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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A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.