Archive for the ‘Secret Societies’ Category

titus oates, popish plot, perjury, pillory

Oates’ false accusations in 1678 led to the execution of at least 15 innocent men. Although initially he found favour with Parliament, he was arrested in 1681 for sedition. In 1685, with James II on the throne he was retried and imprisoned for life for perjury, and to be whipped through the streets of London for five days a year. This is a contemporary engraving of Oates in the pillory prior to his being paraded through London.

I was listening recently to an episode of the seven part chronicle of the Stuart dynasty on BBC Radio 4 written by radio dramatist Mike Walker, when Charles II (played by Pip Torrens) refers to Titus Oates as being a member of the Green Ribbon Club.

Oates was the fabricator of the ‘Popish Plot’ in 1678, a supposed conspiracy by Catholic Jesuit priests to kill the king which caused a wave of anti-Catholic feeling to sweep across the nation. Following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the English parliament proclaimed Charles II to be king in 1660, the Restoration. Although Charles favoured a policy of religious tolerance, parliament enacted several laws designed to secure the dominance of the re-established Church of England. In 1672, Charles attempted to suspend all penal laws against Catholics and other religious dissenters, but Parliament opposed this and forced Charles to agree to laws that forced public officials to receive the sacrament prescribed by the Anglican church and to denounce certain teachings of the Catholic Church. The 1670s were beset by suspicion and accusation about the religious affiliation of individuals, and plotting and counter-plotting by political opponents, and it was during this decade, that the Green Ribbon Club came into being.

The Green Ribbon Club was one of the earliest of the loosely combined associations which met from time to time in London taverns or coffee-houses for political purposes in the 17th century. The ‘Green Ribbon” was the badge of The Levellers in the English Civil Wars, a political movement which emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage (voting rights), equality before the law, and religious tolerance. One of the taverns in which they met was The Rosemary Branch in Islington which got its name from the sprigs of rosemary that Levellers would wear in their hats as a sign of identification.

green ribbon club, king's head tavern, chancery lane, london

The meeting place (marked in yellow) of the Green Ribbon Club in the King’s Head tavern on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street in London (click to enlarge)

The club was likely founded around 1675 and it met in the King’s Head tavern in Fleet Street in London, and was first known as the King’s Head Club. Many of its members had fought in the civil war and were hostile to the court of politicians holding power in London. They were in the habit of wearing a bow or bob of green ribbon in their hats which was used for mutual recognition in street brawls. About 1679, the name of the club was changed to the Green Ribbon Club.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, a prominent politician and one of the founders of the Whig Party which opposed an absolute monarchy, may have been the President of the Green Ribbon Club. Though Shaftesbury was one of twelve members of Parliament who invited Charles II to return to England, he later argued in favour of frequent parliaments and argued that the nation needed protection from the potential Roman Catholic successor to King Charles II, his brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York. James was suspected of being pro-French and of having designs on becoming an absolute monarch.

The Green Ribbon Club actively promoted the Exclusion Bill which sought to exclude James from the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Tories were opposed to the bill and ‘Whig’ became a term of abuse for those who supported it. The fervent Tory Samuel Johnson often joked that ‘the first Whig was the Devil’. Though the bill was passed by Parliament in 1679, Charles II was forced to dissolve Parliament several times to prevent the bill coming into law. Ultimately however the succession was not altered, with James becoming king on the death of Charles II in 1685. The ‘Exclusion Crisis’ nevertheless contributed to the development of the English two-party system.

green ribbon club, king's head tavern, fleet street, london, pope-burning, william hogarth

This is a depiction by William Hogarth of a street celebration in 1653 outside the King’s Head tavern in Fleet Street applauding the dissolution of the Rump Parliament by Oliver Cromwell. This possibly fictitious scene likely resembles the Green Ribbon Club’s pope-burning processions which took place outside the King’s Head tavern in 1680 and 1681.

The Green Ribbon Club served both as a debating society and an intelligence network for the Whig faction spreading scandal and sedition throughout London. Bills under discussion in Parliament were debated by the members over their tobacco and ale, with the latest news from Westminster or the city brought in by an endless stream of supporters. The leader of the King’s government, Lord Danby, an opponent of all toleration, issued a proclamation, later withdrawn, for the suppression of coffee-houses because of the ‘defamation of His Majesty’s Government’ which took place in them.

