The Dreadnought Hoax

April 2024

The Dreadnought Hoax is one of the most fantastical events of all naval and maritime history. In 1910 four white English people – three men and one woman – pretended to be members of the Abyssinian royal family, complete with black face make up, false beards and magnificent robes, and were given a tour of HMS Dreadnought, the most powerful battleship ever built, the pride of the Royal Navy and the pride of the British Empire. The hoax worked like a dream. No-one suspected a thing. Even more remarkable, one of those people was none other than the young Virgina Woolf, yet to be married and take the name of Woolf and yet to amaze with world with her intellect and literary skill. It is a story that touches on questions of race, gender and empire; on credulity, outrage and humour; on cultural norms and expectations; and all wrapped in ideas about seapower. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Danell Jones, author of the excellent new book The Girl Prince: Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought Hoax.

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    Sam Willis  00:09

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast, a truly fantastic story for you today. The Dreadnought hoax an event so fantastical, I couldn’t quite work out what I was reading when I first came across it. So let’s start with the bare essentials of this extraordinary tale. In 1910, four white English people, three men and one woman dressed up as members of the Abyssinian royal family complete with black face makeup, false beards and magnificent robes, and were given a tour of HMS Dreadnought, the most powerful battleship ever built, the pride of the Royal Navy and the pride of the British Empire. That in itself is remarkable. But even weirder is the fact that the woman in the group was none other than the lady by the name of Virginia Stephen, better known to you all for her married name, for she was none other than the famed writer Virginia Woolf. Though for this tale she is, of course, a bearded male member of the Abyssinian royal family. We have a story here that touches on questions of race, gender and Empire, on credulity, outrage and humour, on cultural norms and expectations. And it’s all wrapped up in the shiny paper of sea power. What a story, what a present. Not only that, but to deliver to our nautical ears this magnificent present   I spoke with the one lady who knows it better than anyone else. Danell Jones is a writer and scholar with a PhD in literature from Columbia University. And she spoke with me from her home in Montana, where I would very much like to go on holiday. So to take us from the wilds of Montana via the dusty heat of the Abyssinian empire in East Africa to the chilly grey waters of Weymouth and the stern and daunting decks of a British battleship, unlike any other that had ever been built, here  is the deeply knowledgeable and very lovely Danell. As ever, I trust you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her. Danell, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.


    Danell Jones  02:35

    Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be here, Sam.


    Sam Willis  02:38

    What a wonderful story. I  get sent books and ideas about books all the time and I read this one ; I thought it was absolutely fantastic,  I knew nothing about it at all. So I’ve had a really wonderful time learning all about this quite remarkable story. Let’s start by just telling people who Horace de Vere Cole was, because none of this makes sense unless you know who this extraordinary character was.


    Danell Jones  03:01

    Horace de Vere Cole, a rascal. He was a very wealthy eccentric who defined his life through pranks. And I think they really started when he was at Cambridge. That’s where he met Virginia Woolf’s  brother  Adrian, and they began to do minor pranks there at Cambridge. They did things like join a foot race halfway between, so they were miles ahead of the closest competitor and won the race.  Horace would dress up as a bishop and, I don’t  know, baptise.  He did something to young boys and he just did these crazy pranks. And one of the things that he loved doing at Cambridge when people were sent down, he would do faux funerals to mark that they had been kicked out of the university. So he had plenty of practice doing hoaxes before he got to the Dreadnought hoax.


    Sam Willis  04:08

    Yes, I mean it’s fascinating just thinking about this guy, and  we know about what he got up to at Cambridge; he must have been what, 19 or so, maybe a bit younger  when he was there. There’s  no way he started doing it age 19,  he would have been a nightmare of a kid.


    Danell Jones  04:24

    Nightmare of a kid. He was probably a bit older, because interestingly enough he’d actually been to the Boer War;  he was severely injured.   He thought he was going to make his career as  an army officer  but because of his injury he was out quite quickly. So he was slightly older but not that much. Maybe he was 20. But young.


    Sam Willis  04:50

    One of the hoaxes at Cambridge that really stands out is the Cambridge Zanzibar hoax because that’s got clear racial lines, along with the Dreadnought hoax.  So can you just talk a little about the Cambridge Zanzibar hoax  and what Horace got up to there.


