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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With its social housing green paper, the government has missed an opportunity to tackle the housing crisis – again

Trellick Tower, a GLC-built property in Kensal Town, west London. Image: Getty.

A Labour London councillor on today’s green paper.

London faces a housing crisis: it’s one of the most obvious statements a politician can make in 2018.

Too many Londoners can’t afford to buy their own homes. Private renters have little security and face extortionate rents and fees. Council housing waiting lists remain stubbornly high.

None of that is new news. And yet, the government has once again shown that it completely misses the point when it comes to the housing crisis.

Today’s much anticipated, and delayed, Social Housing Green Paper should have been a chance for the new communities secretary James Brokenshire to make a break from past missed opportunities. Unlike his rather flash predecessor, current home secretary Sajid Javid, Brokenshire has talked honestly and with apparent understanding about the housing crisis and the need for real action.

It is therefore all the more disappointing that the Green Paper is a complete damp-squib when it comes to new policy that will make any difference to tackling the housing crisis.

It’s welcome news that the final nail has been hammered into the coffin of the government’s 2016 plans to force councils to sell-off ‘high value’ council homes – something I and many others have campaigned against since it was first announced and which, according to housing charity Shelter, would have seen as many as 23,000 council homes sold-off in a year.


But it’s hard to celebrate, when there’s not a single penny of new funding for local councils to build new council homes.

There was no announcement that Right to Buy will be fixed, so that homes lost are replaced like for like in the same area.

Worst of all, the government failed to announce its support for the single simplest policy it could adopt, which would help councils build thousands of new homes and would cost the government absolutely nothing – lifting the red-tape that stops councils from borrowing to build.

The artificial cap on councils’ ability to borrow to build new council homes is maddening. The ‘New Homes Blocker’ is stopping councils across London from building new council homes.

The reason the government won’t change its position is because the UK is one of the only countries in Europe that counts such borrowing as part of national debt. A simple change in accounting policy would allow councils to borrow prudently, and at record-low costs, to finance the building of thousands of new council homes, repaying the borrowing through the rents on the new homes.

Councils like Islington are building more council homes now than we have for the last 30 years. But without either significant government investment or the lifting of the borrowing cap for councils, our ambitions to fight the housing crisis face yet more hurdles to overcome.  

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.