From the late 1920s until 1940 a notorious gang operated in England whose members, although all now dead, have, with one exception, managed to retain their anonymity. Their exploits were legendary and their every adventure was written up with gusto in their own minute book, known as ‘the Boo’. The gang member known as ‘Red Biddy’ recorded one such exploit there:
I goes up to the door and says to the man at the door – Ear’s my card – please give it to the Secretary of the National Trust – Well e looks at me suspicious like and sez ‘Av yer got an appointment?’ – I sez ‘No, but the Secretary will see me when e sees my card’ – Well off he gose hesitating like & back he comes, & the Secretary, a dear old man, sez ‘Come this way please’. So im and I goes into a Private Room like & he sez ‘Sit down please, we are always pleased to see the gang.’
The Ferguson gang always operated under pseudonyms, which included The Right Bludy Lord Beershop of the Gladstone Islands and Mercator’s Projection, Red Biddy, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Erb the Smasher, Kate O’Brien, Silent O’ Moyle, See Me Run, Gerry Boham and Black Maria. They invariably wore masks and communicated in mock cockney.
This gang, however, were neither terrorists nor criminals but a group of young, wealthy women with an eccentric sense of humour and a single shared passion. Having read Clough William-Ellis’s book England and the Octopus, which warned that ugly urban sprawl was ruining the country, they determined to do something about it. So the gang was born.
Their first major operation was Shalford Mill, an eighteenth-century watermill in Surrey that had fallen into disrepair after the First World War. At the time the potential loss of such buildings, which today would be considered national treasures, was considered very much the business of the landowner, and old buildings that were no longer useful were fair game for demolition. Not, however, if the gang heard about it. They promptly bought the mill and restored it before handing it over anonymously to the National Trust for safe keeping.
Indeed, the National Trust would be the beneficiary of most of their ‘raids’, which ranged from the outright purchase of buildings and land to the delivery of money to the bemused Trust’s secretary in a variety of forms under a multiplicity of disguises. On one occasion a cash donation was delivered sewn into the carcass of a goose; on another banknotes were wrapped around miniature liqueurs. During the 1933 ‘raid’ by Red Biddy, described above, a sackful of Victorian coins worth £100 was dumped on the secretary’s desk, with specific instructions for how it should be used. Red Biddy then ‘escaped’ in a taxi that ‘The Nark’ had positioned outside the building ready for the getaway.
The Ferguson gang also liked to visit the places they had rescued, always in disguise and, being rather well off, usually chauffeur driven. Lord Beershop is described at one meeting arriving in ‘diadem, tunic, cape, liturgical boots and running shorts’. For their formal, secret meetings the National Trust even allowed them to create a hideaway at Shalford Mill, designed by the architect John Macgregor, who was known to the gang as ‘The Artichoke’. These meetings were said, by those who overheard them, to be riotous all-night affairs in which they chanted in Latin, danced and shouted battle-cries, all to the accompaniment of the very best food and drink, provided by Fortnum & Mason, whose delivery van could invariably be seen parked outside when the gang were in residence.
By the time the gang disbanded in 1940 they had raised the modern equivalent of well over £500,000 for the National Trust, saved Shalford Mill, the Old Town Hall at Newton on the Isle of Wight, and Priory Cottages at Steventon in Oxfordshire, as well as purchasing the miles of Cornish coast that are today one of the country’s top holiday destinations but which stood, at the time, in danger of being lost to the public for ever.
Only one member of the Ferguson gang was ever officially ‘outed’. In 1996 the obituary of Margaret Steuart Pollard, the Cambridge Sanskrit scholar and Cornish bard, who had just died aged ninety-three, revealed that she had been ‘Bill Stickers’. No other member has ever been officially identified.
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