    Danell Jones  05:06

    Yes. So the Sultan of Zanzibar was actually a pretty well known figure in England.  He had come to England to be schooled and he was having difficulty with the Regent who’d been in charge of his country. So he was trying to get back to England and talk to the King to see if he could get his power back, or get his power in the first place after his father died.  And so Horace and Adrian Stephen decided  wouldn’t it be grand fun to masquerade as him and hoax the Mayor of Cambridge. It turns out that the Sultan had been so often in the newspapers with his pictures. The newspapers of the day loved portraying him as this sort of Sultan, this debonair man about town  you know, with his tennis racket and his fancy cars.  They got scared at the last minute and decided to be just an uncle. And so they pretend to be an uncle, they dress up, they go to the most important costumier of the time, Willie Clarkson, who gives them all the costumes. And this is black face, black hands, just unbelievable by today’s standards. And they arrive in Cambridge about 5.30 In the afternoon, they get a complete tour, they go through Trinity College, which is their college, nobody recognises them, and they get off pretty much scot free, although when it’s revealed of course Horace wants the attention.  So he reports it to all the newspapers, it’s covered in Society magazines like the Tatler and of course it’s incredibly embarrassing to the Mayor of Cambridge. The Mayor hires a private detective to try to figure out who these people were and to see if he can get them kicked out, but they hadn’t done anything illegal so they managed to get away with it.  Afterwards, Cole sets up his  rooms with  exotic fruits and things, handing out signed photographs of the studio portrait he had taken before the hoax, so this is his bread and butter, this is what he loves. He leaves Cambridge without a degree but claims that he got honours in hoaxing. So this was his identity.


    Sam Willis  07:35

    1. So he’s got a history of hoaxes. He’s got a history of doing elaborate hoaxes concerning high ranking dignitaries from Africa that involve wearing blackface, that involve going in costume. So Danell how does Virginia Woolf fit into all of this first off, just tell us a bit about who she was for those who don’t recognise the name.


    Danell Jones  08:01

    Yes, well Virginia Woolf was really one of the most important writers of the 20th century. And I think what people really admire about her novels in particular are really the way that they explore human identity and consciousness and experience with really unparalleled depth and sensitivity. So her novels;  some of her most famous are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. But  also the other thing that interests me about her is that she was also an ardent pacifist, as well as somebody very concerned about women’s rights.  And I think it’s really easy to forget that at her time women were not taken seriously as artists. So it’s important to remember that at the time famous writers like Arnold Bennett, who was the richest and one of the most popular novelists at the time, was arguing that men were just superior to women. They were more creative, they were more intellectual,  there was no comparison.  The only writer he considered even comparable to men was Emily Bronte, she was the only woman he would even consider putting in the category of male writers. So as you can imagine, for Virginia Woolf, this irritated her, but it also inspired her to really talk about women’s creativity. And she wrote books like A Room of One’s Own, in which she argues that women have been at a disadvantage for a long time, and that their creativity needs to be protected and celebrated.


    Sam Willis  09:36

    So on the one hand we’ve got Horace de Vere Cole who seems to have been a professional idiot, maybe quite entertaining, but certainly someone who was willing to do anything at all. On the other hand, we’ve got Virginia Woolf, who seems to be incredibly thoughtful, incredibly intelligent and incredibly talented as an artist. How on earth did these two meet each other?


    Danell Jones  09:56

    Yes, great question, Sam. Well, remember  in the hoax it’s 1910, she’s only 28 years old, she’s working as a journalist, but she hasn’t yet published her first novel. And she meets Horace de Vere Cole through her brother, Adrian Stephen, and they have known each other at Cambridge University. They’ve become fast friends there. And so he comes into her life as her brother’s friend who is showing up at the house that they share.  Going into the drawing room, slamming the door shut, she’s hearing whispering, they clearly don’t want her involved, so she is curious as to what’s happening. And at the last minute  they need two extra people and they end up asking for Virginia and another Bloomsbury group member, Duncan Grant, to join them in this escapade.


    Sam Willis  10:51

    What’s the Bloomsbury group?


