17 November 2012

Horace de Vere Cole, fake Sultan of Zanzibar

It must have been difficult to write a biography about an unlikeable chap from an important family, but Martin Downer did very well. His book, The Sultan of Zanzibar, was published by Black Spring Press in 2010.

Martin Downer's book

Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936)'s father was English, a senior officer in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and his Irish mother was born to a long line of nobility. His parents were rich, important and VERY well connected. Horace’s sister Anne de Vere Cole (1883–1967) later became the wife of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

When Horace was a child, terrible things happened to him. Firstly his father died. Then his mother hastily remarried. And thirdly a nasty bout of diphtheria left Horace hard of hearing. Not fully capable of connecting with the real world, he soon slipped into an interior world of his own. At Eton, being in the classroom was a difficult, frustrating experience for Horace. And his anger deepened when deafness barred him from the army, his father’s choice of career.

Instead he went to Cambridge to become a poet. Virginia Stephen Woolf's younger brother, Adrian Stephen, became a friend, playing a key role in Cole's jokes and in Cole's war on pomposity. The other famous sister, Vanessa Stephen Bell, thought Horace de Vere Cole was creepy.

Alas even his simplest jokes had a subversive intent, bullying rather than fun-filled. The author Martyn Downer depicted a mischievous and imaginative man with a malicious streak.

As an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1905, Cole and some larrikan friends put stage makeup on their faces and pretended to be a delegation from Zanzibar. The mayor of Cambridge truly believed Cole was the Sultan of Zanzibar.

In 1910 he and his friends worked on the Dreadnought Hoax. This involved the group, in make-up and fancy dress costumes, fooling the Royal Navy into giving the group a guided tour of all areas of the Navy’s largest and most important warships. By posing as Abyssinian princes, they had clearly breached every security restriction in Britain.

 In some circles, de Vere Cole and the others were heroes, challenging the existing power structures and questioning Britain’s militarism. The Dreadnought Hoax took place at time when there was huge public debate on the need for the vast spending of the military on these great engines of war. British citizens were living in horrendous conditions and the government did nothing, while endless public money was poured into the navy. After examining the photo of the hoaxers, one really does wonder what the British Navy was thinking. Yet there were no arrests.

Dreadnought Hoax, the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. Cole was on the extreme right, 1906.

It may have been acceptable for a gentleman not to have a serious career in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, but what could Cole do during WW1 and after the war ended? He could be found at Café Royal where the Bloomsbury Group and their friends liked to hang out. Artist Adrian Allinson was associated with members of the Bloomsbury Group during WW1, painting The Café Royal in 1916. In the painting below, Horace de Vere Cole was the second gent on the left of the painting (in a hat); Augustus John (no hat) had his back to the mirror and was facing the viewer.

Allinson wrote about Café Royal saying: "Amid the smoke haze that shed a bloom over its rococco ceiling and mirrored walls old friendships were maintained and new ones cemented. Across its marble topped tables many an argument on aesthetics was hammered out, a wit sharpened or an amorous adventure begun".

Cole also spent his time in elegant gentlemen’s clubs, inelegant music halls, aristocratic homes and sleazy hotels with very young women. He married Denise Daly, daughter of a military man, in 1918. This hopelessly conceived marriage ended in divorce in 1928. Nonetheless everything he did, good bad or downright stupid, made the front pages of newspapers.

In time it became clear that this compulsive hoaxer had alienated everyone in Britain, including those close to him. Even the painter Augustus John, who described travelling with Cole to France, was continually embarrassed by his antics eg knocking people’s hats off or feigning epilepsy in the street. John wrote: “Cole used to say he was at war with pomposity. Whatever his motives, I have never known a Frenchman to respond to this branch of humour with anything but disgust.”

Cafe Royal, painted by Adrian Allinson, 1916

Soon Cole married Mavis Wright, equally disastrously. They had a son, presumably fathered by Augustus John and not by Cole himself.

Not famous as a poet, Cole died in poverty in France in 1936. He had pulled off many pranks during his years, some violent and some downright criminal. But he'd withered away the family fortune, and in the end we have to ask where did it all go? And what was his entire life worth?

In 1939 Mavis de Vere Cole, Cole’s widow and second wife, married again. This lovely young socialite and mistress of the painter Augustus John became Mrs Mortimer Wheeler, wife of the famous archeologist.


Parnassus said...

A sad story about Horace de Vere Cole. He seemed to have a psychological compulsion to commit these practical jokes, destined either to discomfit a victim or reflect badly on his own reputation. Perhaps he realized how illustrious his companions were, and tried to over-compensate.

He appears to have had no real discipline, or any direction into which to pour his energies, and so ended up wasting his talents, connections, and wealth.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


Sad waste, wasn't it? Horace was born into a good family, had a good brain and an excellent education. I don't suggest that he should have worked in a coal mine or a textile factory, but he could have been productive and creative, like his Bloomsbury Group friends. This was a time of unlimited intellectual contributions to British cultural life.

Deb said...

Augustus John was more productive than Cole but he too was a very naughty boy. Maybe all the brilliant young things had a dark side.

Hels said...


It was Augustus John who introduced Dylan Thomas to his future wife, Caitlin. The Telegraph (11/5/2008) said that Caitlin Macnamara had been brutally initiated by her father's friend the artist Augustus John, who considered sleeping with very young teenagers one of the perks of artistic genius. Caitlin's father had handed her over to Augustus John, so daddy was hardly a white knight either.

