WALK THIS WAY
Mention the Man in the Iron Mask and one thinks of the French King XIV or the film of that name, but the town of Thetford has its own Man in the Iron Mask with a very different but equally fascinating story.
The man behind the mask was Harry Bensley, a west end play boy who had made his money from investments in Russia. He originated from Thetford and was thought to have been thirty one years old at the time. The story came to light a few years back when Oliver Bone, curator of the Ancient House Museum in Thetford was putting together a document on Thetford’s heritage.
Mr Bone discovered a newspaper article written by a Thetford lady in the late 1970s, detailing the tale of Harry Bensley and his amazing walk around the world pushing a pram. Intrigued, he decided to look into the matter further and made public the story, in the hope of uncovering more information. Since then investigations have been underway in Thetford and abroad to try to confirm the story and to find evidence of his travels.
The story began one evening in 1907 over dinner and drinks at The National Sporting Club in London. The American millionaire John P Morgan was arguing with Lowther Lonsdale, the fifth earl of Lonsdale, over whether it was possible to walk around the world without being identified. Lonsdale said yes, Morgan said no, and put up a 100,000 dollar (£21,000) challenge, the largest ever bet at that time.
Harry, for some reason decided to take on the bet, a huge challenge in itself, but there were also to be fifteen conditions which he had to stick by. He was never to be identified (hence the mask); he must push a baby’s pram; he must finance himself on the journey, starting off with only one pound sterling; the only clothes he could take on the journey was a change of underwear; he was to be accompanied by a minder provided by Morgan; and en route he must find himself a wife without letting her know who he was.
On New Years Day 1908 a crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square to watch Harry begin his journey. Morgan and Lonsdale had planned the route for him, consisting of 169 English towns and cities and another 125 in eighteen other countries. The iron mask, weighing four and a half pounds was made from a suit of armour. A placard attached to the pram described his task, another round his helmet stated simply "walking around the world".
Like much of the story there are slight variations in the list of countries he visited. England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, USA, South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Italy and France were listed in one source, with the Guardian in 1998 including Persia, Turkey and the Balkans.
To finance his journey Harry sold postcards of himself and the pram, an intuitive idea but one that was to get him into trouble. At Bexleyheath in Kent he was arrested for selling postcards without a licence.
When it came to the trial he arrived with his mask on and was ordered to remove it. Refusing, he explained the story and was allowed by the judge to keep it on. He was tried under the name, “The Man in the Iron Mask” and was fined 2s 6d and allowed to continue his journey.
At Newmarket races he continued selling his postcards, selling one for five pounds to King Edward VII. One story tells how the amused king asked for his autograph but as this would have meant revealing his identity, he was forced to decline.
The story made the newspapers in several countries. While back in England, the Times covered his departure from Trafalgar Square, another newspaper offered a £1,000 reward to anyone who could find out his identity. One chambermaid did come close, but was discovered under the bed just in time.
There is uncertainty as to whether Harry did find himself a wife on his travels, but he was reported to have received many offers of marriage, from titled ladies throughout the world.
Photographs have emerged of Harry and the pram alongside a woman and in one photograph she is with a young child. This woman is believed to be called Mabel and the child is thought to have been Harry’s.
He didn’t marry Mabel. Instead he married a Yorkshire woman called Kate. Again the story varies as to whether he married her on his journey or after he returned.
Over the next six years he covered many countries - Canada, USA, South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, Egypt, and Italy. His journey was nearly over when in August 1914 with only 7,000 miles left war broke out and he returned to Britain.
There are two stories surrounding his return. One has Harry returning to Britain to fight for his country, considering this of more importance than completing the walk. Another version tells of how Morgan, anxious about the effect the war would have on his steel empire, called the bet off. Receiving a telegram from Morgan, Harry was said to have been devastated.
Whichever version is true, J P Morgan paid him four thousand pounds, which Harry donated to charity, a decision which he may later have regretted as his luck took a turn for the worst.
Harry only fought in the war for a year before he was badly injured and had to return home. His Russian investments, which had provided the majority of his fortune, crashed with the Russian Revolution, leaving him penniless. His profile from then on, became less public. Between the two world wars he worked in a variety of positions- as a YMCA warden, a cinema doorman, and a Labour councillor in Essex. He died on 21 May 1956 at home in Brighton with his wife Kate, aged seventy nine. And so the story ends.
Or does it? How much of the story is true? And how much of the walk did Harry actually complete? Was he a fraudster?
Various sources have tried throughout the years to find proof of Harry’s travels. While researchers have plenty photographic proof of his time travelling Britain there are no photographs of him taken abroad, although new postcards containing images of Harry and the pram are turning up all the time.
The subject is of particular interest to researchers in Canada as Quebec was one of the cities he reportedly visited. Researchers there are keen to collate evidence of his journey but so far have not had any luck. With photographs widely available of his walk through Britain, one wonders why none are available of his time further a field? Did he actually ever leave Britain? Are there photographs still to be discovered? Did he simply not receive much publicity once he left Britain?
One man who has a keen interest in Harry Bensley and is intent on discovering the truth is Ken McNaught, a great grandson of Harry’s. Ken McNaught was told by his mother of a visit she had from her father many years ago. Reading a copy of Reader's Digest book of Interesting Facts containing a short report on Harry’s walk, he informed her that this was his father who he had only met just three months before Harry died.
Jim was Harry’s illegitimate son to a woman called Mabel, believed to have been the woman pictured in some of the postcards. When he eventually found him he was terminally ill in hospital in Brighton. During those visits, Jim says that Harry admitted that he didn’t actually take up the challenge.
Jim claims that his father told him that after a long night drinking and gambling in London, he was losing badly. Certain that his luck was about to change he bet his whole fortune on the turn of one card. He lost, and begged his friends for an alternative forfeit. The alternative – a walk around the world was too extreme, but to save face he made out that he had completed it.
Along with some of Harry’s other descendents, Ken McNaught is trying to piece together the real truth behind Harry’s story, and has been collecting evidence from around the world. So far he has built up a collection of photographs, postcards and old newspaper articles, but nothing to confirm that Harry actually left Britain.
Publicity in the form of a website http://mcnaught.orpheusmail.co.uk/ironmam/home.html has meant that several people from around the world have come forward with information, but there are still questions left unanswered. Who was Harry’s minder who Morgan insisted must walk with him? What happened to the pram? Why have no photographs emerged of him walking abroad?
Details are being uncovered all the time – at antique fairs, roadside stalls, even on ebay, so it may not be long before someone discovers some vital piece of evidence – a photograph of Harry taken abroad, a contemporary newspaper report from outside Britain or even the pram itself.
The Ancient House Museum have some Harry Bensley memorabilia – mostly postcards, but researchers in the town are still investigating the story. Could a Thetford resident be unknowingly hoarding some relevant information in their loft?