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A talk given by The Inquisition at Defuse, on Wednesday 7th November 2012, as part of Designweek in Dublin, Ireland
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Horace De Vere Cole was a layabout prankster who was born with a mouth that was, frankly, stuffed with silver spoons.
The Boer War offered him opportunities. He could make his name, have the time of his life, emulate his adventurer heroes and live-up to the legacy of his long-dead military father.
De Vere Cole’s social strata spanned from Lady Gergory and WB Yeats to Neville Chamberlain, to Virginia Woolf, from George Bernard Shaw to the painter and poet Augustus John to the Board of the Bank of England. His uncle on the maternal side, Aubrey De Vere, was a well-known poet and a family friend of the Wilde family. Horace schooled with Lawrence Oates, long before he had cause to say, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” De Vere Cole floated around the fringes of the Bloomsbury set. He knew, and shocked, Sir Hugh Lane while they were both in Paris.
In essence, he was one of the most socially connected men in late Victorian, and later on in Edwardian Britain. His family were on the one side naturalised Irish aristocracy – titled and cultured – and on the other side wealthy – also with land but also considerable means as a result of his grandfather William Henry Cole’s global trade in quinine.
De Vere Cole was born in Blarney Castle, County Cork in 1881. He grew up disaffected, with little impetus or inclination towards anything productive or destructive. But then the Boer War kicked off, and in so doing offered him opportunities. He could make his name and have the time of his life, emulating his adventurer heroes and his deceased military father. He left Eton without completing his exclusive education.
Horace De Vere Cole’s stay in South Africa was brief. He was wounded and invalided home where he got himself accepted into Cambridge and began a life of attention-seeking mischief making, financial mismanagement and ultimately anguished failure.
Among his ill-fated ventures was his inheritance of the vast West Woodhay estate in England which he sold to his uncle for a large stipend. He saw diminishing returns after investing this money frivolously.
Temporarily freed from the normal worries of money, food and shelter he embarked on a European tour and ended it with stealing the young bride from an impoverished Italian nobleman, Count Paso Pasolini. The couple fled, pursued by the hapless aristcrat. Eventually De Vere Cole and Contessa Pasolini (née Mildred Montague, the daughter of an American railroad magnate) found themselves holed up in County Wicklow, in a house that would go on to shield figures such as Michael Jackson and Hermann Goertz from public scrutiny.
Ultimately, De Vere Cole lost Contessa Pasolini due to her father’s wranglings. Seeking distraction he embarked on what would become his legacy – public pranks. His masterpiece was the Dreadnought Hoax.
The Dreadnought Hoax caused uproar and furore in pre-First World War Britain. In some corners De Vere Cole and the other hoaxers were pariahs, in others they were heroes challenging the existing power structures and questioning Britain’s militarism.
He and his friends brazenly “blacked-up” and telegrammed the British Navy to expect an offical delegation from Zanzibar, who were recently declared allies of Britain after a long and protracted war.
They appeared later that same day and were shown around the Navy’s newest, most deadly ship – HMS Dreadnought. The ship was so vast and powerful, a new type of battleship was created eponymously; soon dreadnoughts would face German seapower.
The prank 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. People were living in horrendous conditions, situations which went unaddressed while vast funds were poured into the defense budget.
The prank was the equivalent of some Joe Soap off the street wrangling his way into Area 51, in the middle of a recession. It was the fact that it was exactly this level of audacity that enabled the hoaxers to pull it off.
De Vere Cole told the Daily Mail and other newspapers. It was only at this point that the ruse come to light within the Admiralty. The old boys were red-faced and furious. A hastily convened party tracked down De Vere Cole and caned him on the arse, in what must be a great example of why the Navy made such a great target. The officer class and its various levels in the corridors of power were hopelessly out of touch, like a bunch of dossing boarders at a prestigious boys’ school.
De Vere Cole found a suitably prominent follow-up opportunity hard to come by. He entertained himself with minor pranks.One of his favourites he would perform in central London. Posing as a surveyor he would hold a measured line. Looking for assistance from passersby he would choose a victim. They would be left holding one end while he turned a corner “to take measurements”. He would perform the same act on the other side. This left two innocents holding the line while De Vere Cole slipped away.
Horace De Vere Cole died penniless in Paris. By this stage he was largely fogotten in his self-imposed exile.
Horace De Vere Cole was wealthy, in the beginning at least. He was also a stickler for detail. He listed the contents of his inheritance before selling the lot to his uncle:
After compiling this list, he promptly crashed one of the 2 motor cars.
Wikipedia entry for Horace De Vere Cole
The Sultan of Zanzibar, Martyn Downer, Black Spring Press, 2010
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