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.