Author Archives: Malcolm

Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus research blog, episode 1

This is the first of my online journals about my research and development for Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus. I may create a seperate website for this writing, but for now it can stay here. I’ll be talking about my journey, both physically and creatively. I’ll refer to the project as Ferguson’s Gang, Ferguson, or just plain old FG. FG might refer to the project or the gang, but it should make sense. This is a journal and scrapbook, so forgive any muddyness in clarity.


I set out on my first official research trip of the Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus project on the 17th February 2018.

When I began designing the FG project, I new I wanted to work with housing campaign groups. I want to understand what causes people are fighting for (or against) of course, but I also want to find out who the ‘Ferguson’s Gang’s’  of today already are. What groups can draw parallels to Bill Stickers, Red Biddy and The Artichoke? How do groups use play and theatricality to serve their cause? I’ve used the word ‘reinvention’ a lot when talking about FG- “I want to reinvent FG in the 21st C housing crisis’ but I think it’s more of a matter of transposing FG onto a modern context. I’m looking at reinventing in the sense that theatrically we’ll create a narrative, new characters and be set in a different time, with different goals, but I don’t think I’m looking to invent a new campaign group, rather this Ferguson’s Gang will be inspired by groups working in the housing crisis today.


A group I’ve been really keen to meet is Focus East 15. Based in Stratford, London.

“We are marching because rough-sleeping and homelessness is on the rise and social cleansing is a daily reality. Luxury apartments continue to be built and council homes are being demolished.This is making people ill and it is a national mental health emergency. The fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower on 14 June was not an accident but the devastating consequence of housing policies marked by systematic degrading of council estates that are being demolished or ‘regenerated’ for profit.” post ‘We’re having a Knees Up in the Carpenters’  7/08/17

I was initially drawn to the group because of how they use play in their activism

“a community action can also be creative and that we all have something that we can bring to a march – including our singing, drumming, chanting, political speech making, our colourful home made banners, and our commitment, solidarity and camaraderie .At the end of the march on Carpenters Estate a party took place, food was handed out, phone numbers were swapped and children’s games got underway, free haircuts were given courtesy of Fringe Movement and more plans were made to strengthen the movement for housing justice. post ‘March of the Towers’ 15/08/17


So I went along to their weekly street stall on Stratford Broadway. I was a little nervous, FE15 have had a lot of profile, lots of researchers and artists having really interest in them. I wondered if I’d be ‘another bloody artist’, if they had ‘research overkill’. I was a bit star struck and just nervous about picking up to ask questions. Happily they loved the story about Ferguson’s Gang! Janine, Anna, Ruth, Jasmine and the rest couldn’t have been more welcoming. We had a great laugh talking about FG and coming up with new ‘Gang names’:

Anna Asparagus, Una Umbrella, M.T. Homes, Ruthless Rufus, Sebastian Sickle , Harry Hammer.

We talked about tactics they’ve used and there were some brilliant FG parallels. Themes of 1930’s gangster movies and spy thrillers came to mind. Lots of stealth.

Jasmine told me about how they set up wendy houses and tents along the streets, populated by children, illustrating housing in a simple, playful way. That they had lots of childrens parties during occupations, which echos the tactics of PAH, a group of Spanish activists. The elements of family, children, motherhood and play are so huge in their campaign, they filter through everything. Anna told me about police trying to take away their banners. The women simply rolled their prams onto the banners. The police didn’t know what to do with that. They know how to deal with a big man in a balaclava, they don’t know what to do with a mum with a pram. This has led to some brilliant episodes of confusion. On one demo, FE15’s table was arrested. The table was confiscated and taken away. So at the next meeting, everyone brought their own tables. The furniture was even fighting back!

There are too many stealthy episodes to document here, and I want to keep some under my hat (pun intended) anyway. It was great to meet this modern day Ferguson’s’ Gang. I can’t wait to get back and hang out with them in March and April.


So, from a modern Ferguson’s’ Gang, to the original Gang. I hopped on a tube at Stratford, leaving people fighting for social housing rights, walking past numerous homeless people, and popped out in a south east london suburb.. Gosh, what a contrast. Many of FG were high society, they had means to support their activism, and transposing that group into a housing crisis will always bring up narratives of rich and poor. I strolled through a village where every house was huge, gated, detached. I haven’t lived in London, but the stark contrast between rich and poor even on the same street can be so visceral. In this case, these were neighbourhoods far apart but to be hit with such a difference made me gasp and laugh out loud at this collision of worlds. So I landed in this area because I was going to visit Polly Bagnall, author of ‘Ferguson’s Gang :The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters’. She doesn’t live there, but I had to pass through this ‘million dollar avenue’ enroute.