    Danell Jones  10:52

    The Bloomsbury group is a small group of writers and artists who developed this kind of wonderful community in the early 20th Century, where they were experimenting with writing, experimenting with art and criticism. And they were all close friends, and they celebrated friendship, life, creativity and the arts.


    Sam Willis  11:17

    OK, so Horace picks a couple of members from the Bloomsbury group. So let’s bring in the the third and final antagonist in this ridiculous story, the Dreadnought.  What’s going on, tell us about the  Dreadnought.


    Danell Jones  11:30

    The Dreadnought was really the most celebrated battleship in the early 20th century when it was launched in 1906. It was the fastest, the most powerful ship ever created, and it becomes an instant celebrity. And after new battleships were made that were even faster and more powerful, it retains the celebrity, it really captures the imagination, not only of Britons,  for whom it was this symbolically powerful ship, but the entire Empire and the entire world. Everybody knew about the Dreadnought. So that’s when I say that when I think about the Dreadnought hoax, when the pranksters went aboard the Dreadnought  in February 1910, they weren’t just stepping on a deck of a ship, they were stepping on an international stage. The Dreadnought had been in the papers, everybody knew about it. The summer before it was a star of a naval review on the Thames. The first day of that review a million people showed up in London, tens of thousands of people showed up at Southend to see it. Everybody knew what the Dreadnought was.


    Sam Willis  12:41

    So we’ve got this very important cultural icon, an almost inconceivable symbolic status to us, speaking about it over a century later. I think there’s another important aspect of this we need to cover before we go on to them actually doing their hoax. And that is the competition between ships, pranks, whatever it might be. Tell us a little bit about competitiveness between the crews of Royal Naval Ships.


    Danell Jones  13:13

    Well, the week before the Dreadnought hoax, I looked at the logs of the Dreadnought, and they are constantly playing games doing exercises, they are always interacting with other ships. Now we don’t know for sure who instigated the Dreadnought hoax, but Horace claimed he did. Adrian said a naval officer. Other people have said naval officers, but in Woolfe’s story, and this may or may not be true, she claimed it was the officers of the HMS Hawk, a fellow ship. Technically that probably can’t be true because of other things that she said. But there’s an ongoing competition between naval ships, and so the idea that one ship pranks another ship seems certainly possible.


    Sam Willis  14:14

    It’s very plausible I mean, the idea being that the crew of one ship decided to get on top of HMS Dreadnought’s crew and put them in their place. It rang very true to me but also it’s so dangerous and so courageous as well,  to actually  decide to do something. And what they did unfortunately  is they let Horace in on the case and then  suddenly it was out of their control. Here is a man who  had crazy ideas. So what was Horace’s idea? What was the hoax?


    Danell Jones  14:46

    So what they would do is hire once again Willie Clarkson, the most famous costumier in London, and have him dress them up as Princes  of Abyssinia.  They would motor over to Lafayette studios, get their portrait taken, because that’s what foreign dignitaries did at the time, then they would take the three and a half hour train ride down to Weymouth.  As the train is in progress they have another co- conspirator send a telegram to Admiral May, the Dreadnought is his flagship, saying, Oh, oops, this is from the Foreign Office, we forgot to tell you but these dignitaries are going to be there in 40 minutes.  May has done a million of these dog and pony shows for dignitaries, he gets everybody going, he has his officers and their full dress uniforms. So you know, they have their swords of rank, they have their hats, they have all the gear they have to put on. They have to get the Marines lined up, the Band has to have a song, they have to get the nation’s flags up,  so this is a huge rush. And he’s doing all of this; he sends a Lieutenant Willoughby down to the station who sees what he thinks are four Abyssinians, a guy from the Foreign Office, and a German interpreter, and takes them out to the ship. They do quick introductions, the Captain of the ship  takes them for a tour, and 45 minutes later they send them off and they’re back on the train to London. But it’s really not till the next day that Admiral May gets a letter saying did you have visitors yesterday; some guy came in, this Cole guy, and said that he had hoaxed the Dreadnought, what’s going on, and from there things explode at the Admiralty. But I think it’s important to remember that for the first five days, it was private, the Admiralty knew and the hoaxers knew. And according to both Virginia Woolf and her brother, they had meant to keep the whole thing private. And I think that’s important, because if there were naval conspirators, either an inside man in the Dreadnought or other ships, they would not have wanted this to get public. This would have just been an inside joke. But as you said, Sam, they did not count on Horace de Vere Cole for whom publicity was the main thing in life. And so five days later it gets revealed to the Daily Mail, huge circulation and bam, there it goes. A  couple of  days after that their photographs, the studio photographs, are printed. .