Who were the members of the club? In 1979, Thomas Dangerfield, another conspirator and perjurer like Titus Oates, supplied the King with a list of forty-eight members of the Green Ribbon Club. As well as Shaftesbury, it included the Duke of Monmouth (an illegitimate son of Charles II who later led the unsuccessful rebellion to depose his uncle, then James II) and statesmen like Halifax, Shaftesbury, Buckingham, Macclesfield, Cavendish, and Bedford; together with former Cromwellian supporters like Lord Falconbridge, John Claypole and Henry Ireton (two sons-in-law and a grandson of Thomas Cromwell); and various profligates and scoundrels of the type of Oates.

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England and the Octopus, Clough Williams-Ellis, countryside faced sprawl and disfigurement

In England and the Octopus, Clough Williams-Ellis warned that the countryside faced sprawl from city suburbs and disfigurement by ‘mean and perky little houses’. Williams-Ellis however held rather dim views about the masses and their aspiration to escape from the slums. He was a Fellow of the British Eugenics Society, and believed that the ‘lower class undesirables’ should be prevented from breeding’. Williams-Ellis designed and built Portmeiron, the Italian style village in North Wales, between 1925 and 1975.

The National Trust cares for more than 300 historic houses and gardens, more than 600,000 acres of countryside and 700 miles of coastline, and has more than four million members. But who would guess that the Trust was the beneficiary of a secretive and notorious gang that operated between 1930 and 1940. The gang, however, were neither criminals or revolutionaries, but a group of young, wealthy women with an eccentric sense of humour and a single shared passion. Having read Clough William-Ellis’s book England and the Octopus, published in 1928, which denounced the insensitive building and ugly development that was ruining the country, they determined to do something about it. So the gang was born.

The gang operated under pseudonyms, which included Red Biddy, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Erb the Smasher, Kate O’Brien, Silent O’ Moyle, See Me Run, Gerry Boham, Black Maria and The Right Bludy Lord Beershop of the Gladstone Islands and Mercator’s Projection. They invariably wore masks and communicated in mock cockney. Every ‘adventure’ was written up in their own minute book, known as ‘the Boo’.

Their first target was Shalford Mill, an 18th century watermill in Surrey that had fallen into disrepair after the First World War. At the time the potential loss of such buildings, which today would be considered national treasures, was considered very much the business of the landowner, and old buildings that were no longer useful were fair game for demolition. In 1932, the gang heard that the mill was facing demolition. They promptly bought the mill and restored it before handing it over anonymously to the National Trust for safe keeping. This was followed by the purchase of  Newtown Old Town Hall on the Isle of Wight, stretches of the coastline of Cornwall, Priory Cottages at Steventon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), and they supported appeals for money to purchase land in Derbyshire, the Lake District, Devon and Wiltshire, all of which was later donated to the Trust.

Members of the Ferguson Gang at Shalford Mill, Surrey

Archive photograph of members of the Ferguson Gang at Shalford Mill, Surrey, with Red Biddy (left), Sister Agatha, the gang’s organiser (middle), and Bill Stickers (right).

The Trust subsequently allowed the gang access to parts of Shalford Mill building to hold their clandestine meetings. An ally was The Artichoke, aka John Macgregor, a well-known conservation architect, who became the tenant of the mill. Macgregor’s daughters, Joanna and Penelope, recalled ‘They would just appear, often chauffeur-driven. Our parents would tell us not to stare and to be on our on best behaviour. They were a little in awe of the gang. They were such intelligent women; all tweeds and Lyle stockings. A Fortnum & Mason van would arrive, and cooking smells would permeate our side of the mill’.

Money was also delivered to the Trust’s secretary at its headquarters in Queen Anne’s Gate in London in a variety of forms under a multiplicity of disguises. On one occasion a cash donation was delivered sewn into the carcass of a goose; on another banknotes were wrapped around miniature liqueurs. During a 1933 ‘raid’ by Red Biddy, a sackful of Victorian coins worth £100 was dumped on the secretary’s desk, with specific instructions for how it should be used. Red Biddy then ‘escaped’ in a taxi that ‘The Nark’ had positioned outside the building ready for the getaway.

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