The curious case of the man in the iron mask…and a pram

THERE was great excitement in Woking in May 1908 when a man wearing an iron mask and pushing a pram came to town.

The News & Mail reported that the identity of the “mysterious visitor remains a secret,” and that he had “trudged into the town from Chertsey”, but he wasn’t alone.

MYSTERY MAN – a postcard of a disguised Harry Bensley with the pram advertising his intriguing quest 

The report continued: “He was accompanied by a caravan, comfortably fitted up, in which rode a companion and lady, the unknown’s wife. The mysterious gentleman naturally created a mild sensation in his curious headgear, but from the inscription on his perambulator it was at once obvious what his object was.”

The reason for all this, the News & Mail reported in good faith, was that he was walking around the world for a wager of 100,000 dollars, or about £21,000. It noted: “The wager was laid by an American millionaire, and among the conditions are that the individual who has accepted the challenge should wear the mask in all public places and push the perambulator around the world.

“He is to call at the capital and three other towns specifically named, in each county of England, and thence go through Scotland and Ireland circling the globe by way of Canada, the States, South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, Egypt and Europe.”

The News & Mail wrote: “The mysterious visitor, whose well-built frame and elastic step show him to be the embodiment of vigorous manhood, was dressed in a Norfolk suit and sandals.”

It added: “He is an Englishman and started his tour on 1 January from Trafalgar Square. The Surrey towns which he is compelled to visit are Guildford, Croydon, Epsom and Kingston.

“His perambulator weighs a hundredweight, and, he told our representative, that it gets dreadfully heavy at the end of the day when it has to be pushed uphill. He also said he had added the caravan to save on hotel expenses.”

It is a tale that for many years was forgotten, but more recently it has, at times, been revived with plenty of different facts, reasons and outcomes, especially on the internet. However, it is known that he did not complete his task, even throughout England.

Included in the conditions he was supposed to have satisfied for the wager was having a minder to accompany him to make sure he kept to the rules, proving where he had been by collecting a signed document from the mayor or some other responsible person. And perhaps most bizarre of all was to find a wife. By the time he reached Woking it appears he had!

In truth, it was a scam and the man was Harry Bensley. His remarkable life has now been well researched by Steve Holland and published in a book, Iron Mask: The story of Harry Bensley’s “Walking Round the World” Hoax.

My intrepid researcher Mark Coxhead came across the story of the man’s visit to Woking in back copies of the News & Mail on microfilm at the Surrey History Centre.

In the next edition of Peeps find out more about the conman, convicted criminal, bigamist and what he went on to do – complete with a local Brookwood angle.

If  you have some memories or old pictures relating to the Woking area, call 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 story get the 19 December edition of the News Mail and for more on the mysterious man in the iron mask, see the 2 January edition.

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