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Who were Ferguson's Gang?

Written by
Polly Bagnall and Sally BeckAuthors of Ferguson's Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters
Black and white photograph of three women sitting in the countryside drinking from glasses
Members of Ferguson's Gang at a picnic in 1935 | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Ferguson’s Gang was formed in 1927 with five core members, all of whom were women. Their aim was to raise awareness of the need to protect rural areas and they supported the organisation they considered to be the most dedicated to preserving England’s heritage: the National Trust. The Gang raised huge sums to protect and preserve important buildings and land that could otherwise have been destroyed.

Eccentric donations and campaigns

The Gang’s ‘swag’ donations to the National Trust were delivered in strange ways: money inside a fake pineapple; a one-hundred-pound note stuffed inside a cigar; five hundred pounds with a bottle of homemade sloe gin.

Their stunts were avidly reported in the press and when they made a national radio appeal for the National Trust, the response was overwhelming.

Causing a scare

In 1939 the Gang unwittingly caused a bomb scare at the National Trust’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). They hired a messenger to present their donation, a one-hundred-pound note inside a metallic pineapple.

In a kind of anxious game of ‘pass the parcel’, it was handed from James Lees-Milne, Secretary of the Country Houses Committee, to the Chairman, Lord Zetland, who was convinced it was an IRA bomb. Then he read the label: ‘Open this fruit and you will find a kernel greatly to your mind.’ The Gang had struck again and a flurry of newspaper headlines meant more publicity for the cause.

Places saved for the nation

The Gang’s efforts saved Shalford Mill, near Guildford Surrey, The Old Town Hall in Newtown, Isle of Wight, Priory Cottages in Steventon, Oxfordshire, Mayon and Trevescan Cliffs in Cornwall, and contributed to the saving of Frenchman’s Creek, also in Cornwall.

We cared about helping to save England and wanted to be involved in something of permanent value. Together we decided to pool our wits into battle … and we were in our early twenties and it was fun.

A quote by Sister AgathaGang Member, 1989

Despite all this, somehow, they managed to stay anonymous, hiding behind masks and bizarre pseudonyms such as Bill Stickers, Kate O’Brien the Nark and the Bludy Beershop. They carefully recorded their exploits – even their elaborate picnics – in a minute book, The Boo. But they did not reveal their names.

The women behind the masks

In 2011, a small group of American visitors contacted the National Trust and asked if they could see the room at Shalford Mill, Surrey that had been used by the mysterious Ferguson’s Gang as their headquarters from 1932.

This inspired us to discover more about the Gang and one of our starting points was very close to home – Polly’s family had known the Gang and lived at the Mill during this time, but Polly knew little about the Gang itself. Together, we set out to learn more about this unconventional group.

A notecard reading 'Ferguson's Gang. Representative... Red Biddy' with leaf emblem at top
Ferguson's Gang notecard belonging to 'Red Biddy' | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Looking closely at The Boo reveals further intrigue. Was ‘Shot Biddy’ really the same person as ‘White Biddy’, or ‘Red Biddy’ before her? Through the process of researching our book, Ferguson’s Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters, we actually discovered a sixth member.

Polly also discovered how close to the Gang her family was: not only did they know them, but her grandfather, John Eric Miers Macgregor, had been their architect and was nicknamed the Artichoke.

Solving the mystery

Our research revealed a group of fascinating women, some from troubled aristocratic backgrounds, others the daughters of wealthy merchants and industrialists.

They were fun and food-loving philanthropists, undaunted by bureaucracy and public opinion, breaking through legislation and gaining mass appeal. And above everything, they were dedicated to serving their cause of protecting England’s heritage.

Trusted Source

This article was written by Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck, authors of Ferguson's Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

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