Shalford Mill

Ferguson’s Gang
by Marion Wynne-Davies

Imagine that it’s a perfect Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1934 and you’ve decided to leave Guildford’s busy streets and stroll north towards the peaceful village of Shalford. You’ve just reached the first small houses when suddenly the stillness is broken by the roar of an engine and a shiny Fortnum and Mason’s delivery van shoots out of a narrow lane in a swirl of dust. Intrigued, you decide to investigate and turn down the lane, following it until you reach the River Tillingbourne and Shalford Mill.

Shalford Mill 2017. Photo by Murgatroyd49, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The water mill itself is beautiful, a redbrick edifice constructed in the eighteenth-century, but you’re not here to explore the building. Instead, you follow the sounds of laugher into the garden where you can see that the Fortnum’s hamper has already been opened, its edibles spread out to form the centrepiece of a picnic around which six stylish young women gather, glasses raised in readiness for the toast:

Ferguson's gang has paid its debt
Ferguson's obligation met:
Ferguson's Gang has more for you yet.

And so, you have found them, the elusive Ferguson’s Gang in their secret hideaway, Shalford Mill. But who are these ebullient young women and why would they wish to conceal their identities?

The Gang was made up of six young women who adopted pseudonyms – Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Kate O’Brien, The Nark, Red Biddy, and The Lord Beershop – and dressed up as men, they ambushed family, friends, and colleagues in order to raise money for the National Trust. These activities were inspired by Clough Williams-Ellis’s book,England and the Octopus (1928), which challenged the ways in which development ignored the beauties of old buildings and the natural environment. Therefore, to save properties from demolition, the masked women procured funds and proceeded to deliver the money in comic ways such wrapped in a cigar, folded into a fake pineapple and stuffed into a bottle of sloe gin. In this manner they saved heritage sites from across the UK, including large tracts of land on the Cornish coast, including Frenchman’s Creek, which became the setting of Daphne du Maurier’s 1941 novel of the same name.

Shalford Mill was one of their projects. The delipidated building had been threatened with demolition, but the Ferguson Gang persuaded its owner to donate it to the National Trust and raised £300 for its renovation and upkeep. Then they persuaded the Trust to allow them access to one room and used it as their headquarters from 1932 until 1966. It was here that they kept minutes of their meetings in the ‘Boo’ (they had not left enough room for the ‘k’). Although, even in this secret hideaway they never used their real names so that they could protect their careers as an artist and a poet, as well as in medicine, hospitality and fashion. If you want to find out more about the real women behind the masks there are two good places to start: Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck’s Ferguson’s Gang: The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters (2015) and the website,

Finally, returning to the present-day, you can still walk along the narrow lane to Shalford Mill, which remains a National Trust property. Details of how to visit may be found at: One last thing, though – remember to bring a picnic.

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