Meeting Polly was brilliant. Again she couldn’t have been more welcoming and generous. The house she lives in was set to be demolished, but English Heritage stepped in and between a group of them they were able to save it. Another nice parallel to FG narratives. She opened up avenues of the gang that either I didn’t know, or had forgotten about. Polly is the granddaughter of John MacGregor AKA ‘The Artichoke’- FGs’ architect. It turns out John did a lot of thinking around social housing and rebuilding of cities, particularly after WWII so there were more direct links to this project than expected. Polly said that although FG’s focus wasn’t specifically housing rights, she thought they would have been very open and supportive of those causes and were part of conversations around such topics that were happening at the time. Polly reminded me about the pagan/folk element of FG. Up to now I’ve been playing with the language, narrative beats and aesthetics of 1930’s gangster novels-

Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and alike. I assume the ‘gang’ element, the gang names were inspired by 1930’s ‘talkies’ and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the gameplay of this genre. I’m continuing this thread, but also looking at the folk revival scene, the rituals the gang carried out.  ‘Right Bludy the Lord Beershop’ was their spiritual leader as as I’ve written about previously, the gamification and play in ritual has lots to be mined for this project.  Polly gave me some great leads to explore and I’ll be back to visit her again soon.

A really exciting start to this new project. Stay tuned here for more…….

Malc ‘the mouse’ Hamilton

Mufti HQ

Fergusons Gang vs the Octopus

We have just started a very exciting development period for a playable outdoor and digital show about, and supporting housing activism.  ‘Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus’

The show is inspired by Ferguson’s Gang- (you can read a little bit about them here) – a group of women who in the 1930’s dressed up as ‘gangsters’ gave themselves, alter egos (‘Red Biddy’, ‘Bill Stickers’, ‘Silent O’Moyle’) and campaigned for reform on conservation policy and town planning. They significantly raised the funds and profile of the National Trust and are well celebrated by the organisation. 

We’re looking into who Ferguson’s Gang might be today, and how we could reinvent them in current housing campaigning. A big question is what place does ‘play’ have within modern housing campaigning. So far we’ve been hanging out with the brilliant Focus East 15 campaign group and meeting writers and researchers related to Ferguson’s Gang. It’s going to be a really exciting journey for us here at Mufti HQ, stay tuned to these pages as I’ll be writing lots about the journey. 


Play in ritual: Indian Wedding.

I have recently been to Delhi, India for a wedding. I was aware that there would be a great deal of ceremony, of ritual and I know a little about some playful traditions but I had no idea just how many games and how much play would be involved-in similar and very different ways to western weddings.

It was a Hindu wedding, a Vedic Brahmin marriage ceremony.  Games and play featured throughout the two days in a general sense, and in very specific elements too. There were times when free play just happened (of free will, by choice, self generated) and when people were instructed to play as part of the ceremony.

note: we were given booklets explaining the ceremony-anything in italics with inverted commas comes from the booklet.

Day one-the engagement, which featured rituals “known collectively under the name vratham”.

The outdoor area of our house, (essentially a car port) was beautifully transformed into a   celebratory space, decorating it with bright coloured material and flowers. Chairs and tables were decorated and of course food was prepared. The day started with Henna. Everyone was invited to have henna applied and the henna artists instead on bringing their own playlist to really liven up the morning! Henna was a great way to bring strangers together because as one has to let the henna dry, groups of people must stand with arms extended in odd positions for most of the morning. The shared silliness of the physicality and the collective avoidance of brushing against anything created a lot of fun and laughter. The father of the grooms impulsive ‘hands in pockets’ was a classic example.

Drummers soon arrived and the dancing began. Children retreated due to the volume, but they formed their own dance circle at a distance, and proceeded to tear and throw masses of flower petals, creating a maelstrom of blossom and naughty-ness.

Bottled water is a big feature of Delhi, as tap water is undrinkable and I loved how the mass of tiny bottles became play apparatus. All manner of throwing and tossing games were played, versions of cricket, bowling, catch, juggling. Skill was found in the amount of water left in bottles, in spin, hight and distance.

