NARNIA author CS Lewis supported a secretive gang during the 1920s, a new book has revealed.
Author Anna Hutton-North, right, uncovered letters between the famous Oxford author and the leader of a National Trust fundraising group known as Ferguson’s Gang. She said the correspondence between Lewis and his friend Margaret Gladstone – the niece of former Prime Minister William Gladstone, who went under the pseudonym Bill Stickers – revealed he backed the gang both morally and financially. Before Lewis, who was elected a Fellow Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, where he served for 29 years from 1925, came to Oxford in 1917, he studied in Surrey, a couple of miles away from where Gladstone grew up, and the pair became friends.
The gang’s “inner circle” was made up of five well-connected young women who went under the secret names of Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Lord Beershop, Red Biddy and Kate O’Brien the Nark – who joined together in 1927 to fight the growing urbanisation of the countryside and help preserve the country’s heritage.
Mrs Hutton-North said letters she found between Lewis and Bill Stickers revealed he was a supporter of the gang but there was no evidence to suggest he was an official member. The gang raised the equivalent of more than half a million pounds in today’s money to support the National Trust by saving their Victorian silver and then by contributing money made from friends of the group. Based at their headquarters at the Shalford Mill in Surrey, masked members of the gang travelled across London to National Trust buildings with a sack of money with a note explaining what it should be used for.
On occasions they tied bank notes around cigars and even reportedly stuffed into the carcass of a goose.
Through the gang’s contribution the members helped save almost 20 historical sites by buying them for the National Trust, including the Priory Cottages in Steventon, near Abingdon, which was earmarked by Lewis himself as a building that should be saved. They helped restore the buildings and handed them back to the National Trust at a time when it was very poor and had fewer than 1,000 members.
Formerly known as Steventon Priory, Priory Cottages – a 14th-century manor house and former monastic grange – has been converted into two houses, one of which can be visited by the public with written permission.
Richard Henderson, general manager of the West Oxfordshire National Trust branch, said: “Priory Cottages were given to us in 1939 by Ferguson’s Gang, who were a group of secret ladies.
“It is very interesting to hear that CS Lewis may have been involved in helping to preserve the cottages and we look forward to hearing more about it.”
Author Mrs Hutton-North right, started researching for the book, entitled Ferguson’s Gang – the Maidens behind the Masks, two years ago after reading a newspaper article about the group.
The 41-year-old, who studied at Lord Williams’s School, Thame, and now lives in Hertfordshire, said: “For a long time it felt like I was making no progress. But then I had a Eureka moment when I found Sister Agatha’s love letters to a future husband, which included details of the other gang members.”
- The book is published by Lulu Inc and is available to buy for £9.99.