Hundreds of people are expected to gather today (2nd October 2014) for the funeral of Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. The Duchess passed away peacefully aged 94 last Wednesday. The Duchess, the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters who scandalised and delighted society in their day and her husband inherited the vast Chatsworth estate when his father died in 1950. Time is slowly bringing to an end the aristocratic society that influenced England during the early days of the 20th century, which over time high taxes and death duties combined with poor management (in some cases) saw their country estates sold for cash. The houses remain mostly maintained by English Heritage or the National Trust but the elaborate grandeur and pomp that once was inherent is now long gone.
The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, usually known as the National Trust, is a conservation organisation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Trust does not operate in Scotland, where there is an independent National Trust for Scotland. The trust was founded in 1895 and given statutory powers, starting with the National Trust Act 1907. Historically the Trust tended to focus on English country houses, which still make up the largest part of its holdings, but it also protects historic landscapes such as in the Lake District, historic urban properties, and nature reserves.
The trust owns many heritage properties, including historic houses and gardens, industrial monuments and social history sites. It is one of the largest landowners in the United Kingdom, owning many beauty spots, most of which are open to the public free of charge. It is the largest membership organisation in the United Kingdom, and one of the largest UK charities by both income and assets.
The National Trust was incorporated in 1895 as an “association not for profit” under the Companies Acts 1862 to 1890, in which the liability of its members was limited by guarantee. It was later incorporated by six separate Acts of Parliament (The National Trust Acts 1907–1971 – as varied by a parliamentary scheme implemented by The Charities (National Trust) Order 2005),it is also a charitable organisation registered under the Charities Act 2006.
In the early day of the National Trust the aristocratic elite would often leave old houses and monuments to just fall down if they couldn’t or wouldn’t repair them. The government stepped in and by way of other titles the National Trust came in to being. Funding for repairs fluctuated through the decades until a group of young people from the aristocracy form a gang and raised money for many restorations.
The Ferguson’s Gang, formed in 1927, was an anonymous and somewhat enigmatic group that raised funds for the National Trust during the period from 1930 until 1947.The inner-circle of the group were five young women, who hid their identities behind masks, unusual pseudonyms, and mock-Cockney communiques.
The gang was influenced by Clough Williams-Ellis’s publication England and the Octopus, which denounced insensitive building and ugly development. They determined to save what they could. Their donations enabled the purchase of Shalford Mill, in Surrey, and Newtown Old Town Hall, on the Isle of Wight. They also funded the purchase of stretches of the coastline of Cornwall, Priory Cottages at Steventon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), and supported appeals for money to purchase land in Derbyshire, the Lake District, Devon and Wiltshire. In total they raised the sum of £4,500, the equivalent to half a million pounds in today’s money.
As an example of their methods, in 1933 a fully masked Red Biddy deposited a large sack of Victorian coins to the value of £100 on the Trust secretary’s desk. In 1935, one of the ‘gang’ was interviewed by the BBC, and turned up at Broadcasting House wearing a mask.
In the words of the group’s leader Bill Stickers: “We ain’t so many, We ain’t so few, All of us has this end in view, National Trust to work for you.”
Members of Ferguson’s Gang included Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Red Biddy, Erb the Smasher, Kate O’Brien The Nark, Silent O’Moyle, See Mee Run, Gerry Moham, Black Maria, and the Lord Beershop (looking out of window above) of the Gladstone Islands & Mercator’s Projection. When the Oxbridge Sanskrit scholar and adopted Cornish bard Margaret Steuart Pollard died at the age of 93 in 1996, her obituaries revealed that she had been Bill Stickers. In 2013 the author Anna Hutton-North completed an extensive research programme to uncover the women behind the pseudonyms. Her full history of the Gang is included in Ferguson’s Gang: The Maidens behind the Masks. Pollard was a naturist but just like modern days the others hid the fact they too enjoy the lifestyle at some point in their lives.