Throughout the afternoon rites were performed and family members had their parts to play. The main players were instructed where to stand, what to do, what the rules were and we as onlookers took in the uniting of families, communities and  our two loved ones.

Day two-the wedding or the Muhurtham took place at a temple across town. Rituals are of course carried through from distant times and although we live our lives differently, we continue the actions in a ceremony. This means we are often acting out stories, playing at being the characters of our ancestors.  This gave the shape to much of the days games.

The groom was “equipped with an umbrella, a walking stick, a palm leaf and a pair of footwear….ready to start on a trip to a foreign location…the city of Benares..a reputed centre of learning and dwelling place of many learned men”. The groom has two options-pursue higher levels of learning or get married. The brides family then persuade him to get married and to their bride. At this point, the groom must make out as if his mind is not yet made up try to make a run for it, several times while the brides family contain him. Bride and groom are life onto shoulders by friends and attempt throw garlands over each other.

The couple are then placed on a swing-to signify the ups and owns of married life and rituals carried on around them. One featured rice balls being thrown over shoulders, often almost hitting onlookers.

During all of this, was my favourite game of the wedding. I had come across it when researching wedding celebrations for Just So festival last year, but had no idea the stakes were so high!

The brides sisters, or female friends will try to steal the grooms shoes. If successful, the groom must buy back his shies before he can leave. It doesn’t matter if the shoes cost 99p-he can’t be married until he pays for them, and the price can go into hundreds of pounds!

We knew about the game in advance, so were ready (or so we thought). As soon as Groom’s  shoes were off, I put them on my feet. Oh and did the ‘sisters’ notice! Across the crowd eyes could be seen flashing around, down to me feet and knowing glances exchanged. We upped stakes by separating shoes, handing one to another guest. Everywhere we went, eyes watched us and whispers followed. The game was going well, but I felt it was a little skewed to our side, so I entrusted my shoe to a friend and walked barefoot across the temple, just to confuse the ‘sisters’. Ah, but how my confidence did undo me. The shoe was passed to the grooms mother-who was not warned of the stakes and quick as a flash, the sisters had it.

‘Ah! but you only have one’-I laughed

‘No. We have both.’

‘Eh?!’ Catastrophe!

A friend of the bride, from York no less, had been recruited as a double agent by the sisters! She had been staying with the family for a week. How silly of us to trust her! She simply walked up to mother and brother of groom, asked for the shoes and they gave them. Foiled! We managed to negotiate down to £100 in the end, and the brother paid, fessing up to his folly. Gosh-it was a brilliant game! I’m sure you’ll see versions of it in future Mufti Games missions!

Later, we came back together for ‘Nalangu’-a playful evening of indoor games. Essentially this section was a way of gamifying the rituals. Historically the couple may have been linked at a very young age, the games got the children used to the idea of ritual. The games kept the couple entertained and as they may also be strangers, they would break down barriers and allow the couple to get to know each other through play. Games at Nalangu included pretending to cook and groom each other, rolling and grabbing a coconut, decorating the bride with flowers, bride and groom singing to each other and the brilliant ‘smashing of poppadoms’ over each others heads!

Although these were very prescribed games, and were played under instruction from an elder, they were fun and celebratory and could break down barriers to allow a life of playfulness together.

The evening I got talking to Indian guests about the ceremony, about ‘hinduism’ and about language. I know that Mufti was an Urdu word and meant amongst other things ‘legal scholar’ but I had heard that it also related to a Hindi word related to play. One definition of ‘play’ is ‘a physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective’.

Happily that evening I was informed that in Hindi, ‘Muft’ simply means ‘free’.

Play in housing consultation


I’ve been working with a local neighbourhood housing forum, using play to help engage local residents in a ‘reg 14 consultation’ on a large housing development. The housing is being built on a large park, which was formally an airport so both the current and former uses have deep play links.

We have built an ‘engagement plane’ as a mobile tool to aid the consultation. The plane serves us in several ways:

  • as a hook- to draw people in to talk to us, it is an unusual object on the street, yet a familiar image in the collective memory of the area.
  • as a recording device. People can respond to the planning proposals by writing on the plane in chalk. The can also use ‘heart’ pins to show activities on the park they love.
  •  as a heritage tool. The space to be developed was an airport and people have very fond memories of it.
  • to solidify the ‘brand’. It is important to be clear to residents, who the group is- a local, voluntary forum, not the local Council. The council and the forum are each consulting on different proposals for the same space, at the same time so clarity is key, as is the message that there is an alternative proposal to the one being offered, and well publicised by the council. The forum’s logo was drawn by local school children, so they already have a DIY, playful, local feel to their brand. A cartoon style, slightly irreverently shaped plane helped to add to this feel and make the forum approachable.
  • to connect with a wider age range. The plane has allowed us to engage many many children in the consultation in a way that formal consultation would not have been possible. In turn this has engaged their parents and empowered young people to use thier voice and be counted. We have also found that older residents enjoy the playful aspect and again, the plane links to their living memory of the airport.

