940. It gives us a glimpse into Virginia’s sense of fun.
She was invited to give a talk on books and publishing. Why she chose to speak about the Dreadnought Hoax instead was a result of a BBC radio broadcast on April Fool’s Day three months earlier. Virginia began her talk by asking her audience if they had heard that broadcast also. It was a programme about Horace Cole and his practical jokes. Virginia mentioned her own involvement with the Dreadnought Hoax and proceeded to entertain the audience with her version of events.
The talk was a resounding success, and it is recalled by one attendee as leaving everyone helpless with laughter. Virginia enjoyed the reception so much that she gave the talk again a while later at the Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club, a select group of members of the literary, artistic and academic circle formed by the Stephen siblings at their home. E. M. Forster was present at that second talk and he, too, recalled being helpless with laughter.
Virginia didn’t give her talk again after that. She died the following year. Her brother Adrian died in 1948. The only known manuscript of the talk passed to Virginia’s widower, Leonard Woolf. In 1955 Dame Frances Farrer of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes wrote to Leonard to ask if he had a copy of the talk for the institute’s archives. Leonard sent his copy, requesting that it be copied and returned as it was the only one. Whether Dame Frances did return it is uncertain, because the copy that went with the Women’s Institute archives to the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University is the original, with Virginia Woolf’s hand-written notes in the margins.
The fact that there is still so much about the Dreadnought Hoax on the internet is a testimony to its outrageous audacity and its legendary status. Perhaps the Zanzibar Hoax would not be remembered outside Cambridge if it weren’t for Adrian Stephen and Virginia Woolf writing down their accounts of the Dreadnought Hoax. Without them all we would have of the Zanzibar Hoax would be newspaper reports and some private correspondence.
Even if some people have yet to learn of the either the Zanzibar or Dreadnought Hoax they may have come across its famous catchphrase, even if it wasn’t used. So, to end, the only thing left to say is “bunga bunga”!