Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bill Stickers will be celebrated

The next review in my current series of featured books is something very different. It tells the story of a colourful episode in the history of the National Trust. It’s an engaging, often amusing, story in its own right, but also throws fascinating light on all kinds of subjects, from the history of conservation to women’s work during World War II. Welcome to the world of Ferguson’s Gang…

Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck, Ferguson’s Gang
Published by National Trust Books

1939. In the era of British anxiety over Irish terrorism just before World War II a pair of masked bandits enter the annual general meeting of the National Trust, thrust an unidentifiable object (What is it? A bronze pineapple? A grenade?) into the hands of James Lees-Milne, Secretary of the Trust’s Country House Committee,* and leave. Does it contain high explosive? The members of the distinguished gathering pass it gingerly from one to another, like a jittery game of pass the parcel. When one of them plucks up the courage to look more closely, it turns out to contain a donation of £100: a gift from Ferguson’s Gang, one of a series of such unorthodox deliveries.

This is a story from the era of debagging and appie-pie beds, a tale of a group of upper-class and upper-middle-class young women dressing up as gangsters and pulling off amusing stunts: not the kind of book I’d normally read. But this book is different from the expected account of jolly japes. The pranks were benevolent and they involved raising money for the National Trust and delivering the cash to the baffled Trust board members with élan. It’s also an episode in the fascinating story of how people became more aware of issues to do with conservation (both architectural and environmental) in the interwar years.

The gang members were interesting in their own right. Although they came from variously rich and privileged backgrounds, they were a conflicted and troubled lot. Their leader (there was no Ferguson) was Peggy Gladstone (later Peggy Pollard, great-great niece of Prime Minister W E Gladstone), known in the gang as Bill Stickers; she had a double first from Cambridge in Oriental languages and felt the early death of her beloved father deeply. Others included Brynnie Granger (aka Sister Agatha), the confused product of a ménage-à-trois consisting of her parents and her mother’s close friend Henrietta Sadd; Joy Maw (aka Kate O’Brien the Nark), fragile of health, impoverished, feeling the effects of her parents’ disintegrating marriage; Rachel Pinney (aka Red Biddy) depressive, confused, sexually abused by her father, who was the General of Siegrfried Sassoon’s celebrated poem; and Ruth Sherwood (aka the Bludy Beershop), artistically gifted, Slade-educated, who invented a series of rituals for the gang that seem like early incarnations of performance art. It’s the opinion of the authors of Ferguson’s Gang that the group used make-believe as a way of coping with and escaping from their troubled home backgrounds, and they’re probably right.

The book traces the story of their donations to the Trust and tells us a bit about the places and properties they rescued. Among these were the Old Mill, Shalford, the Old Town Hall, Newtown, Isle of Wight, and Priory Cottages, Steventon, Oxfordshire. They were also key to the purchase and saving of several parts of the Cornish coast (including Frenchman’s Creek, made famous by Daphne du Maurier), and gave generously to other Trust appeals benefitting sites from Buttermere to Avebury. We also learn about their work with architect John Macgregor, known to the gang as the Artichoke, on conserving buildings according to the best practice laid down by the SPAB. And we find out a lot about the lives of the gang members, including their other peacetime work (in schools, in administration, with refugees); or lack of work (talented Ruth Sherwood gave up her promising career as a commercial artist because she saw that other talented artists needed the money more than she did); their war work (on the land, ambulance driving, helping the wounded, designing utility clothing, even firefighting); and their often troubled love and sex lives (Rachel Pinney in particular being deeply scarred by her terrible upbringing). The book is full of vivid vignettes – of the gang’s famous masked visits to the National Trust HQ, of poor well-meaning Rachel Pinney being sent to prison for ‘kidnapping’ a young person she was trying to help, of an elderly Peggy Pollard playing ‘Lily the Pink’ on the organ of Truro Cathedral.

It’s worth reading Ferguson’s Gang for these stories alone. But it’s also worth it for the context: the way in which the gang were responding to an increasing national anxiety about heritage, and bringing publicity to the cause that helped usher in other and more profound changes than they could make themselves – changes to planning law, other Trust acquisitions, broad alterations in our view of our history, architecture, and landscape. On all these levels, Ferguson’s Gang is a treat.

*Lees-Milne’s work led to the Trust’s acquisition of numerous country houses, saving them for posterity and, in effect, setting the Trust’s agenda for many years. His diaries have been published in numerous volumes and make entertaining and informative reading.


Christopher Bellew said...

I had never heard of this book and am always keen to widen my literary horizon. You will of course know, but maybe some of your reders will not, Jame Lees-Milnes' diaries. A litle dry, yes, but I think worth dipping into. He has been likened to Pepys and I have read almost all of them with great pleasure.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, James Lees-Milne's diaries are outstanding. He knew a lot of interesting people, was involved with a lot of amazing houses through his work, and had a talent for a witty (sometimes acerbic) turn of phrase.

Eileen Wright said...

Wow, what a fascinating story of such amazing women. Thanks for the recommendation, Philip. That's another one ordered! :)