“ Address: Newtown / Newport / PO30 4PA / Isle of Wight „
"Ere's my card - please give it to the Secretary of the National Trust". Nobody knows who uttered those words, but my money's on The Nark. Or possibly 'Erb the Smasher.
Sometimes a real gem of information comes to light which gives me a totally different perspective on something which might otherwise have seemed dull. So it was when I heard about the Ferguson Gang.
They weren't crooks or ne'er do wells, the Ferguson Gang, but they did deal in large quantities of cash. The cash in question would then be delivered, usually as big bags of coins, to the offices of the National Trust. What makes the donations even more unusual were the donors desire to keep their identities secret - they were always masked, and as the Press put it "of indeterminate gender".
Those who are paid up members of the National Trust may already be familiar with them, but my first introduction to these eccentric philanthropists was when I visited Newtown Old Town Hall on the Isle of Wight recently.
The Ferguson gang came about at a time when, between the two World Wars, Britain was in the midst of a building boom on a scale never seen before. Clough Williams-Ellis, an eminent architect, felt these sprawling suburbs were ill conceived and threatened the future of Britain's countryside. His 1920s treatise, England and the Octopus, spurred on a group of wealthy young people to do what they could to 'stop the rot'.
Their cash donations to the NT from the 1920s to the late Thirties paid for the Newtown Old Town Hall to be bought and restored in full, along with various other initiatives in England.
Why bother to visit it at all?
Certainly with so many other places on the island which are worth a visit, this was low down on our list when we were there. By modern town hall standards the building itself is very small, and certainly doesn't have the gravitas of a stately home or cathedral to draw visitors in. Indeed neither is it the original one, only dating from 1699. If you were being picky you might want to call it the Newtown newer Town Hall.
The attraction for the Gang in saving it, as it was for me in visiting it nearly 80 years later, is that unlike other medieval buildings which are still standing in the UK the surrounding area hasn't been redeveloped in the intervening centuries. One lovely pub in Newport we ate in had as much historical relevance, yet is now in a busy shopping street surrounded by modern and uglier developments.
For those who would rather visit Carisbrooke Castle or Osborne House, fear not, you don't have to spend much time or money here. Travelling by car, the road will take you right past the building. Being out in the countryside, and with no other buildings close by to spoil the view, you need only slow down and admire it as you drive past and on to your next destination.
I would urge you to pull in at the NT car park further up the road though and spend some time here. We were here in early June, and the Town Hall itself is only opened in high season. Despite that, the car park was almost full when we arrived. As strange as it might sound, although I dislike visiting an 'attraction' at the same time as everyone else seems to want to, if the car park had been deserted when we arrived, that would surely have been a sign that it wasn't worth visiting, which would have been equally annoying.
One of the more interesting - and certainly revelatory - parts of the Town Hall for me was the exhibition there relating to the Ferguson Gang, incidentally all of whom were women. But before we go to the Town Hall, we should go back to the beginning. The beginning of time no less, and the NT car park
A Mammoth history
For those in a hurry, the quick way to get to the Old Town Hall once you've parked up is to walk back out of the car park, cross the road and it's just a stone's throw away on the right. We opted to go the 'proper' route and I'm glad we did. At the far end of the car park you enter a small NT building, which is little more than a prefab scout hut.
Having arrived not knowing anything about the surrounding area we were in, or indeed the building we had come to visit, I have to say the NT have done a first class job of relaying it's historical relevance right from the start.
Many millions of years ago...
.. The Isle of Wight was elbow to elbow - if only they had them - of dinosaurs. Should you want to see their remains the best place to go would be the Natural History Museum in London. This attraction doesn't have dinosaur remains, but it does have something nearly as old - give or take a few million years - in a little exhibit case in the NT building. Featured amongst other things are a huge molar tooth and tusk (in two parts- see my photo) which we're reliably informed belonged to a woolly mammoth. Not of any particular relevance to the Old Town Hall, but a pleasant enough surprise, and one I'm sure children will enjoy. Besides, if they had any T-Rex bones, they'd have needed a bigger scout hut.
The 13th century
One of the evident perks of being a Bishop of Winchester in medieval times was owning a great deal of land that came with the title. A canny 13th century Bishop saw the potential in building several new towns on the island which were close enough to estuaries to become booming trade centres. Nearby, Newport flourished whereas Newtown (then Francheville) didn't. Bloody incursions by the French during the Hundred Years War wouldn't have helped, and like many other hamlets, in 1377 it was the turn of 'Comatis de Francheville de L'ile de Wyht' to get razed to the ground. That, along with the plague, sounded the death knell for the town and slowly but surely rather than prosper, the townsfolk left.
