Reviewed by Brian Green
Co-author and Dulwich resident, Polly Bagnall grew up at Shalford Mill near Guildford where her family had been living since the 1930’s when the Mill had been saved from dereliction by a feisty group of middle class women. The group called themselves ‘Ferguson’s Gang’ and were unified by their passion to preserve at least some of the fabric of a rural England that was fast disappearing. Although several notches down the social scale from the Mitford sisters or the Bloomsbury set, they nevertheless shared some of their eccentricity and verve.
Polly had learnt something about the Gang from her mother but it was a request from some American visitors in 2011, to see the room in the Mill which the Fergusson Gang had used for thirty years as its headquarters that led Polly on a path of discovery. After the Gang’s closure in 1960, her father, the cartoonist, Peter Bagnall, had used the room as a studio. When tidying the ‘cell’ up for the visit, she found the cash box the Gang had used to collect the money for their long crusade and a ceremonial staff used in the Ferguson’s Gang’s meetings and Ritual Hauntings. Although her family had often talked about the Gang, and Polly had met some of them, she realised that when her mother and her sisters had passed away, the full story would be lost forever.
Her mother knew the real names of the gang members and her father, Polly’s grandfather, the architect John Macgregor was a member. The real find however was The Boo. Short for The Book but named The Boo because the calligrapher failed to reserve sufficient room for the final letter! Entries in The Boo were written in ‘mockney’. The gang members were given fictitious names - hence John Macgregor, the architect was called The Artichoke, the founder and leader of the gang, Peggy Gladstrone was named Bill Stickers. The result of this initial research was the staging of an exhibition at Shalford Mill. The research and the exhibition seemed to demand something more and a meeting with journalist and writer Sally Beck, who became co-author, was the catalyst for the book.
The money raised by Ferguson’s Gang was always delivered in person to the National Trust with tremendous panache, by masked gang members. The Trust responded in kind and the national press seized on the antics of the Gang with relish, resulting in priceless publicity for the National Trust’s work. The Boo was central to the story, not only recording the meetings at their HQ at the Mill, the first building they saved, but also details of the indulgent picnics supplied by Fortnum & Mason’s which accompanied the hilarious meetings. Ferguson’s Gang went on to also save the Old Town Hall Newtown IOW, and other buildings and landmarks.
The biographies of the gang members is a fascinating read, although the space devoted to each is uneven; more is discovered about some of the women than others. A slightly tighter editing would have been an advantage. Nevertheless, as a fascinating window into the antics and lives of a group of like-minded and spirited women united in their determination to save a little bit of England - and still have a hell of a lot of fun, Ferguson’s Gang is a must-read. Put it on your Christmas list!
Ferguson’s Gang by Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck published by the National Trust 232 pages £15.99