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 Who was the intrepid marathon walker in the knight’s helmet?
Duncan Say uncovers the exploits of Harry Bensley
On the 13th of June 1908, an aristocratic man with his head entirely covered by a knight’s helmet walked through Ipswich pushing a perambulator, accompanied by an assistant and followed by a horse drawn caravan. He proclaimed that he was
walking the world as the result of a wager with a rich American businessman. Should the mystery man remain anonymous and complete his ten year mission he would win £21,000 (equivalent to £7,000,000 today), should he fail he would pay a forfeit of £5,000.
In the town centre he was be met by local dignitaries and then made a speech to the large crowd, meanwhile his assistant sold postcards, photographs and pamphlets which comprised his sole income.
That evening, after taking a room in
the best hotel he made an appearance
on the stage of a local music hall,
where he was cheered to the rafters by
the packed house. Once he returned
to his hotel room there were letters
with offers of marriage, some from
titled ladies and everywhere he went
he collected sixpence after sixpence from the adoring public.
The next day he, his assistant and his entourage were gone, passing through Sudbury (15th June) on their way to Bury St Edmunds (16th June). Walking his way across the globe, one town at a time.
This is the background to the remarkable story of the ‘original masked man’, Harry Bensley, and one that has been turned into a compelling story by author Duncan Say.
He says: “I first heard about Bensley in an article printed in my local paper, ‘Mystery man walked round the world and ended up in Essex’. I was not a writer at the time and I definitely was not looking for a project but it always felt to me that Harry was searching for someone to tell his story and I became his reluctant biographer.”
It’s a tale brought together by strands of news reports/ records. But do we really know the identity of the man in the helmet?
“Certainly the man in the mask existed, his exploits are well documented and he made and maybe squandered a considerable fortune,” says Duncan. “Many years later Harry Bensley was the only person to ever claim to be the masked man. Problematically his early life was very different from the person he claimed to be. This book is the first full account of his elusive life story. And it seems the book writing bug has
bitten Duncan . . . another, on a different kind of walk, is coming. “I walked the Pennine Way with a friend when I was 23 and we are writing about our second attempt 40 years later. It was very eventful,with a significant amount of jeopardy, but in the main this one is about friendship. We are both photographers so there will be many pictures. Hopefully it will be ready later in the year.
Masked - the unbelievable Harry Bensley is available now from book- shops, Amazon and on eReaders..
 Duncan Say
Sara Knight’s new book covers the early history of the Sudbury Dramatic Society
Why did you write the book?
Sudbury Dramatic Society has been officially constituted for one hundred years this year, 2021. There
were theatrical activities going on in the town before this, but as my fellow theatre enthusiast Liz Cole has said, it was a bit like space dust that drifted together to form the society, coalescing in the Victoria Hall in 1921. We felt this was something to celebrate, and to share with our wider community how we have always been a part of the life of Sudbury.
I joined the society in 1996 and have performed in productions regularly since then. I have also directed a panto and two promenade performances, as well as producing two touring Shakepeares.
What might people in West Suffolk not appreciate about the theatre?
The Quay Theatre has only existed as a theatre for the last 40 years. Before that, it was a warehouse, including being a collecting point for straw and hay to be transported for horses on the Western Front in World War I. We started performing in the Victoria Hall, and have also put on productions in the Gainsborough Electric Theatre (now the Infinity Nightclub) and St Peters Church. After the Conservative Association decided that they needed the Victoria Hall for their exclusive use, we bought and converted the warehouse into the Quay Theatre, but it is now run as a completely separate charitable trust.
In writing the book did you make any interesting discoveries?
The first productions were written by Dr Martin Shaw, musical director at St Paul’s Cathedral and for Isadora Duncan. He had a second home in Sudbury, and he directed his work with the society. The sets were painted by professional artist Paul Earee, the grandfather of Liz Cole, who wrote the introductory chapter of the book and who is still an SDS member. She has also painted sets, along with her late husband John Cole.
Pre World War II, the President of the Society was always the Mayor of Sudbury.
The first director of the Quay (and SDS member), Richard Dunning, went to the Edinburgh Fringe and booked up-and-coming talent – Julian Clary, Jeremy Hardy, Helen Lederer and Paul Merton. And the Jazz Club included performances by Alan Price, Labi Siffre, Fascinating Aida and many others.

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