A Rotten Borough was Newtown
Not a term I'd heard coined before, but by the 19th century, records show there to be only 14 houses still occupied, containing a mere 23 eligible voters in Newtown. Despite the dearth of voters, Newtown was eligible to send 2 MP's to Parliament. Invariably, the MP's nearly always came from two of the islands' most prominent families, and a cushy little number it was too, until the Reform Act in 1832 put an end to the idiosyncrasies of the existing electoral system.
The history from the 13th Century through to the Worsley's and the Barrington's time as MP's is also featured prominently in the Town Hall, and in much better detail than I can go to here, but you get the idea. The exhibit goes a long way to explaining why there is now a Town Hall with no town.
Anything else worth doing?
For those wanting more than history, albeit very interesting history, should go back to the NT entrance building here. Opposite the woolly mammoth, an attractive wall mural covering the far wall gives some clue to the fact that the surrounding area is a national nature reserve.
The reserve is also owned and managed by the NT. Leaflets in the building contain details of two of it's nature trails - 1.5 km and 2.5 km long - which start from here for those who have come prepared with decent footwear. Judging by how busy the car park was in comparison to the Town Hall building itself, I'm guessing the majority of people who'd parked there had come to explore the nature reserve, rather than brush up on their history.
We didn't have time to complete either of the walks, but from the little we saw, I would enjoy an opportunity to come back here again when I had more time. I doubt I would be able to identify any of the rare birds, butterflies and bees which apparently inhabit the reserve, but on a day with decent weather it would still make for a very enjoyable, if ignorant, walk for me.
For those intending to explore the Nature Reserve, I could recommend stopping at nearby Shalfleet first. There they have a lovely pub called the New Inn, where one of their baguettes at lunchtime - I can recommend the ham and mustard - is not only tasty but would be welcome before an extended walk.
Definitely. Although it's arguable that in the 30s, in the midst of a worldwide Depression, there were better things that the Ferguson Gang could have spent their money on (equivalent to well over half a million pounds today) than rescuing buildings. That said, their masked exploits did undoubtedly play an important part in raising the profile of what was then an impoverished NT.
Not to mention that I found reading about "Erb the Smasher", "See Mee Run", "The Nark", "The Bishop" and my personal favourite, "the Right Bludy Lord Beershop of the Gladstone Islands & Mercator's Projection" very entertaining. What tickled me was imagining these young women, being chauffer driven to their latest endeavour and enjoying picnic hampers of food from Fortnum and Mason en route. What jolly fun!
The National Trust have gone to great effort to make the attraction - and by that I mean everything, from the NT building, to the Town Hall itself, to the local Reserve in their ownership - as welcoming and enjoyable to visit as possible. I thought the exhibits inside the Town Hall were all well presented, and there are various information boards outside, which are very similar in style to ones I've seen at other NT attractions. These are worth stopping to read wherever you see them.
Newtown now consists of a handful of houses all owned by the Trust and which seem to be lived in. A wander up what is the only real road in the village lends yet another photo opportunity - as if the island doesn't have enough - as the houses are all immaculately kept with lovely gardens and lawns.
For those wondering how much this little outing will set you, back, it's also very reasonably priced, which is a reflection of how much there is to actually see once inside the Town Hall. The car park is free and I believe that even when the Town Hall isn't open, both the car park and NT building are, so an enjoyable walk along the Estuary is still possible.
One downside worth mentioning is that the Town Hall has around a dozen steps at the entrance, with more inside if you want to visit all the floors, which will make it a tricky proposition for anyone less mobile than myself.
Another is that there is probably only space for around a dozen cars in the car park, and there is no other parking nearby that we saw. I would suggest aiming to arrive before the Town Hall has opened and taking a walk in the Reserve first for those wanting to do both.
A final word of caution: when walking in the Nature Reserve, keep to the routes recommended in the little pamphlets provided by the NT (for a small fee) - straying off them might lead you to a nearby field which has a bull in it. You have been warned.
NT members get free admission.
3 Jul - 31 Aug 2011 2pm - 5pm Sundays through to Thursdays.
1 Sep - 27 Oct 2011 2pm - 5 pm Tuesdays to Thursdays and also Sundays.
Isle Of Wight,