February, 1910. Herbert Cholmondeley of the Foreign Office arrived at Paddington Station with a delegation of Emperor of Abyssinia in England on an official business. He approached the stationmaster- it seemed the dignitaries had planned a visit to HMS Dreadnought, pride of the British navy, down in Weymouth. Would the station master be able to arrange a private car for the honored guests? He could, and he did. Once arrived at their destination, the princes were greeted by an honor guard, and the national anthem of Zanzibar was played. The foreign visitors were allowed to inspect the fleet and even bestowed military honors on some of the officers. Mr. Chomondeley translated for the exotics, and regretted that they could not stay for lunch for religious reasons.
And it would have been except that the whole thing was a prank. The Emperor and princes were Bloomsburyites in black face and on the razzle, among them Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen as the translator, and even Adrian’s sister Virginia Woolf (that’s her on the far left). In a few weeks the story broke (leaked, no doubt) and a photograph of the guilty made the pages of the Daily Mirror. The man behind the stunt was William Cole (that’s him on the right).
The whole thing was most embarrassing for the navy, of course, but really, that’s a bit unfair. It happened that the Emperor of Abyssinia was in the country, and was making the rounds. Even presuming anyone in officialdom had suspicions about this particular lot, at what point can you do something about it? Does the risk of creating an international incident outweigh the the risk of being made a fool of? Of course, when the real Emperor of Abyssinia showed up, the Navy regretted that it would be impossible for him to visit the ship. (The aftermath demonstrates a thoroughly British sense of fair play and proportion – some navy officers tracked down Cole and threatened to give him a sound thrashing. In the event, they gave him two ceremonial taps. He was, after all, a Public School Man.)
He was of respectable lineage (his brother–in-law was Neville Chamberlain), a product of Eton and Cambridge, the kind of upper class twit that fueled Wodehouse and others. And, like Bertie Wooster, he never quite grew up. Certainly the jokes never got any more sophisticated. He was the one who threw a dinner party for a group of men unknown to each other whose only commonality was the word “bottom” someplace in their surname. He would occasionally go about town with a cow’s udder hanging out the front of his trousers, and when suitable shock and awe was achieved, finished off the show by pulling out a pair of scissors and cutting off the silly thing. He came upon some ditch diggers in London and convinced them to pack up tools and move their activities to Piccadilly Circus, and even got a policeman to re-direct traffic. One night on his second honeymoon, he spread horse manure in St Marks Square, the gag being that horses do not normally frequent St Marks Square. (It’s approaches the cerebral in its concept, and one has to ask oneself how funny could it have been, really?) A resemblance to Labour party Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald provided him the opportunity to give rousing speeches on the dangers of socialism.
Old age does not suit men such as Cole, and even close family soon weary of incessant silliness. His first wife – an heiress whose fortune he helped lose in bad speculation – left him; his second wife bore a child by Augustus John while still married to Cole. When money became truly tight, he was forced to move to France, where the sense of humor was less Benny Hill and more Fernandel. Worse, he developed a personal sense of dignity that karma nailed him on. The most notorious line about him comes from the Dictionary of National Biography: “advanced deafness prevented him from realizing that his carefully timed coughing was inadequate to cover his explosive breaking of wind.”
Brother-in-law Neville entered 10 Downing Street a year after Cole died, no doubt relieved that the fellow would not be around to make a fool out of him.
Alas, poor Neville. He saved that distinction for himself.
More on Cole can be found in The Sultan of Zanzibar: The Bizarre World and Spectacular Hoaxes of Horace De Vere Cole, by Martyn Downer.