Gordon Bennett – you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Back in my days at Manchester University at the end of the 1960s – long before mobile phones or instant messaging apps were available – you could ask at the office in the Students’ Union building for someone to be called to the foyer. One name constantly being sought over the public address system was Gordon Bennett. He was called so often that eventually it dawned on everyone that this was probably people just messing about and waiting to see if anyone bearing that famous/infamous name would turn up.

Some readers may be baffled why this name should be seen is somehow funny. I should explain that it’s used as an exclamation to express anything from amused irritation to repressed fury as in: “Gordon Bennett, what are you playing at?” or “Gordon Bennett, give me strength…!”

Was GB (as we’ll call him) an actual person? A quick Google search finds at least half a dozen reasonably well-known gents with that name but there is one pretty obvious candidate for the GB of whom we speak. James Gordon Bennett was a New Yorker who took over the New York Herald in 1872 when his dad – also called James Gordon Bennett – who founded the paper – died. The latter sounds to have been an upright, Godly sort of citizen by all accounts, and not at all the sort of chap to give rise to outraged exclamations.

The son was usually known as Gordon Bennett (see picture above), to distinguish him from his father, though the fact that he was also a playboy who drank too much might help you spot the difference. On the plus side he was a great sportsman – who organised the first tennis and polo matches in the USA, and personally won the first trans-oceanic yacht race. He also sponsored the journalist Henry Morton Stanley’s search for David Livingstone.

This GB liked a drink and he liked to gamble. Mixing the two interests, after losing a bet and having a few drinks to drown his sorrows he drunkenly rode a pony through the dining room of an exclusive social club and got banned for life. Allegedly he retaliated by buying the neighbouring building, turning it into a rival social club of his own and enticing the members of the other club to join his.

He was – according to one contemporary description: “a dandy… known for driving fast cars and causing consternation and surprise”. He sponsored the Bennett Trophy in motor racing from 1900 to 1905 and his love of speed might well have changed history. He took the noted beauty Jennie Jerome, daughter of the “King of Wall Street” Leonard Jerome, on a high-speed carriage ride. When he lost control of the vehicle it overturned, with potentially fatal consequences to one or both of them. Luck was on their side and they both emerged bruised, but alive. If Jennie hadn’t survived, she wouldn’t have married Lord Randolph Churchill, and given birth to Winston Churchill and perhaps the outcome of the Second World War – for Britain at least – might have been different.

He holds the Guinness Book of Records entry for “Greatest Engagement Faux Pas”. On one memorable evening he turned up late to a posh party held by his very rich future in-laws. As was his way he drank several glasses too many and very publicly relieved himself in the fireplace. His fiancée’s father was among those watching this entertaining but unedifying spectacle, and unsurprisingly the nuptials never took place. Perhaps this was the first time that the phrase “Gordon Bennett, I don’t believe it!” was bellowed out vigorously.

Unfortunately (and boringly) it’s just as likely that the phrase is a euphemistic substitution for ‘gorblimey’, which is itself a phonetic rendering of a colloquial or regional pronunciation of ‘God blind me’. Or it might be a version of ‘Gawd help us!’

Possibly the first recorded usage of the phrase was revealed by the BBC tv show Balderdash and Piffle which ran from 2006-2007 and was hosted by Victoria Coren-Mitchell. It featured an appeal from the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary for help in finding the origins and first known citations of a number of words and phrases. It had previously been thought that one of the earliest mentions of Gordon Bennett was by the character Alf Garnett in 1967 in the BBC TV series Till Death Us Do Part. With the help of viewers, the phrase was initially traced back a further five years to the comedy Steptoe and Son in 1962.

But it now seems that its first outing comes in You’re in the Racket, too! a little-known1937 novel by James Curtis set in London’s less glamorous settings – from seedy Paddington bedsits to Soho dive bars. The book includes the following phrase:

He stretched and yawned. Gordon Bennett, he wasn’t half tired.

So – if you’ve ever wondered about it – now you know. And if the Gordon Bennett who was constantly being paged over Manchester University’s public address system ever reads this, please get in touch.

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