Hels said...

In the post I have added a link to theinquisition.eu where there are details and images regarding the Dreadnought Hoax. Well worth having a look at.


Hels said...

The blog called Two Nerdy History Girls wrote:

Horace de Vere Cole, described the hoax in a letter to a friend: "It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter....

I was so amused at being just myself in a tall hat [Cole played the part of one of the English guides] – I had no disguise whatever and talked in an ordinary friendly way to everyone – the others talked nonsense. We had all learned some Swahili: I said they were jolly savages but that I didn't understand much of what they said...It began to rain slightly on the ship and we only just got the princes under cover in time, another moment and their complexions would have been running – Are you amused? I am...Yesterday was a day worth living."

Anonymous said...

You mention one son for Horace, from his second wife Mavis (and in fact this boy was certainly Augustus John's son), but you don't mention a daughter from his first wife, Denise.
This daughter (and this one was really his!) was my mother, Valerie, so Horace was my grand father, and I don't know if I must be proud or not... I would so like to have known him, but he died long before I was born.
(Valerie married a french man, so I live in France and I don't speak english fluently.)

Hels said...


The trouble with researching grand parents and great grand parents (eg in Who Do You Think You Are?) is that you cannot control what you find. What if grandmother was a brothel owner or grandpa was a gun runner?

Horace was clearly clever, firstly going to Cambridge and secondly becoming a close friend of the Bloomsbury Set. I only wish he had achieved more with his clever mind.

Anonymous said...


I'm not researching my grand parents, I always knew Horace was my mother's father (at home the book about the Dreadnought was in sight on a rack), but she didn't tell us about him: she didn't like him very much because he wasn't kind to her and she was given up most of the time in schools or to some relative.
When I came to England at sixteen, I was presented as "Horace Cole's grand daughter", but I thought he was just an excentric member of the family. I didn't realized he was so well knowned...
Certainly he was clever, but was he nice? Did people like him?

Hels said...


I would read the Martin Downer book, in English if you prefer (or has it been translated into French?). He concludes that in some parts of British society, de Vere Cole was seen as a risk taker and a hero, challenging the existing power structures and questioning the all-powerful British military.

So no, he was not nice but he was significant.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your answer.
I'm reading the Martin Downer's book, but it is rather difficult... lots of unknown words or expressions! It is not translated in french, so I try to translate some chapters for my french children and nephews.
If Horace was really what you said, so it's OK for me.
He wrote poems too, but I'm not able to judge if they are good or not.
Anyway, I think I begin to find him "significant".
Thanks again.

Philip Harvey said...

Denise owned a house in Galway called Petersburg but spent very little time there, it is derelict but the land around it is used as an adventure centre for young people. She sold off the contents piecemeal to fund her existance and many local people have items from the house. I, myself have a small Indian silver jug which I found whilst rooting in the ruins of the house as a child, long after it had been abandoned.

Hels said...


Thank you for more details about what was a very strange story.

Independent.ie noted that Back in Dublin after the 1916 Rising, Cole fell under the spell of the unstable heriess Denise Daly, who was related to the powerful Lynchs of Galway. They married in Dublin in 1918. She was 19 and he was 37. The couple were heirs to four substantial estates in Ireland. They retired to Raford in Galway and tried to lead the country life.

In the 1920s, De Vere Cole's young wife Denise ran away with a London waiter. But she was afraid to return to Ireland, even though she had considerable property there. No wonder she sold off the contents piecemeal.

Hels said...

I have another hoax story this Tuesday (8/11/2016) but this time it occurred early in the 19th century and was less harmful in its impact.

Turtle Bunbury said...

Hi Anonymous! Not sure if you'll be able to see this message but Anthony Drew, who later married Denise, was my great-uncle. I am more than happy to fill you in on our connection. I'm on turtlehistory@gmail.com if that's a better medium for you. All best wishes, Turtle

Hels said...


many thanks! I hope you can help.

Philip Harvey said...

Was Denise Drew from Clonbur Co Galway? If so, she was a shadow of my youth!

Hels said...


welcome back. The original story that I did know about, and all the subsequent related stories that I did not know about, are continuing to fascinate. I wonder if there are any family reunions? or family history conferences?

Philip Harvey said...

I wonder if Anonymous has any family papers............ there could be a book there. Denise was a great beauty, it would be interesting to know more about her life. Did she stick with the great uncle, Turtle? I seem to remember her being described as a widow but as you know in Ireland people didn't talk about divorce in those days much. My understanding is that she was catholic which made multiple marrying even more difficult!
The Augustus John aspect is fascinating, have you read Devas; Two flamboyant fathers? It is the story of Nicolette Devas nee McNamara from Clare who was brought up in the John household

Hels said...


You are a great-value-reader :) Thanks. And yes I was very interested in Dylan and Caitlin Thomas years ago, and therefore peripherally touched on Francis Macnamara and Augustus John as well.

Re Two Flamboyant Fathers, the review I read started thus: Nicolette Devas is the sister of Caitlin Thomas, daughter of poet, philosopher, economist Francis Macnamara. When his belief in free love drove him to desert his family seven years after a love marriage, she attached herself to portrait painter Augustus John as Father-Lover figure". A father-lover figure? Devas may have seen them all as bohemians, and therefore not bound by old-fashioned values, but even bohemians had limits.