There's an element of "print the legend" about Harry Bensley. The first time I heard the story—at an exhibition of local history in Wivenhoe—it was that Bensley, "The Man in the Iron Mask", had, in the Edwardian era, attempted to walk round the world. The attempt nearly killed him and he was close to victory, having travelled the length of Britain, crossed America and walked through Japan, China, Russia, Turkey and Greece, when the Great War broke out. Bensley abandoned his odyssey in nothern Italy, returning to England to serve his country.
The broad details of the story were related by Bensley himself, as he sold postcards and a pamphlet on his travels. The pamphlet detailed the conditions he was to undertake if he was to succeed in his attempt, which involved visiting a huge array of towns in every corner of England and Wales before he set off for Scotland, Ireland and thence around the globe.
Here, then, is the legend.
In 1907, he became embroiled in a bet between John Pierpont Morgan (who took over the running of the merchant banking firm Peacock Morgan & Co. set up by his father, which he later renamed J.P. Morgan & Co.) and Hugh Cecil Lowther, the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, well known as a sporting gentleman. Over dinner at the National Sporting Club in London, the two argued over whether it was possible to travel around the world without being identified. Lonsdale took the position that it could; Morgan disagreed and put up $100,000—£21,000 in sterling—and Bensley, hearing of the bet, decided to take up the challenge.
There was a huge list of conditions attached to the wager, chief amongst them that Bensley should never identify himself or allow himself to be identified; that his only means were £1 and a change of underwear at the start of his journey; and that he must find himself a wife.
His trip would see him pass through 160 towns and cities in 40 counties in England plus a further 12 cities in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. After that, Bensley would be expected to visit a further 118 cities in 19 different countries, including Canada, USA, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Holland.
A minder was appointed to accompany Bensley to make sure that he kept to the rules, which involved obtaining a signed document from the Mayor or some other responsible person and a postal stamp to certify he had been to the town or city.
To finance the journey, Bensley was allowed to sell postcards and pamphlets from a pram, which bore the legend "Walking Round the World". These striking portraits often included his minder and, in later group shots, his wife.
Bensley set out on New Years Day 1908 from Trafalgar Square, and travelled widely around the United Kingdom. On his travels, he met King Edward VII at Newmarket and sold him a photograph for £5. What happened next depends on who is relating the story: the King refused to sign Harry's autograph book... or, alternatively, Harry refused to give the King his autograph because he did not want to be identified.
Eventually, after travelling 30,000 miles around the world, he reached Genoa in August 1914 and the plug had to be pulled on the bet due to the outbreak of the Great War. In one version of the story, Bensley abandoned the wager when war broke out. Despite having almost completed the trip, his patriotism was too strong and he had to answer the call of duty, returning from Italy to sign up and serve with bravery through the war.
In another version of the story, related by John Ezard (The Guardian, 29 July 1998):
[J. P.] Morgan ratted on the bargain. The first world war had broken out. Morgan, founder of the US Steel Corporation, is thought to have become worried about the value of his assets. A disconsolate Bensley returned to Thetford by ship and is not known to have gone abroad again.But this was not the end of the story. Angry because he had covered 30,000 miles and only had six countries and 7,000 miles to go, the banker agreed to pay him £4,000 compensation, which Bensley donated to charity.
This is the story in broad outlines. Unfortunately, if you begin to pick at the various threads, it begins to unravel. The end of the story, for instance just does not ring true. John Pierpoint Morgan was travelling abroad in his 75th year when, on 31 March 1913, he died in his sleep at the Grand Hotel in Rome. This is seventeen months before he is said to have contacted Harry to let him know the bet was being cancelled.
And if that part of the story isn't true, how much of the rest of it has been faked? Could the whole thing have been a hoax promulgated by Harry Bensley?
Here, then, is the story... and it's a far more interesting story than the legend.