We have toured the plane to several sites in Hengrove and Whitchurch- the car boot sale, the play-park, the local civic centre and a school. The plane caught attention each time and together we learnt how to most effectively engage people in discussion, using the variety of tools we had. I interviewed people with my Zoom h4n recorder. As a professional looking bit of kit, respondents played along with ‘being interviewed’. We tried out other play tools on the street, such as playmobile illustrating activities and pins to point out what was particularly important to you. Alongside the plane we used a model illustrating the two different proposals. This is a relatively common tool in planning consultation, but I was taken by how playful it was. It immediately showed people the impact of the house building and the contrast between proposals. It linked into model making, toy trains and dolls houses, and the colours helped to illustrate. I was impressed how much people connected to the model. At a schools session I asked ‘what are we looking at?” and one girl said “home”.

We ran two sets of sessions at a local school. Beginning with the model and the childrens understanding of the forthcoming development, we talked about how we used the park- how we played and how we travelled across it. I was struck by the specific impact housing had on the children. One housing plan had a great deal of housing very close to the play park- children complained that it would make it more difficult to get to the park. They were aware that the street would be open, but the idea of walking through the housing was unattractive, to some even threatening. They also voiced concerns about the play-park being closed more regularly during the development. Another consideration is the impact residential housing so close to the local skate park. Could the skate park be forced to move, much as inner city music venues are threatened be new housing close-by? The children each wrote a message on paper, to be delivered as part of the consultation. We transformed the paper into aeroplanes and flew them into our engagement plane. The physical action of contributing our thoughts and ideas to such a major change in the local landscape felt very powerful.


This work is contributing to an ongoing study into play in housing campaigning and I will continue to update on what I’m experiencing and learning on these pages. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

playing on the former runway


images by Malcolm Hamilton with kind permission of the people of Whitchurch and Hengrove, plane built by Kerry Russell at In Bristol Studios.

Find out more about the forum and the proposals:

Mufti Games worked with Liz Beth of LB Planning.


What is Mufti?

I’m often asked “what does mufti mean?”

The word is of Arabic origin, from late 16th Century: active participle of ‘aftā ‘decide a point of law’. The mufti is a Muslim legal expert who is empowered to give rulings on religious matters. It’s also a term used to describe civilian dress, especially as worn by a person who normally wears a military uniform. The term is thought to have originated around 1816 ‘perhaps from a mufti’s costume in stage plays, of robes, a fez and slippers, which was felt to resemble plain clothes.’

The last day of school is often known as ‘Mufti Day’ as students can wear their own clothes. In mine and Simon’s schools it was also a day when you could bring your own games in, so Mufti felt like a great name for the company.  As time has gone on, I’ve realised that not every school calls it Mufti Day but the terms reach is both far and sporadic. Simon grew up in Exmouth, me in Manchester but while one school in a city may have Mufti Day another next door may be ‘wear your own clothes day’ or something equally less catchy. What does your school call it? I’d be interested to know where it pops up.

I’ve also been told Mufti relates to a hindi word meaning play, but I can’t verify that yet- perhaps you can help us out?

I found this definition on  ‘Mufti – derived from the Arabic word meaning free, this trench slang was used to point to civilian clothes and was frequently used among officers’

I can’t find any other translation saying Mufti means ‘free’ but it links well to law, freedom to dress how you choose and of course play. Mufti Games work is always free to participate in, thats an important factor for us. We want the work to be as accessible as possible. It’s also why we’ve found our home in the outdoor arts sector, anyone can stumble across our games and join in. Mufti Games believe strongly in the right to play and for everyone to have the freedom to play, no matter their age or background. Finding opportunities to invite play into your life enriches and nourishes, it makes life better. I’ll write more about this subject in another post…

So, ‘mufti’ is:

  • Muslim legal expert
  • Civilian clothes
  • day to play
  • theatre and games company dedicated to accessible, universal play