How mysteriously metallic conman masked the truth

PEOPLE who witnessed a man wearing an iron mask and claiming he was walking around the world for a wager of £21,000 when he visited Woking would have had no idea who this conman was.

As featured previously, the report that was published in the News & Mail following his visit in May 1908 caused some excitement in Woking.

A LIFE OF DECEPTION: postcard of Harry Bensley on his ruse to walk around the world unrecognised

It said the wager was laid by an American millionaire, and among the conditions were that the man, Harry Bensley, should wear the mask in all public places and push the perambulator around the world, from which he sold postcards and pamphlets to fund his and his minder’s trip. Part of the deal was that he was to take a wife, and this he showed off when he came to Woking. Trouble was, he was already a bigamist!

Bensley was from Norfolk, as Steve Holland writes in his book Iron Mask – The story of Harry Bensley’s “Walking Round the World” Hoax. His is the best account so far of this fascinating tale.

He married his first wife, Kate Green, in 1898. By the early 1900s they had moved to Croydon and had two children.

He was back in the dock again in 1904, charged with obtaining money by false pretences. Bensley had claimed to a man called Thomas Jordan that he was the heir to extensive estates in Norfolk, but if he tried to raise money on it, he would lose it to trustees. He was after cash and Jordan did loan him £200, among others as well.

Bensley disappeared to Cape Town in South Africa, where he was later arrested and brought back to face trial. Not only was Bensley found guilty of the money fraud he was also found guilty of bigamy. He was sent down for four years.

He had married Lily Clapham, from Bexleyheath in Kent, in 1903, who he had duped as being rich. He gave his surname as Burrell.

The story of why Bensley attempted the walk was quoted in the News & Mail’s 1908 report of his visit. It was said that the 5th Earl of Lonsdale became embroiled in a bet with merchant banker John Pierpoint Morgan, at the National Sporting Club in London, arguing over whether it was possible for an Englishman to do this feat. Morgan disagreed and put up £21,000 as a wager.

Present at the club was “a rich young businessman named Harry Bensley”, who decided to take up the challenge.

However, Steve Holland has come across an anonymously penned article in a magazine called Answers, published in December 1908. He is convinced it was Bensley who wrote it and claims that while the conman was in prison he made up the story of the wager between the two wealthy men, while planning the walk as a means to make money for himself.

Bensley continued to have an eventful life. He survived a short spell in the First World War, then worked in munitions at Woolwich. A local connection is that Lily later worked at the Surrey County Council lunatic asylum at Brookwood. It is not known which wife was with Bensley when he came to Woking.

It is said that during the Second World War he volunteered as an air-raid warden. The old rogue died in Brighton on 21 May 1956, aged 79.

If  you have some memories or old pictures relating to the Woking area, call me, David Rose, on 01483 838960, or drop a line to the News & Mail.

David Rose is a local historian and writer who specialises in what he calls “the history within living memory” of people, places and events in the west Surrey area covering towns such as Woking and Guildford. He collects old photos and memorabilia relating to the area and the subject, and regularly gives illustrated local history talks to groups and societies. For enquiries and bookings please phone or email him at: davidrosemedia@gmail.com

For the full Peep into the Past, get the 2 January edition of the News & Mail

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