Civilian Visitor to HMS Talbot

When civilian visitors, friends and family came aboard a warship , events could take on a carnival like atmosphere and there was plenty of opportunity for high jinks and japes (within reason) as is often witnessed in surprisingly relaxed and candid photographs that survive. Getting civilians aboard in the first place could be a challenge however, especially in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras when ladies wore particularly voluminous dresses that made it impossible to climb rope ladders. One common way to get ladies aboard ship was to hoist them up in a large canvas bucket, much to the hilarity of all and today we are looking at a postcard of a rather pretty young lady being hoisted aboard HMS Talbot:

Stanchions for hauling lifeboats and one of the ship’s 4.5 inch QF guns can be seen behind the young lady. The lady herself is well dressed and clearly finding everything very amusing as she is laughing and trying to hold onto her hat to prevent it blowing away:

HMS Talbot visited Erith on the River Thames in July 1909 and from the surviving photographs it seems many people from the local area were keen to look around this large Eclipse class protected cruiser. Whilst this visit was purely a public relations exercise, occasionally the Royal Navy got into trouble when entertaining civilians aboard. The most famous of these was the Dreadnought Hoax in 1910 when Horace de Vere Cole tricked the Royal Navy into showing him around the new, top secret battleship HMS Dreadnought by pretending to be a group of Abyssinian royals. Cole and his friends donned eastern dress and blackened their faces.

The party had themselves disguised by the theatrical costumier Willy Clarkson with skin darkeners and turbans to resemble members of the Abyssinian royal family. The main limitation of the disguises was that the “royals” could not eat anything or their make-up would be ruined. Adrian Stephen took the role of “interpreter”.

On 7 February 1910 Clarkson’s employees visited Woolf’s home and applied the stage make-up to Woolf, Grant, Buxton and Ridley, then provided eastern robes. According to the Daily Mirror, they were also wearing £500 of jewellery; Martin Downer, in his biography of Cole, doubts the amount, which is not repeated by any of the participants.

A friend of Stephen’s sent a telegram to the “C-in-C, Home Fleet” (Commander-in-chief of the vessels defending Britain) stating that “Prince Makalen of Abbysinia and suite arrive 4.20 today Weymouth. He wishes to see Dreadnought. Kindly arrange meet them on arrival”; the message was signed “Harding Foreign Office”. Cole had found a post office that was staffed only by women, as he thought they were less likely to ask questions about the message. Cole with his entourage went to London’s Paddington station where Cole claimed that he was “Herbert Cholmondeley” of the Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth; the stationmaster arranged a VIP coach.

In Weymouth, the navy welcomed the princes with an honour guard. An Abyssinian flag was not found, so the navy proceeded to use that of Zanzibar and to play Zanzibar’s national anthem.

The group inspected the fleet. To show their appreciation, they communicated in a gibberish of words drawn from Latin and Greek; they asked for prayer mats and attempted to bestow fake military honours on some of the officers. Commander Fisher failed to recognise either of his cousins

 When the prank was uncovered in London, the ringleader Horace de Vere Cole contacted the press and sent a photo of the “princes” to the Daily Mirror. The group’s pacifist views were considered a source of embarrassment, and the Royal Navy briefly became an object of ridicule. The Navy later demanded that Cole be arrested. However, Cole and his compatriots had not broken any law. Instead, with the exception of Virginia Woolf, they were subjected to a symbolic thrashing on the buttocks by junior Royal Navy officers

One comment

  1. She didn’t get thrashed as well ? Was everyone too fearful to do the job ?
    Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf ?

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