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Ferguson and the Octopus

'Masked lady weighed down with silver.' So The Times reported the visit in January 1933 of a fully masked woman, burdened with a large sack, to the headquarters of the National Trust. The lady announced herself as Red Biddy of Ferguson's Gang, and the sack contained £100 in Victorian coins, which she dumped on the astonished Secretary's desk as the first instalment of the Gang's promised endowment of Shalford Mill. The Press, and public, loved it. 'Ferguson's Gang at Work Again' ran the headlines, as other members of the Gang, also disguised, carried out similar missions.

Shalford Mill

Ferguson's Gang created their own legend with their disguises, anonymity and sense of fun. They appealed to the English love of eccentricty coupled with a yearning for an ideal rural past. Here a picturesque old mill stands derelict and vandalised in an idyllic setting, under threat of demolition. Enter a band of mysterious young women known only by outlandish pseudonyms: Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Kate O'Brien the Nark, Red Biddy, the Bloody Bishop, Erb the Snark, Silent O'Moyle, See Mee Run, Shot Biddy, Black Maria. They save the Mill and create a hideaway there with bunks (from an R100 airship), a sink and an Aladdin stove. Around the millstone they declaim their oath while striking the mill shaft: 'I swear to follow the precepts of Ferguson in preserving England and frustrating the Octopus'. In their annual 'haunting' ceremony they process up and down the Mill at night, chanting Latin until they see four colours in the dawn. Not to mention the arrival of green and gold Fortnum and Mason's vans, bringing food and wine to be cooked and consumed under the enthralled eyes of their neighbours the Macgregor children.

The story began in 1927 as a group of well-connected young women, university educated, artistic and creative, sought an outlet for their benevolent energies. These became focused in 1928 with the publication of architect Clough Williams-Ellis's polemic 'England and the Octopus', an angry denunciation of insensitive building and ugly ribbon development along every road – the Octopus whose tentacles threatened to engulf the traditional English landscape. Hence the Gang's resolution to frustrate the Octopus. The National Trust, dedicated to preserving England's heritage, was the beneficiary of the Gang's efforts. They raised money by taxing themselves, saved all the Victorian coins that came their way, and donated to various Trust projects.

The Mill had lain empty for years and was on the road to demolition, a magnet for vandals who smashed the boards and broke almost every window. Its owner, Major R.A. Godwin-Austen, had resigned himself to selling it for its timber. But in September 1931 he had as houseguests Bill Stickers and Sister Agatha of the Gang. As they passed the Mill one day they spotted its' For Sale' sign. The two women were captivated and the Major offered to give it to them if they could find a way to maintain it. Approached by Ferguson's Gang the National Trust was cautious: they could only accept the property if money was raised for repairs and as an endowment for its future. The Gang donated £500 to repair and endow the Mill, which they presented to the Trust in 1932.

The Trust's architect John Macgregor, nicknamed 'The Artichoke' by the Gang, created their hideaway known as the Cell, which was given to them for life by the grateful Trust. There they met formally for meetings and informally on weekend retreats. Their proceedings remained secret until their minute book, the 'Boo' (the 'k' wouldn't fit on the page), was presented to the National Trust on the Gang's fortieth anniversary in 1967.

Octopus 2

Secrecy was combined with a sharp sense of fun. Money could be delivered to the National Trust wrapped around a cigar, or hidden inside a goose. In December 1934 Silent O'Moyle - silently - placed on the Secretary's desk £500 and a bottle of red liquid labelled 'Sloe Gin of Ferguson's Gang, gathered, matured and bottled by Black Mary and Bill Stickers. For internal use only.'

After their success with Shalford Mill they presented to the National Trust Newtown Old Town Hall on the Isle of Wight, Steventon Priory cottages in Oxfordshire, and tracts of Cornish coast near Lands End. Altogether they raised £4,500, a remarkable sum for the time. By the late 1930s marriage or careers had taken over and they dispersed across the country. At a later reunion the Bloody Bishop was disappointed to see how fearfully respectable everybody had become. In 1967 the Gang, in Sister Agatha's words now 'too stiff to climb into the bunks,' formally handed over the Cell to be incorporated into the residential part of the Mill.

Strict anonymity was preserved almost to the end. Only over the last decade or so have identities of some Gang members emerged. Bill Stickers, the ringleader, was Peggy Gladstone, a great-niece of W.E. Gladstone and a Sanskrit scholar. She was gifted with piety and comedy in equal measures, penned rather good comic verse, became a Tertiary of the Dominican Order and wrote hymns in Cornish, English and Latin. She also held the distinction of an entry in the Guinness Book of records for a tapestry 1338 feet long, embroidered with scenes from C.S. Lewis's Narnia.

Octopus 3

The Bloody Bishop was an art student at the Slade and the Gang's artist. Red Biddy - 'red' for her politics – was a major general's daughter. She later became a children's doctor and gained no small notoriety, arrested for absconding with a child whom she thought to be at risk from the parents. Sister Agatha, a sponsor of promising musicians and a great supporter of the Red Cross, was the last surviving member and died in 2004.

Ferguson's Gang has gone, but the Octopus still looms over a countryside under pressure to provide ever more housing. One question remains. Who was Ferguson? He made a broadcast appeal on behalf of the National Trust in 1935, when his voice revealed that Ferguson was not a woman. But was this the real Ferguson? The 'Boo' records his appearance 'in a remarkable disguise' at a meeting of the Gang in 1932. But his signature was always a rubber stamp – and it seems that he was just another joke. The Octopus proved all too real. But Ferguson never existed.

Taken from More Scenes of Shalford Past by Margaret Dierden, 2006