Richard Boucher posted this piece about an early bat-man character, Batsowl, from 1918. The conversation following the post is pretty interesting too. If you want check it out click here.
The notion of costumed 'bat-men' didn't originate with Bob Kane's creation. One such earlier character was Batsowl, who starred in a series of prose stories in the British comic Illustrated Chips in 1918.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that there was any connection of course. Bob Kane was born in 1915, so it's highly unlikely he'd have seen a British comic when he was three years old. However, there are some interesting similarities between the two characters, not least being the costume.
Like Batman, Batsowl's other identity was a wealthy figure. In this case, an Earl, Desmond Devance...He also had a secret underground laboratory, not dissimilar to the Batcave...and his appearance struck terror into people...
Sadly, like most British comics of the time, Batsowl is uncredited. I don't know how long the serial ran as I only have one episode, which is the one I'm showing here. It's from Illustrated Chips No.1477, dated December 21st 1918. This was one of the comics presented as a facsimile in 1972 in the Six Comics of World War One collection...It's highly likely that both Batman and Batsowl were both partially influenced by The Phantom of the Opera, written in 1909, and The Scarlet Pimpernel (which was adapted as a very popular London play in 1905).