Ferguson Gang : The Remarkable Story fo the National Trust Gangsters
1927. Britain's heritage is vanishing. Beautiful landscapes are being bulldozed.
Historic buildings are being blown up. Stonehenge is collapsing. Enter Ferguson's Gang, a mysterious and eccentric group of women who help the National Trust to fight back.
The Gang raise huge sums, which they deliver in delightfully strange ways: Victorian coins 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 are avidly reported in the press, and when they make a national appeal for the Trust, the response is overwhelming. Ferguson's Gang is instrumental in saving places from Cornwall to the Lake District, a legacy of incalculable value.
Yet somehow these women stay anonymous, hiding behind masks and bizarre pseudonyms such as Bill Stickers, Red Biddy, the Bludy Beershop and Sister Agatha. They carefully record their exploits, their rituals, even their elaborate picnics, but they take their real names to the grave. Now Sally Beck and Polly Bagnall can reveal the identities of these unlikely national heroes and tell the stories of their fascinating and often unconventional lives.
With the help of relatives, colleagues and friends, we can finally get to know the women who combined a serious mission with such a sense of mischief.
This is the story of a group of mainly well-connected and well-educated women who in 1927 formed a group to raise money for the National Trust in order to protect specific sites and buildings, doing it in such a way as to raise the Trust's profile and to amuse themselves in the process. They raised £5,578 14s 0d between 1923 and 1946. The details of donations and properties preserved are on page 212. The amount they achieved was probably much exaggerated at the time because of all the publicity, but after one campaign they reckoned to have enrolled over 300 associates and 600 members. This was no small feat.
When the Gang started, the National Trust had been in existence for 40 years, but in that time had acquired only 5,000 members, and there was also a lot to do in the way of public education. Until recently it had been quite normal for visitors to Stonehenge to chisel off bits of the stones and WW1 pilots to buzz them dangerously. The Trust definitely required some profile-raising, which was achieved by deliberate mystification - the Ferguson Gang were anonymous, with names such as Bill Stickers, Shot Biddy and The Lord Beershop of the Gladstone Islands, and invented ingenious ways to deliver payment for the specific buildings and beauty spots they had decided on. Some of these ways could be rather silly - when a member of the Gang dressed as a nun stuffed a £100 note inside a cigar and presented it to the Chairman at the Trust's Christmas dinner, it is hardly surprising that she thereby committed herself to an anxious evening. The last such stunt, in 1939, was delivering their donation in a pineapple which looked like a bomb; this may not have been quite so warmly appreciated as they expected.
Much of this book consists of the eccentric lives of the Gang, mainly women, their previous and later lives, their usually unsatisfactory sex lives and their idea of fun. This ran to inventing imaginary artists, stealing pottery from hotels (hilarious), having luxurious meals in unusual locations, composing doggerel verses and writing to each other in a rather silly 'mockney' in which an architect becomes an artichoke, telephone becomes 'tallowphone' and so forth. One does rather feel that though they had energy and initiative, they lacked sufficient intellectual stimulation and it is quite difficult to distinguish one of these characters from another or to be much interested in their later lives.
The book is well produced with lots of illustrations (though a map showing where the properties they funded are might have been nice), a bibliography and index and a quite eye-opening list of legislation, which they must have done much to forward. As the authors note, when they started there were few conservation laws, no planning acts, no national parks or green belts. Their best epitaph might well be that it is largely due to them that we now take these things for granted.
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