Alan Gordon reviews a new book which tells the story of a group of National Trust gangsters
Ferguson’s Gang tells the true story of the eponymous National Trust gangsters, an enigmatic, anarchic group of women formed in 1927 with the express aim of protecting historic buildings from demolition and conserving landscapes and views of outstanding natural beauty.
The Gang, hiding behind masks and pseudonyms, were inspired by the Trust’s protection of Stonehenge (it had been common when in private hands for visitors to arrive with chisels to chip off souvenirs), but more so by the publication in 1928 of Clough Williams-Ellis’s England and the Octopus, in which the maverick architect railed against inappropriate post-war development and imagined the Great Wen ‘spreading its tentacles across the countryside’.
The Gang raised huge sums to pay for restoration to historic buildings
Appalled by the toll taken by developers and death duties (Estate Tax had risen to 50 per cent by 1930, making demolition of expensive-to-maintain country seats and sale of land for development the preferred option at probate), the Gang raised huge sums through the 1930s and 40s to pay for restoration work to historic buildings and endowments to the National Trust, plus the purchase of stretches of the Cornish coastline and land in Devon, Wiltshire, Derbyshire and the Lake District. Their campaigns truly and literally put the National Trust on the map.
With an adroit sense of the power of PR they delivered the money raised to the National Trust in a series of bizarre pranks, widely reported in the press, which captured the public imagination and gave impetus to the cause: invading the National Trust AGM of 1939 wearing black masks at the height of an IRA bombing campaign to deliver a sinister canister full of coins; or sending a £100 note stuffed into a cigar, for examples.
Drawing on the recollections of relatives, colleagues and friends, Bagnall (granddaughter of architect John Eric Miers Macgregor, a conservation architect with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and close associate of the Gang) and Beck here reveal the identities of the eccentric Gang – Bill Stickers, Shot Biddy, Black Mary, Kate O’Brien the Nark, the Bludy Beershop and the rest – secrets never divulged in the women’s lifetimes.
Gilded daughters of the upper and upper-middle classes, the gangsters’ story is as fascinating for its evocation of the Woosterish gay Bohemian subculture of Cambridge University and the clubs and cafés of London in the inter-war years as it is for the work of national importance they accomplished. Dressing up as nuns for a visit to the zoo; naked frolics in the country; platonic marriages of convenience; and darker stuff too – incest and sexual abuse – their lives were often at once insouciant and troubled, frivolous and earnest. It’s all a far cry from the orderliness and cream teas a visit to many a National Trust property entails, but their determined and imaginative efforts helped build a small and underfunded body into the mighty heritage trust of 4 million members it is today.