116. Newtown Old Town Hall and Nature Reserve – 4/6/2017

Here’s an experiment for you: tell someone that you are visiting the Newtown Old Town Hall and wait for either the confused expression on their face or the mocking comments. The name certainly seems to be a contradiction in terms but if I tell you that Newtown itself was granted borough status in the 1250s you can see that it isn’t actually a very new town at all and is therefore fully entitled to have an old town hall. In fact, Newtown is several centuries older than the existing town hall, which dates from the end of the 17th century, so the name is a real time-bending brain teaser.

Newtown’s history is just one thing that you can learn about at the Town Hall (and neighbouring nature reserve), from its early life as the most important port on the Isle of Wight to a French raid in 1377 that destroyed much of the town and on to the later silting of the harbour and new use of the area for salt production (which lasted until the 1930s). The Town Hall itself was important as a centre for the borough’s activities and for elections and there is information in the Hall about Newtown’s status as a ‘rotten’ borough: it was returning two MPs from a tiny number of voters for many years and these MPs were generally chosen by the local landowning families, the Worsleys and the Barringtons. A historical list of the borough’s representatives on the wall includes a notably large collection of Worsleys and Barringtons among their number. To complement this aspect of Newtown’s history, a set of four Hogarth prints related to electoral corruption are also displayed in one of the back rooms. The town finally lost its right to elect MPs as a result of the Reform Act of 1832 and saw its borough status withdrawn a few years later. Newtown was rotten no more.

While this was all very interesting, it almost pales into insignificance beside the other tale that Newtown has to tell, namely the story of how the Old Town Hall came to be owned by the National Trust at all. By the 1930s, the building was a ruin and was purchased for £5 by The Ferguson Gang, a group of young people – mainly women – who had come together with the common purpose of raising money to save old buildings and protect them from England’s urban sprawl. They had already saved Shalford Mill in Surrey and Newtown was next in their sights. It all sounds like a highly rational and admirable project, which it undoubtedly was, but the way the Gang went about their work had less of the rational and more of the totally bonkers about it.

First of all, the identities of the Gang were swathed in secrecy for many years as they all adopted nicknames, such as Sister Agatha, Bill Stickers, Kate O’Brien and Silent O’Moyle. Secondly, in delivering the funds for their restoration projects to the National Trust, they behaved more like thieves than benefactors, donning masks and interrupting meetings to drop bags of coins into the laps of the bemused Trust managers. The money itself was never referred to as such and was instead called the ‘goat’!

The story of the Ferguson Gang is well told in an exhibition in the basement where you can also find a copy of their minutes book, which is well worth perusing. You can see that the Gang’s stomachs were very important to them, with the minutes giving details of what they ate, while most meetings ended with some kind of proposal and seconding of lunch!

If the story of this motley crew really appeals to you, there is a book currently available about them: Ferguson’s Gang by Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck. It’s a good read and was particularly interesting to me as I knew a couple who were once tenants at Shalford Mill, which is where the Gang held most of their meetings after they saved the building. I still haven’t ticked that one off for the blog but it’s not far from home so I will try to do it next so that the Gang’s two big successes lay side by side in these pages.

All in all, Ferguson’s Gang raised £1000 for the restoration of the Old Town Hall, which was opened to the public in 1933 and later used as a Youth Hostel and by civil defence organisations during WWII. In more recent times, it has been used for Parish Council meetings and, of course, for people like me and my companions to tramp through and learn about the town, the hall and its colourful past.

If you have the time, don’t leave Newtown without taking a walk around the village and the nature reserve. We followed the route of a short Harbour Walk, which took us past a bird hide, where we watched black-headed gulls feeding their young, and then across a boardwalk to the old quay and salt pans. It was a beautiful, gentle stroll but was more than a little breezy out on the exposed salt marshes – you have been warned!

Highlights: The story of the Ferguson Gang

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook; Harbour Walk leaflet

Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets

NT Connections: Shalford Mill, also acquired for the Trust by Ferguson’s Gang

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