IN the years following the end of the First World War, a mysterious figure haunted the holiday beaches of the Essex coast.

Decades later, local people who were children at the time, recalled him as “the man in the knight’s helmet who had walked round the world”.

This “knight” who had once circumnavigated the globe on foot, was now reduced to pacing up and down small, rented pitches on Southend and Clacton seafronts. Passers-by threw coins into a battered pram that was his only other prop apart from the helmet.

The man inside this iron mask was named Harry Bensley. He was a former landed gentleman who, for a while, had known world fame. Now broke financially, and traumatised by his war experiences, he was reduced to the role of seaside entertainer. It represented a sad comedown.

Yet he was still able to trade on the feat that made him famous – one of the most extraordinary oddball achievements in the entire glorious history of British eccentricity. This was a man who in real life had combined the fictional roles of Phileas Fogg, in Around the World in 80 Days, and the Man in the Iron Mask.

In the high days of Edwardian Britain, Bensley had lived the life of an idler with a large private income, drifting around London clubland. Then, in 1907, in the most casual of fashions, he took on an epic wager.

Bensley, then 30, had been playing cards at the National Sporting Club with the millionaire banker John Pierpont Morgan, and Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale.

The rival players had fallen to talking about Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days.

When Bensley lost heavily, Morgan struck a deal. Bensley had to replicate the journey of Verne’s hero Phileas Fogg. But while Fogg had done it by train and elephant, Bensley must do it on foot.

If he succeeded, the gambling debt would be cancelled. In his languid, aristocratic drawl, Bensley replied: “Of course, dear fellow. When do you wish me to start?”

The terms of the deal were then struck. No transport of any kind was permitted, apart from the ships to transport Bensley between continents. It was a titanic challenge by any scope, but the 20,000 mile journey was just the start of it.

The nub of the challenge was even more daunting. For Bensley was not permitted to reveal his identity.

He was to be a man of mystery until the day, inevitably years later, when he again entered the bounds of London Town.

If anybody managed to discover his true name, the wager, all $100,000 of it, equivalent to £21,000 at the time, was lost.

To conceal his identity, Bensley was commanded to wear a mask.

The landed gentleman chose a medieval knight’s helmet that had hung in the hall of his ancestral home in Thetford, Norfolk.

Thus dressed, he talked to a crowd of reporters in Trafalgar Square, before setting off on his amazing journey. The date was January 1 1908.

His worldly possessions consisted of a pram, containing his washing, and a handful of postcards depicting himself in his knight’s costume. He was allowed to sell these along the way to raise funds for board and lodging.

Samples of these postcards still appear from time to time in auctions, and are now collectors’ items.

Nobody who knew Bensley had any doubt about the outcome.

Walking to the club was about the closest he had ever come to hiking in his life. Morgan gave him three days at most before he collapsed or gave up.

Bensley’s apparent ineffectualness was compounded by his lack of geographical knowledge and the total absence of any planning.

His vague initial intention was to head for the port of Dover, but early sightings indicated that he had somehowmanaged to pop up, lost, first in St Albans, and then near Tewkesbury, in Worcestershire.

However, he managed a few adventures along the way. He subsequently claimed that he had been put up in his wanderings by over 100 women, some of whom blatantly proposed marriage.

At Newmarket, he passed the racetrack when King Edward VII was down for the day from Sandringham. The King asked to meet the now legendary Harry, and purchased a postcard from him.

One version of the story says that the King asked for Bensley’s autograph. He had to refuse, as this would have given away his identity.

In Bromley, by contrast, he was arrested for selling postcards without a council licence.

He was brought up before Bexleyheath magistrates, but refused to take his helmet off, even in court. He must have charmed the bench, since they allowed him to retain it, and did not insist that he give his name to the court usher. They did, however, fine him two shillings and sixpence.

As the long walk rolled on, Morgan upped the ante by offering a reward, heavily publicised in his newspapers. The words “£1000 to reveal the identity of the real life man in the iron mask” blared from headlines.

Against all expectations, the journey continued. Eventually reaching the European mainland, the man in the knight’s mask shuffled his way across the continent. He was assisted by his personal charm.

That charm shone through, even from the inside of a knight’s helmet. People everywhere delighted in giving food and accommodation to this odd but gallant throwback from the age of chivalry.

The years passed, and Bensley found that the road had become his life. “In an unexpected way, the long journey gave me an aim and a purpose in life that I had never known before,” he told a newspaper reporter, years later, when looking back.

Time rolled by, the public found other thrills, and Bensley became a forgotten figure, yet still he plodded on.

About three years into the walk, the trail goes cold. Images of the man in the iron mask appeared in newspapers in Montreal, New York and Sydney, but these may have been faked images or photographs of imposters.

Then, in 1914, Bensley suddenly re-emerged on the shores of the Mediterranean. He claimed to have crossed America, Australia and China, as well as Europe, and to have walked 30,000 miles in total.

Sadly, by now the world was no longer interested. The outbreak of the Great War meant that people had more compelling things to consider than heroic yet frivolous challenges.

In any case, the walk had become something that existed purely for its own sake. J P Morgan had died the previous year, leaving instructions that any gambling debts owed to him should be cancelled on his death.

Finally revealing his identity to the world, Bensley returned to London, this time by train. The long walk was over, and an even tougher destiny beckoned.

Bensley fought in the war, and was subsequently invalided out.

Those who knew him said that he had changed. Perhaps it was the trenches, perhaps it was years of loneliness, confined to his own thoughts, on the road.

Whatever the reason, Bensley was no longer the carefree playboy, but a more pensive and serious man.

Then personal disaster struck.

His family fortune, which had been invested in Russian stock, vanished with the Bolshevik revolution.

It is around this time that the newly impoverished Bensley appears as a citizen of Essex, living in Wivenhoe.

During the winter months, he paid the rent by working as a uniformed cinema doorman, or commissionaire, exploiting his fine voice and aristocratic bearing.

In the summer months, though, he took to the seafront with his old pram and his helmet, and once again did the thing he had been best at - walking.