    Sam Willis  17:34

    Right. Let’s talk about those photographs. Because your book starts with the the publication of this photograph. We’ve got 3, 4, 6 people here;  explain just who they are, what they look like, because that’s the important bit.


    Danell Jones  17:49

    Well this is Virginia Woolf, who was unmarried at the time. So Virginia Stephen,  Duncan Grant, who would go on to be a famous painter, Horace de Vere Cole, dressed as the Foreign Office liaison, Woolf’s brother, Adrian  Stephen, he’s the tallest at six foot five, dressed up as he said looking like a seedy commercial salesman in a bowler hat and some suntan cream. You also have, seated, Anthony Buxton, who would also  go on to be a naturalist writer,  a nd Guy Ridley, he  is another one of the faux African princes.  There  are four people in so called African disguise, and then two in British dress, and it’s clearly a studio photograph. And the way that they’re seated, looks weird to us. But it would have been immediately understandable to Edwardians, who saw a million of these photographs of dignitaries from all over the world who actually had their photographs taken in this very same studio. And it looks very much like a photograph of some actual Ethiopian princes who were there for King Edward the Seventh’s  Coronation a few years before. So it is a striking photograph, because it is set up in exactly the way one would expect for real dignitaries. But of course they’re all fake.


    Sam Willis  19:28

    Yes, let’s talk about Virginia because she’s  dressed up as an Abyssinia man, she has a beard, she has a turban, she has a splendid gown of some description.


    Danell Jones  19:42

    Yes. And the newspapers at the time  claimed that de Vere Cole spent 500 pounds, a huge amount of money at the time, just on the jewels. Now when I look at the photograph I’m not sure they have any jewels on, what they do have  on, the faux Africans, are turbans, beards, elaborate costumes that perhaps were more akin to a theatrical production than an actual Ethiopian royal gown. They wear crosses around their necks because Horace understood enough about Ethiopia to know that they were Christians and they would have worn these things. And they are all looking very dignified and solemnly at the camera as though they are taking their roles in earnest.


    Sam Willis  20:40

    Yes, all of them in blackface, one of them with a blacker face than the others, which is interesting.


    Danell Jones  20:47

    Yes, you have to wonder about that. In the Zanzibar hoax  I noticed that Adrian’s costume was much different than the others  and  I think that’s because he got there late, and so they were quickly trying to get him in costume. And I do wonder if that happened again, if they were running out of time and so they really just slap on whatever. It could have taken hours for them to get this make up put on. And I think that what’s so striking to me is that in all the reporting that I read about this hoax, nobody says a word about the hoaxers in blackface make up. And that’s in part because blackface Minstrel shows were so common and so popular at the time. This was one of the most common entertainments of the era; the St. James Theatre in Piccadilly filled its 2000 seat auditorium six nights a week for blackface Minstrel shows. So, that does not mean that people at the time did not object to this kind of theatrical performance.  A.B.C. Merriman-Labor, a writer and barrister from Sierra Leone, just a few months before had published a book, Britons through Negro spectacles, in which he lamented this kind of entertainment, and how insulting it was to Africans who were fellow subjects of the British Empire.


    Sam Willis  22:21

    I think it’s particularly interesting that they got away with it obviously, because I know Virginia Woolf is a woman in this, but she looks like a woman with a beard stuck on who’s got blackface makeup. That doesn’t look like an Abyssinian prince.


    Danell Jones  22:37

    You know, there’s a couple things that I wonder about, I’m curious what you think about this Sam.  First of all, I was thinking they’ve learned from the Zanzibar hoax that if you get there at dusk, you might have a better opportunity to get away with things because the light isn’t very good. Second, I’m really curious about what you think about this, I have a theory that because of the military hierarchy, if your Captain and your Admiral are accepting these people as real Abyssinians, even if you question it, are you going to say anything?


