(Photo credit: Pavilion Books. Image above shows an old-fashioned car against a dark background alongside the title of the book: Ferguson’s Gang: the remarkable story of the National Trust gangsters and the names of the authors: Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck)
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 aim to protect rural England. Using pseudonyms such as Bill Stickers, Red Biddy, the Bludy Beershop and Sister Agatha, and dressed in disguise, they delivered funds to the National Trust, garnering enormous publicity for their cause.
The Gang raise huge sums, which they deliver in delightfully strange ways: a £100 note 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.
They carefully record their exploits, their rituals, even their elaborate picnics, but they take their real names to the grave.
The true story of Ferguson’s Gang is incredible and yet, until now, almost unknown.
All their missions bar one were reported in the national press. The Press did try to discover their identities (not even the Trust knew all the members’ real names) and although the odd journalist knew who Bill Stickers and Red Biddy were, they played the game and never outed them in the newspapers.
In the end, only Bill Stickers formally revealed herself, and then only in 1996, after her death at the age of 92, in a letter sent to The Times on her instructions. The others never did and carried their secret to their graves.
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.
The women in Ferguson’s Gang were all strong and non-conformist. From the upper and upper-middle classes, they were educated, enquiring and brave. They were also inclusive and non-judgemental and, although they shared interests, they were a diverse group.
Today, the generosity of Ferguson’s Gang is worth tens of millions of pounds. They left another invaluable legacy too: they helped put the National trust, a small and underfunded body in its early years, with a fraction of the members it has today, well and truly on the map.
The story told by Sally Beck and Polly Bagnall in Ferguson’s Gang is indeed a remarkable one, not to mention fascinating and hugely entertaining.
Further details of Ferguson’s Gang: the remarkable story of the National Trust Gangsters can be found on the main catalogue, available in ‘Catalogues’ on the Library’s website.