Author Sue Herdman said about the gang:
“The notoriety of Ferguson’s Gang was matched only by their genororisty ” she went on to say “It was a fresh spring day in 1935 when a group of high-spirited bluestockings motored south from London to catch the ferry to the Isle of Wight.They stopped for lunch in a beechwood of bluebells and cuckoos, tucked into a picnic of chicken mousse and Russian salad, downed a rather good bottle of white and just caught the 2:30 pm crossing.
On the island, they headed for the Old Town Hall at Newtown. This 17th-century building, a town hall with no town, was under restoration. The young women had come, with a slightly proprietorial air, to inspect progress.They combed the building. They took photographs. And then they “solemnly blessed” it, before departing for “a big tea at Cowes of five waffles and eight cakes”.These were no ordinary day trippers though: they were the faces behind a mysterious masked band of philanthropists who had taken to making sudden and startling appearances at the headquarters of the National Trust with sacks of money and clear instructions to direct the funds to particular causes
Nobody knew who these masked bandits were. But with each appearance their notoriety – and penchant for mischievous stunts – grew. They once delivered money sewn up in the carcass of a goose; another time £50 notes came attached to miniature liqueurs.They took glee in recording their visits in their minute book, known as the “Boo”.
Now kept in the National Trust’s archives, this is full, not just of their accounts of meetings they gatecrashed, but of postcards, photographs, newspaper cuttings, receipts for money received by an often startled Trust and anarchically written descriptions of their adventures. The anonymity and drama were the key, as was an enormous sense of fun. Masks for raids on the Trust were usually purchased at Harrods, while food was also paramount: servings of pheasant, duck, lobster, figs with cream and fine champagne were all recorded in the Boo. But behind the laughter was a serious cause. The gang, all hugely educated and well connected, were followers of the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, whose 1927 book England and the Octopus lamented the sprawl of post-First World War urban development.
The Fergusons were determined, like Williams-Ellis, to halt the despoliation of the countryside.Along with the Old Town Hall on the Isle of Wight and a picturesque mill at Shalford in Surrey (their first gift to the Trust), they went on to donate priory cottages at Steventon in Oxfordshire and tracts of Cornish coast, and to support appeals to buy land in Derbyshire, the Lakes, Devon and Avebury in Wiltshire.
Their campaign continued until around 1940 – but the gang, now all dead, shrouded their identities for far longer.
“It was always important to remain anonymous,” Sister Agatha explained firmly, on a mask-free visit to the Old Town Hall in the 1980s.Only one member was officially “outed”, in an obituary in the Times in 1996, when she died aged 93. This was Bill Stickers, aka Dr Margaret Steuart Pollard, a brilliant Sanskrit scholar, Cornish bard, naturist, historian and a great-niece of Gladstone.She remained passionately interested in saving important sites right up to her death, when her cause was the shrine of Our Lady at Ladye Park in Liskeard. “She was a force,” says her friend Claire Riche.”Incredibly eccentric.
There was no actual Ferguson, although a male friend occasionally assumed his identity. It was he who made an inspirational BBC radio broadcast on behalf of the gang in 1935, appearing in the studio in dinner jacket and mask. It netted 600 new members and £900 in contributions.Another ally was The Artichoke, aka John Macgregor, a well-known conservation architect. He came into contact with the gang when they donated the derelict Shalford Mill in Surrey, of which he became the tenant.
The Trust gave Ferguson’s band access to parts of the building to hold their clandestine meetings (they kept their number to just eight, because that was as many as could fit around the millstone).”They would just appear,” recall Macgregor’s daughters, Joanna and Penelope, “often chauffeur-driven. Our parents would say: ‘Now, don’t stare, and be on best behaviour.'”They were a little in awe of the gang. They were such intelligent women: all tweeds and Lyle stockings. A Fortnum & Mason van would arrive, and cooking smells would permeate our side of the mill.”We could hear them laughing and yelling their battle cry as all their hands struck the millstone”
Below are some other Properties saved for the nation by the National Trust.