The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, August 14, 1999

By Kelly Egan

Historians uncover adventure of man in the iron mask

Harry Bensley took a rich Englishman up on a bet that he could walk around the world wearing an iron mask. Historians in Canada and England are now trying to piece together his mysterious adventure.

One young man looking for adventure took a bizarre stroll in 1908 on a rich man's bet. Kelly Egan reports on his mysterious journey.

As a pedestrian, Harry Bensley was unforgettable. He wore an iron mask on his face, like a medieval knight, with a little sign perched on his head. As he trooped along, accompanied by a scrutineer, he pushed an old-fashioned baby carriage that contained his only spare clothing, a single change of underwear. His pockets empty of cash, he sold picture postcards of himself to get by. And, boy, did he get around. From 1908 to mid-1914, the adventurous Englishman walked around the world, covering 50,000 kilometres in a global adventure that apparently took him through Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa, a journey that fascinates researchers to this day. While his means of movement were odd, his method of motivation was outrageous: Mr. Bensley was living a rich man's bet. In 1907, at the National Sporting Club in London, American financier J.P. Morgan and the Earl of Lonsdale, a famed boxing promoter, were deep in a discussion about Edwardian daring and adventure. Could a man walk around the world? The earl said sure; Mr. Morgan said no way. Pretty soon, the money was on the table and a 100,000USD bet was placed. Young Bensley, a playboy looking for action, overheard the discussion and volunteered his feet. Mr. Morgan attached some conditions to the bet, which was touted as the largest wager ever made. The walker couldn't be identified (thus the mask), he had to leave with one pound sterling in his pocket and, even handicapped by the helmet, he had to find a bride along the way. The pair also hatched a route. It included 169 towns and villages in the United Kingdom, plus 125 in 18 other countries. Few details have survived about the exact path taken by Mr. Bensley, but researchers in England and Canada want to fill in the gaps. In the latest issue of The Beaver, Canada's history magazine, London, Ont., writer Geoffrey Corfield sends out an all-points bulletin for old photographs or newspaper clippings about this bizarre stroll. Meanwhile, back in Thetford, England -- Mr. Bensley's home town -- museum curator Oliver Bone thinks there might even be a book in it. Mr. Bone is looking for any information about Mr. Bensley's worldly adventures, which began on New Year's Day in 1908 in London's Trafalgar Square with a great sendoff. "I think it's a wonderful story," said Mr. Bone, whose museum is located in a 500-year-old house in Thetford, pop. 20,000, northeast of London. "We're trying to piece together the jigsaw and we haven't got very far with the Canadian or overseas or New Zealand connections." Mr. Bone said he stumbled across the story of Mr. Bensley, called The Man in the Iron Mask, when the museum was putting out a summary of the lives of famous Thetford natives. "I think he was a young man looking for adventure." In his ramblings in England, Mr. Bensley is said to have sold a postcard to King Edward VII and was arrested in Kent for failing to have a hawker's licence. Even at his trial, he refused to divulge his identity, the story says. Mr. Bone said the trip took Mr. Bensley through as many as 18 countries in all. In August 1914, legend has it, he was forced to end his meanderings in Genoa, Italy, when the First World War broke out. Mr. Morgan, the story goes, was too worried about the effect of the war on his fortunes and didn't want to get stuck with the 100,000USD payoff. Mr. Bensley was sent a telegram and told to put his pram away. He took a boat back to England, where he was reportedly paid 4,000UKP for his troubles, money he gave to charity. Unlike at his departure, not a soul was there to greet him when he touched English soil. More than 90 years later, there is controversy over the origins of the journey and how much of it Mr. Bensley completed. Ken McNaught is a 40-year-old computer programmer who lives in West Yorkshire, England. According to his research of the family tree, Mr. McNaught's late grandfather, Jim Beasley, is Harry Bensley's illegitimate son. In an interview, Mr. McNaught said stories of the Bensley walking excursion were passed down to his mother. Mr. McNaught, who has mounted a Web site detailing the Bensley adventure, writes that Mr. Bensley fought in the First Wold War and later worked as a doorman at a movie theatre and as a counsellor for the YMCA. "I'm absolutely convinced that the journey happened," said Mr. McNaught, who is still pursuing his family history. He knew nothing of the Bensley legend until three or four years ago. Mr. McNaught is also keen on getting further documentary evidence about his great-grandfather's adventures.