The early part of the 20th century was undoubtedly the age of great practical jokes, which were played out on friend and foe alike. The supreme exponent of this kind of trickery was William Horace de Vere Cole, the man who turned hoaxing into an art form. Nothing delighted him more than seeing the Establishment with egg on its face. Horace de Vere Cole was an eccentric prankster and poet born in Ireland, who rubbed shoulders with some of the great figures of his day.
He once dared an MP to race him to the nearest street corner with a ten-yard start; having already slipped his gold watch into the man’s pocket, he shouted for the police as the man appeared to flee from him. They promptly arrested the politician as a pickpocket. On another occasion, he gave a party at which the guests discovered that all their surnames included the word ‘bottom’; another time he gave theater tickets to all his bald friends, carefully buying seats so that, when looked at from above, the heads spelled out an expletive. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Cole had posed as the Sultan of Zanzibar — who was visiting London at the time — to make an official visit to his own college accompanied by his friend, Adrian Stephen (the brother of Virginia Woolf).
Cole and Adrian Stephen sought diversion while they were students at Cambridge. After a series of minor hoaxes, they decided to do something more elaborate. Stephen wanted to take command of a platoon of German soldiers and lead them across the French frontier to cause an incident. Cole’s idea was more feasible—to pose as the Sultan of Zanzibar and make a state visit to Cambridge.
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