    Sam Willis  23:13

    Yes, it’s really interesting, that really makes a lot of sense, the way the hierarchy in the Navy would work. Which means that for it to happen, if you go in at the top, and you get a level of acceptance from someone who’s high enough ranking, you’re going to get away with it to a certain extent. And there might have been people sniggering on board saying actually I don’t believe this, this isn’t right at all. It really raises the question, how did they get on board?


    Danell Jones  23:40

    They sent a telegram less than an hour before they were about to arrive. That got delivered right to the Dreadnought, copied out, handed to Admiral May. So they somehow knew exactly how to do that. Now, Cole later on says that partly they got away with this because he went to a post office that was staffed by women, and they would send anything, but that seems very unlikely. There were more women working in post offices and telegraph offices in particular, but from the research I did it appears that any time there was any important, particularly military kind of correspondence, that would have always been handled by men. So there was segregation in the telegraph system as well, and women were relegated to more unimportant work.


    Sam Willis  24:45

    Yes ,the more you look into this story, the more it becomes a kind of a crazy box of frogs. So it’s wonderful. To me, when I read that bit saying he’d chosen a post office which was only staffed by women, because they were less likely to question him, it simply raised a few alarm bells. They clearly had some kind of insider knowledge, knowing not only how to get in touch with someone on the Dreadnought, but I think the most important thing is who to get in touch with on the Dreadnought. So there has to be someone who would not feel their feathers being ruffled but just being honoured.  An important telegram like this saying there’ll be some Abyssinian royalty coming might have helped them in their career or they were one way or another gullible. There’s a really interesting character, we don’t know who he is, on board the Dreadnought. They specifically said this too, and I think that’s great.


    Danell Jones  25:56

    Well, and you know, the other thing to remember is that Virginia and her brother Adrian have a close relative who’s an officer aboard the Dreadnought. Their cousin William Fisher is the Admiral’s Flag Commander. The key here is, they hate him.  They think their Fisher cousins, as Virginia would say, would have made Eden uninhabitable. They just think he’s pompous,they would love to take him down a notch. So I do think he was one of the targets, certainly for Virginia. But  also thinking about why they had to have an inside person is important, because how do they know what day to go? The Dreadnought was in harbour on the Monday they went, it wasn’t on Tuesday. If they’d gone on  Wednesday it would have just been coming back from its exercises. So they needed to know when to get there, how long to stay, how to get the telegram, would they need any documents? I mean, so many things that could have gone wrong didn’t. So I’m not convinced by people who argue it was just that they were incredibly lucky and it was this madcap hoax.. And isn’t it amazing they got away with it. I think they did plan,  and I think that Adrian was also an attorney. So a lot of the details meant that the actual hoaxers who went aboard the ship were not connected with any money so there would be no transgression that they could link to an actual crime. There was only one crime that they committed, and that was by the person who sent the telegram, which violated a post office law, but he wasn’t even on the ship. They didn’t have a picture of him but they do track him down. But you can imagine the poor Admiralty, what are they going to do? This guy wasn’t even aboard the ship. Moreover their lawyer is telling them you can prosecute this, but if you get a Magistrate who thinks this is hilarious, he’s going to fine them. 40 shillings?


    Sam Willis  28:12

    Yes, you’ll be embarrassed. There’s one other glaring question here, why Abyssinia?. Why did they decide?  They’d done Zanzibar in Cambridge? What on earth made them think of Abyssinia? So for those listeners who don’t know, Abyssinia is what Ethiopia was known as.  What’s going on there?


    Danell Jones  28:35

    Well, I think there’s a couple of reasons. Perhaps the primary one is that Emperor Menelik, and they’re pretending to be relatives of Menelik, was incredibly famous at the time. He’s a household word, he  has employed European PR agents to project his image to the world. Ethiopia is being sold as the African Alps.  Everybody knows who he is, he’s reported in the newspapers, so he’s a quite familiar figure. So saying that you’re related to Menelik, a lot of people would know that. I also think that for the hoaxers, who all went to public school, and for Americans listening that’s private school, they had a classical education full of Greek and Latin writers, and so many Greek writers, Homer and Herodotus, and the Greek myths talk about Ethiopia and Ethiopian people. So I think that many of the hoaxers really saw what was called Abyssinia at the time as this incredibly romantic place whose history or stories were deeply woven into the classical education that they had gotten as school boys.


