A man in a iron mask spent most of 1908 pushing a pram around England. Nobody knows why

This is probably the wrong type of suit of armour, but honestly, this is a really difficult story to illustrate. Image: Getty.

A man in a iron mask spent most of 1908 pushing a pram around England’s largest towns and cities. Was it a pilgrimage? A viral marketing campaign? Psychogeography?

According to postcards and pamphlets he sold as he went, this was the man’s story. One night at the National Sporting Club in Covent Garden, J.P. Morgan (yes, that one) and the Earl of Lonsdale started arguing about whether someone could circumnavigate incognito, on foot. Lonsdale said yes; Morgan said no.

Enter, somehow, roguish investor Harry Bensley, who agreed to personally put the matter to the test.  Lonsdale and Morgan wagered £21,000 on it – almost £2 million in today’s money.

The challenge’s principal rule was that, to disguise Bensley’s identity, he would wear an iron mask from a suit of armour. Another condition specified 169 cities and towns in England and Wales, and 125 others across the world, that he’d visit in order. He’d also have to push a baby’s pram (sans baby) the entire time, finance the journey by selling promotional postcards, and , er, find a wife.

The man himself. Image: Wikipedia/public domain.

According to legend, he almost made it, having walked 30,000 miles over six years, before the bet was called off because of a rather inconvenient war that kicked off in 1914. After some time in the army, Bensley returned home to find out that Russia, where he’d invested heavily, was having a slight revolution, and he was now broke.

Did any of this actually happen? All anyone can say for sure is that, for several months in 1908, for whatever reason, Harry Bensley took an extremely circuitous walk around southern England and Wales, wearing his helmet and pushing his pram. Researcher Tim Kirby has ‘tracked’ the journey through sources including contemporaneous press reports:

Image: Tim Kirby/Google Maps.


According to Kirby’s theorised route, the furthest Bensley ever made it from London was Penzance. En-route he allegedly sold a postcard to the king, received 200 proposals, and ended up in court for selling stuff without a license, where he somehow managed to get away without revealing his identity. By the autumn, though, the journey had come to a premature end, in Wolverhampton.

So what’s the truth of the story? According to Ken McNaughton, Bensley’s great-grandson, the family legend (as apparently told by Bensley to his illegitimate son) was that the walk was done as a forfeit, in order to avoid a crippling loss he’d incurred while gambling at his club. But no-one has ever actually been able to prove that J. P. Morgan or the Earl of Lonsdale had anything to do with it: Morgan had, in fact, died a year before the whole thing was called off.


Was it just a good story to help sell some postcards? Well, yes, maybe. Bensley himself wrote an article in December 1908, confessing that the whole thing had been a money-making publicity stunt he’d cooked up while in jail, which had rather backfired when it turned out wearing a 4lb helmet all day for months on end wasn’t much fun. He reported that the trek had covered 2,400 miles, and that he and his entourage – including a man who’d pretended to be an observer sent to ensure he stuck to the rules of the bet – had been solely supported through sales of postcards and other souvenirs. That said, he’s at such pains to impress this on the reader, you do wonder if he’s protesting a bit too much: for such a convoluted plan it’s hard to see what the payoff could have been.

It seems unlikely that, nearly 110 years after the scheme was concocted, we’ll get any clearer answer as to why it was concocted. Maybe we just have to simply enjoy that it was concocted, and leave it at that.

Or maybe sometimes a guy just need to put on an iron mask, load up his pram and start heading for Wolverhampton, you know? The future case for Ed Jefferson’s defense rests, your honour.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.