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9 April Fools' Pranks From The Past That Will Make You Question Everything You Read

Picture of Niall Cullen - Senior Content Strategist
Niall Cullen
1 April 2019

We've scoured our newspaper archives to unearth history's best April Fools' hoaxes

The history of April Fools' Day is debated by historians. Many trace the custom back to medieval France where 25 March used to be New Year's Day until the calendar was reformed in 1564. Before then, New Year festivities culminated on 1 April. After 1 January was officially adopted as New Year's Day, those who forgot to change the date and continued to celebrate on 1 April were ridiculed and labelled April Fools.

Whatever its origins, the long-standing tradition of playing a practical joke on All Fools' Day is prevalent throughout our historical newspaper collection.

A Whole World of Historical Discoveries Awaits

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We've delved into the archives to bring you some of the most elaborate trickery.

The Great Donkey Exhibition

Possibly the first April Fools' hoax ever printed by a British newspaper, was in the
Islington Evening Star in 1846 and resurrected by the Leeds Mercury in 1925.

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Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Of course, upon arriving at the so-called 'grand exhibition', the expectant crowds soon realised that they were the donkeys.

The White Gate Classic

In March 1860, what appeared to be official invitations for an annual lion-washing ceremony at the Tower of London were sent to many. The
Dundee Courier recalled what happened in 1928.

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Image © D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

With no white gate to be found, we imagine there were a lot of bewildered visitors at the Tower of London that day.

Drowning Dummy

During an April visit to Florence, famous English Channel swimmer Captain Matthew Webb fooled the locals into thinking he had drowned.

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Image © D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

In a cruel twist of fate, Webb did drown in a similar stunt at Niagara Falls in 1883.

Lucky Escape

The 'boy who cried wolf' mentality is particularly common on the first day of April as this story proves.

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Image © D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Gowk Hunt

This Scottish April Fools' tradition is both cruel and hilarious in equal measure.

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Image © D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

We'd love to hear just how far afield some of those fools travelled.

Flying Without Wings

Sometimes, roles were reversed and the newspapers were hoaxed, as this Belfast Telegraph story explains.

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Image © Independent News and Media PLC. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Although, it's fair to say that this sounds more like shoddy journalism than a deliberate ploy.

He's Done. You're Done

Thousands of Lancashire residents were duped by the promise of an air show in 1910.

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Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Taking printing costs and clever wordplay into account, the effort made by this prankster has to be admired.

Fool The World

The Western Gazette reports how The New York Graphic once tricked its readers (and subsequently many around the world) into believing that Thomas Edison had invented a method of creating food from the earth and wine from water.

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Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

More than any other hoax in our list, we really wish this one was true.

The Kaiser Cheats

Finally, an amusing example of a prank that peeved a world leader.

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Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Did your ancestors partake in some seasonal tomfoolery? Our ever-growing British and Irish newspaper collection is the place to look if you want to find out.

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