    Sam Willis  29:58

    So they managed to get on board. We’ve got three men  and  one woman, all dressed up as bearded Abyssinian princes. What happens next? What do they do? How do they speak?


    Dannel Jones  30:11

    Well so Adrian, who wrote a memoir of this in the 1930s, claimed that on their way down on that three and a half hour trip from London to Weymouth they picked up a book of Swahili words in the train station, and try to memorise a few on their way down. So many problems with that story.


    Sam Willis  30:39

    it’s brilliant!


    Danell Jones  30:41

    First of all, if Horace de Vere Cole knew that they were Christians, he made up names for them that began with Ras, which is an Ethiopian word for royalty, so he knew it was Amharic and not Swahili. So they knew in my opinion quite well that they did not speak Swahili. This is all part of the ongoing joke I believe.


    Sam Willis  31:10

    I would just say that Swahili is the language they speak on the East coast of Africa, it goes  right down the coast, not in Ethiopia.


    Danell Jones  31:17

    Right, exactly. So they claim they get there and Adrian starts in on his Swahilli, but he has only five or six words, quickly runs out of it, and so he decides off the cuff that he will just use his his schoolboy education. And he starts reciting lines from the Aeneid, and he just garbled them, because he figures that the naval officers won’t have that classical education and won’t recognise it. And that works perfectly and they don’t recognise it at all, but I don’t think any of that’s true. I mean, if my theory of an inside man on the ship is true, they might have had to say a few words at the introductions at the very beginning. But then they’re just with their escort for the rest of the time and they don’t have to speak anything. And part of the reason I believe that is because Adrian, what he wanted to be more than anything, was an actor. And he was in several performances, and he was actually quite good as it turns out. So as an actor  I think he would have been committed to learning his role and would have had a vocabulary. On the other hand, you know, he’s with madcap Horace de Vere Cole, so who knows? Maybe they were just being ridiculous.


    Sam Willis  32:37

    Well, I mean, they were all being ridiculous.   I’m quite a silly person, I appreciate the ridiculousness of this. There is no way I could have done it without laughing,


    Danell Jones  32:47

    Right, exactly, especially when they’re greeting their first cousin who greets them when they’re at the side.


    Sam Willis  32:57

    Another point, we should mention, they’re not anonymous, their first cousin is on board.


    Danell Jones  33:04

    Moreover, the Captain of the ship, Captain Richmond, is in a very small walking club with Virginia’s brother, Adrian, so they have spent miles walking across the countryside together. And again, as I said before, Adrian is six foot five. His disguise is a bowler hat and some suntan powder on his face. There’s no way the Captain wouldn’t have recognised him.


    Sam Willis  33:33

    Wow, there’s so much more here. So when it all unravels and they’re discovered, what happened, were they punished, were they held accountable at all.


    Danell Jones  33:46

    Oh boy, some people really wanted them to be accountable. Incredible as it seems they were discussed in the House of Commons. And there were members of Parliament who wanted to see them taken into account but you know, the Admiralty more than anyone really wanted them to be arrested and punished. But it turned out that only Guy Ridley had violated the Post Office Act, and they were quite afraid that the magistrate would not give them a severe punishment. They could they could have gotten up to a year imprisonment with or without hard labour. But that was a big risk. And after a couple of months, this went on; it was reported globally for at least two months after the hoax, and by that time Admiral May had cooled off and he didn’t want to risk more embarrassment. He didn’t want to bring it up again. He really realised you have to just let this go and it will go away. If you keep the drama going the newspapers are loving this story, and if you get a trial     these are more headlines. So  in the end, they completely got away with it,   they were not punished at all.


    Sam Willis  35:09

    One of the things that I think is fascinating about it is this. They’re very intelligent, Virginia being part of it as well.   Was it just like a student prank and they really didn’t think it through? Or had they actually thought it through? Were they deliberately mocking something?  What was the purpose behind it? I think this is really interesting considering we know Virginia’s views on race and Empire especially.


