1st April is April Fools’ Day, a day where you should be wary of all and anything that you see. Historians aren’t sure where the idea of April Fools came from, one theory is that the day was a way of marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring – something similar to a Roman festival, Hilaria, which saw people wearing disguises and celebrating.

Another theory states that it originated in France, as before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, New Year was celebrated on 1st April. Those who adopted the new calendar, which put New Year on 1st January, played tricks on those that didn’t and referred to their victims as April Fools.

Either way, it appears that the day is a way of marking a change in the season. In Britain, there are two stories about the origin of April Fools Day. Some believe it began in the 13th century, when King John tried to buy some land in Gotham, Nottinghamshire. The locals didn’t want him there, so they decided to play a series of jokes which would convince the king to look elsewhere for his land. However, there doesn’t appear to be any reference to April Fools’ Day until 1686 but the tradition was already widely established by then, a regular prank of advertising the washing of the lions at the Tower of London often saw people realising they had been duped. In celebration of April Fools Day, here are some of history’s best hoaxes.

The washing of the lions

As we’ve already mentioned it, here’s some more information on what many believe to be the first recorded example of an April Fools hoax. In 1698, a series of official looking invitations were distributed around London supposedly from a gentleman called Herbert de Grassen, who welcomed the recipient witness the Annual Washing of the Lions at the Tower of London.

In case this sounds strange to you, the Tower of London was home to London’s first zoo. It housed the royal menagerie which featured everything from leopards to polar bears and of course, lions. Being a royal menagerie, very few people got to view the animals, even if they could hear them as they passed the Tower, so being invited to witness the lions being washed would have been quite the coup. A newspaper report the following day reported that “several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the lions washed” and we can only imagine the disappointment when the attendees realised that there was no annual lion washing and no Herbert de Grassen.

Virginia Woolf, the Abyssinian heiress

The novelist Virginia Woolf took part in a great hoax in 1910. She and five of her friends disguised themselves as Abyssinian royalty and managed to persuade the Royal Navy to show them around the HMS Dreadnought, which was their flagship vessel. The prank was thought up by Horace de Vere Cole and several members of the Bloomsbury Group were involved. In costume, the group made their way to Paddington Station in London, where Cole claimed to be from the Foreign Office escorting Abyssinian royalty and demanded a special train to Weymouth so that they may view the Dreadnought. The stationmaster arranged a special coach and for someone from the navy to meet them at the other end and they were dutifully shown around.

Apparently, the group spoke in a mixture of Greek and Latin and even asked for prayer mats while on board. What’s worse, Commander Fisher of the Navy was actually related to some of the group and failed to recognise them. Following the prank, Horace de Vere Cole contacted the press to tell them about it, something which was of great embarrassment to the Navy, as it was found that no laws were broken, the group were punished only by a symbolic thrashing.

The BBC’s spaghetti farm

Described as being the biggest hoax ever pulled by a news establishment, a piece aired by the BBC on April Fools’ Day 1957 saw hundreds of people contacting them asking about where they could get their own spaghetti tree.

The Beeb reported on a Swiss family who were gathering a spaghetti harvest – basically bringing in spaghetti from fields of plants. So many people were taken in that the BBC had to run a report the following day admitting to it being a hoax.

What are your favourite hoaxes in history? Don’t forget to let us know on social media and don’t get caught out on 1st April!




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