Meet the masked heroes that helped to save our heritage
It’s 1927. Britain’s heritage is vanishing. Beautiful landscapes are being bulldozed. Historic buildings blown up. Even Stonehenge is collapsing.
Enter Ferguson’s Gang, a mysterious and eccentric group of women who helped the National Trust to save many buildings and landscapes. Here, the authors of Ferguson’s Gang: The Remarkable Story of National Trust Gangsters, Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck, reveal how they discovered more about the identities and antics of this enigmatic group.
Starting the story
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.
The Gang and the National Trust: what we knew
Ferguson’s Gang was formed in 1927 with five core members – all 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.
Over the years, they raised huge sums to protect and preserve buildings and land that could otherwise have been destroyed. The ‘swag’ was delivered in delightfully strange ways: Victorian coins inside a fake pineapple, a one-hundred pound note stuffed inside a cigar; five hundred pounds delivered 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
One of our favourite anecdotes dates back to 1939, when the Gang unwittingly caused a bomb scare at the National Trust’s annual general meeting. They'd hired a messenger to present their latest donation, a £100 note hidden inside a suspicious looking 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.
The Gang’s efforts saved Shalford Mill, 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.
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.
" 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."
Unmasking the Gang
We spent over two years further investigating these women: researching the private and public lives of the Gang’s inner circle, talking to family members, trawling archives and reading hundreds of papers. Uncovering the biographical material about the gang members was very difficult, as they had kept their role in Ferguson's Gang secret even from close family members.
When we met with the Red Biddy’s son and Sister Agatha’s granddaughter, they were amazed to find out about their family’s secret life as benevolent gangsters. At first incredulous, they then became very excited to learn about the Gang’s outlandish antics.
Then there was the Boo; looking more closely at this was akin to deciphering a puzzle: each new piece of information on the Gang revealed further layers of intrigue. Was Shot Biddy really the same person as White Biddy, or Red Biddy before her? (It transpired we had actually discovered a new, sixth member, though we think Red Biddy and White Biddy were the same person.) By piecing together information from the Boo, the National Trust’s archive, personal diaries and papers, we began to form a fuller picture.
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 nicknamed the Artichoke and was a close associate member.
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.