    Danell Jones  35:41

    I would say that each of the pranksters had different motives. I think that Horace de Vere Cole’s motive was to be famous. And he would do whatever that took and he was probably incredibly motivated to hoax a world famous ship.  I think Virginia was motivated by her brother; probably Virginia and Adrian were motivated by the idea of hoaxing their cousin and embarrassing him. The other hoaxers, I don’t know, but it’s important to do a caveat for Virginia because over time she reinterprets the hoax as she retells the story as a really anti colonial, anti imperialist, feminist statement. And she’ll write short stories in the 1920s,where she brings in the hoax, and really shows it as a way to make fun of masculine patriarchal ideas of honour and power. So over time, she definitely sees it as anti imperialist, but I’m not convinced that’s how she thought of it in 1910. But I think that’s one of the interesting things about stories that become legends, which the Dreadnought hoax did.  Its meanings change over time. And that’s one of the things that has really interested me about this hoax, because loads of hoaxes took place in 1910. And this is the only one we remember, because as it’s retold over the years, it allows us to explore different problems and anxieties that we’re suffering in our own time. And I think, for example, in 1910 the newspapers were obsessed about the idea of a woman masquerading as a man. For us today in the 21st century, after our racial reckoning, for us it’s the idea of this incredible pacifist, feminist, well educated woman, dressing in blackface. We can’t reconcile that, it’s difficult for us to put those things together.


    Sam Willis  37:54

    Yes, I think what’s clear is that they, for whatever the motivations were at time, are very happy poking the society that they’re part of, and then particularly poking the Royal Naval aspect of it .  You can’t consider that the Navy is an institution which is the same as the society of which it is part.  It’s fundamentally different, culturally distinct, but they found a way of poking them both at the same time, which I think is fascinating.


    Danell Jones  38:24

    Yes, and I think one thing that they did that might be hard for us to see today is that they chose black princes and that really put into conflict two hierarchies of understanding the world. You have this old order where God is first and then then the King or the Queen, and then the aristocracy. So you have this old world order, where being royalty gives you the utmost status. You also have this new hierarchy, which is based on Darwinian ideas. And this is where pseudo scientists have come up with this idea of the races of mankind, that have white people at the top of a hierarchy and black skinned people at the bottom. So what they basically did is they posed as people who, because they were aristocrats, commanded deference by ordinary people, even military officers, but at the same time they were black.  And so according to this new pseudo science, they were inferior to everyone. So they really brought those two conflicting ideas about hierarchies and the human condition into conflict with each other. And I think that was one of the things that is easy for us to lose sight of and that made the hoax so interesting I think at the time, and perhaps motivated Horace de Vere Cole really juxtaposing those two things.


    Sam Willis  40:01

    Yes well, it’s an extraordinary story. I’d encourage everyone listening to this podcast to get the book and read it. Just tell us about the book in which you you describe this story so well.


    Danell Jones  40:12

    Right, so this is called the Girl Prince, Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought hoax. And you can pretty much get it anywhere online or in bookstores published by Hearst., and it is fair to say Sam, it’s really not a dry book. I tried to tell good stories in it.


    Sam Willis  40:35

    And it’s amazing. It’s also impossible not to tell this story in an entertaining way, and you’ve done that. Absolutely brilliant. The sources available are also fascinating, there’s so much there for historians. But Danell thank you very much indeed for sharing this with us today.


    Danell Jones  40:50

    Oh, Sam, thank you so much for having me. It was really fun  and  I know we could probably talk the rest of the day.


    Sam Willis  41:01

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now if you want to find out more, please go and buy Danell’s book. It’s called the Girl Prince, Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought hoax. Please don’t forget that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. You can find the where you can join up, it’s a brilliant way of supporting the podcast, please please join up. I can’t urge you anymore. It’s a brilliant way not only finding out about the past from the very best in the business, but also of meeting like minded people. And the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s heritage and Education Centre, you can find that And you can look into all of their extraordinary projects that they’re up to at the minute and please in particular, look out to search it out, find it and watch it MIaritime Iinnovation In Miniature filming the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment. The results are completely astonishing.

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