The mysterious Ferguson Gang saved Shalford Mill for the National Trust
PUBLISHED: 19:27 12 September 2011 | UPDATED: 13:58 13 October 2015
Back in the 1930s, a mysterious group of well-educated young women got together to save Shalford Mill for the National Trust. Here, the charity’s Emma Brien reveals more about the philanthropic workings of the Ferguson Gang, as they were known, and how their clandestine rescue operation preserved this time capsule of rural Surrey life for future generations...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2011
While glorious mansion houses, beautiful formal gardens and acres of countryside in and around Surrey are certainly part of the National Trust’s remit, they also look after a number of smaller properties too.
Certainly no less charming for their diminutive size, such places often boast quirky stories that only add to their appeal.
One example of this is the 18th century wooden watermill located on the Tillingbourne River, not far away from Guildford, in the pretty village of Shalford.
A formerly operational watermill, the surprisingly well-preserved 19th century machinery is still in position, from the projecting wooden hoist in the centre of the mill to the grain bins high up in the attic.
The huge waterwheel that provided the power for the whole milling process can also be seen, although it is no longer in working order.
An intriguing tale
Shalford Mill has been in the National Trust’s care since the early 1930s when it was bought for the organisation by an intriguing group of preservationists called the Ferguson Gang.
This group of mainly well-educated young women got together in the 1920s to raise money for philanthropic projects, which included saving Shalford Mill from demolition in 1932.
The members of the gang guarded their anonymity fiercely; giving each other various nicknames such as ‘Erb the Smasher’, ‘Bill Stickers’, ‘Red Biddy’ and ‘See Mee Run’.
When it came to handing over the funds to the National Trust to purchase Shalford Mill, they did so secretly, wearing cloaks to deliver the money to the National Trust’s headquarters at Queen Anne’s Gate in London, and carrying bulging sacks packed with Victorian coins.
Having safeguarded its future, the gang went on to use Shalford Mill to hold their clandestine meetings. In fact, membership was limited to the number of people that could fit inside the mill.
Here, they discussed future fund-raising tactics in private, while sitting around the drum of the millstones and enjoying picnics delivered from Fortnum and Mason.
Having eaten, the eccentric group would have a collection of all the coins they had managed to find. They would then wander round the mill in the small hours, searching for what they called ‘the four colours of the dawn’ (to this day, no one really knows what that meant), wrapped in veils and cloaks.
Step back in time
Today, visitors to Shalford Mill can see the exact same machinery, as the building has remained almost unaltered since it was last used as a working corn mill in 1914.
A team of volunteers offer visitors special guided tours, either during the twice-weekly open days or by private arrangement.
The volunteers have spent a large amount of time familiarising themselves with the history of Shalford Mill, and of English milling in general, to provide a fascinating insight into the life of the mill and its former occupants.
The village of Shalford remains an attractive example of rural Surrey life at its most satisfying.
It has so far managed to escape being swallowed up by the larger conurbation of Guildford, and its mill is a crucial piece of evidence of how the villagers were able to sustain its economic viability in times past.
NEED TO KNOW:
- Shalford Mill is open to the public every Wednesday and Sunday, between 11am and 5pm, until the end of October, as well as over Bank Holiday weekends.
- It is located about one-and-a-half miles south of Guildford on the A281, opposite The Seahorse.
- Entrance is free to National Trust members or £2.50 for adults and £1.50 for children.
- For further information about Shalford Mill’s opening times and facilities, pay a visit to the National Trust website at www.nationaltrust.org.uk, or to book tours, call the National Trust’s Wey Navigations Office on 01483 561389.