Major Ronald Ferguson

Father of Sarah, Duchess of York with a fatal relish for publicity

Tuesday 18 March 2003 01:00 GMT

Ronald Ivor Ferguson, soldier and polo player and manager: born London 10 October 1931; married 1956 Susan Wright (died 1998; two daughters; marriage dissolved 1974), 1976 Susan Deptford (one son, two daughters); died Basingstoke, Hampshire 16 March 2003.

Major Ronald Ferguson was a modern-day Icarus, who burnt his wings in orbit around the Royal Family. He occupied a curious role in British life. He could not be described as one of our beloved or respected figures, though he represented something of the extravagance of the 1980s. But he was a household name and he strutted the national stage for a number of years.

An essentially ordinary man, his misfortune was to be lured from the safe world of soldiery and polo into becoming a celebrity in his own right. He failed to recognise the responsibility and restraint this required of him and rode into dangerous terrain. He became a subject of much ribaldry, nicknamed "Major Ron" in the popular press, and enjoyed in a short space of time both a meteoric rise and a shaming fall into public humiliation.

Ferguson will be remembered as the father of Sarah, Duchess of York. While the media greeted him as a new discovery in 1986, he had, however, been far from idle in the preceding years. He was a familiar figure on polo grounds across the world, but on none more so than Smith's Lawn at Windsor. A tall man with high-domed forehead, frequently clad in dark blue blazer and gold regimental buttons, he was instantly recognised for his quizzical look and extraordinarily exaggerated ginger eyebrows. He could be polite or dismissive according to rank, and he enjoyed playing the amateur when figures such as Nancy Reagan came to polo, and the US Secret Service made demands that he deemed ludicrous.

Before that Ferguson was a soldier and the scion of a number of aristocratic families. He was "well connected". He descended from one James Ferguson of Dundalk in 1761, and through the Brand family from King Charles II. Fergusons served in the Life Guards for generation after generation, providing the regiment with a colonel in the mid-1800s, a brigadier-general in the First World War and a colonel commanding in the Second World War.

The last was Major Ron's father, Colonel Andrew Ferguson, of Dummer, near Basingstoke. This fact was recognised by Earl Mountbatten of Burma when he became Colonel of the Regiment in 1965. He wrote to Viscount Head to inform him:

The first instruction I gave [Sir James Scott], was to engage a crammer and give Ronnie Ferguson a three months' course to pass his promotion exam. He is the fourth generation in the Old Regiment and it is ridiculous that he cannot pass the exam!

On his mother's side, Ferguson descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry. He was therefore a first cousin once removed of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. Through his paternal aunt, he was a first cousin of the Queen's then Private Secretary, Sir Robert (later Lord) Fellowes. While his ancestry and these connections may have given him confidence, even arrogance, they bestowed upon him no cerebral advantage. That noble dome was neither noted for originality of thought, nor intellectual concentration, nor imagination.

These were not qualities to which he aspired. His early years were spent amongst dogs, horses, wellington boots and the other requisites of country life. Educated at Eton for a while until surrendered to a crammer at Bishop's Waltham, he joined the Life Guards as a trooper and thereafter concentrated on horses and horseplay. He was a judge of flanks and form, of equine energy, occasionally of equine style. While at Sandhurst, he rode in point-to-points. He marched in the Coronation procession in 1953 with a thundering hangover.

In the 1950s he was often stationed abroad and claimed to have led life to the full. When regimental duties permitted, he indulged in sport and at night he caroused. His best friend in the regiment, Willie Loyd, was known as "Pinky", while he was "Perky". He advised on the film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). The cavalry-officer mentality and the traditional ideals of regimental life which held appeal for him and which interests he served, not consistently with honour, are no longer as fashionable today as in the days of his youth. His later exploits did not endear him to his regiment.

In 1956 he married his first wife, Susie Wright, having admired her "Irish wildness", and they had two daughters, Jane and Sarah.

Long before Sarah's marriage, "Major Ron" made it his business to be part of the royal circle and was fortunate that the Royal Family spent so much time on the polo ground at Smith's Lawn. For some years after 1968 he was strategically housed at Ascot and, perhaps more a tribute to Susie than to himself, he found himself entertaining the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to informal dinners at his house.

"The game of polo has done a lot for me," wrote the Major. He played polo in more than 16 countries, including Zambia, Cyprus and Finland, and played in the Duke of Edinburgh's team for some years. Finally, he broke a bone in his neck in 1972, after which he was forbidden any more matches. He was involved with the Guards Polo Club for 33 years and chief umpire of the Hurlingham Polo Association for 22. After leaving his regiment, he worked in PR for three years and then as Deputy Chairman of the Guards Polo Club at Windsor from 1971.

While at Windsor he claimed the following achievements: introducing striped shirts for umpires, starting games on time, improving the facilities for spectators, better maintenance of the grounds and introducing charity matches.

His first marriage collapsed after his wife lost a baby. She accused Major Ron of "womanising", though he denied this admitting only "the occasional indiscretion . . . two brief affairs in 16 years". In 1972 Susie left him for Hector Barrantes. Divorce followed in 1974. He then married Susan Deptford in 1976. They had a son and two more daughters. The history of matrimony is littered with examples of charming women married to less than deserving men. Sue Ferguson more than earned the Major's epithet for her: "the most incredibly loyal wife".

The Ferguson family was propelled into the national spotlight when his daughter Sarah became engaged to the Queen's son Prince Andrew, a union indicative of a general decline in values in the mid-1980s. While the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer was presented to the world as a fairy-tale romance, this marriage of the second son was nurtured in earthier soil, with nudges, jolly jokes and attendant innuendo. Major Ron was a prominent figure at Westminster Abbey on 23 July 1986, and already he was accepting favourable rates from the Knightsbridge hotel that had the foresight to lure him there. One of his concerns on the great day was not to drink too much coffee: "I didn't want to be in the embarrassing situation of needing to pee."

While, in the early years of this marriage, Ferguson basked in reflected glory and rode high in the intoxicating chariot of royal glamour, it was not long before the York marriage took several unconventional spiral dives, and it then became a regular feature of television news to see him doorstepped outside his Dummer property, or interviewed, while perched at the wheel of his Range Rover, issuing less than satisfying comments to representatives of the press, and attempting to bluff his way out of the indefensible. In some respects he was one of the world's naïve innocents.

His nadir occurred in May 1988, and was of his own making. It was revealed that Ferguson was a client of a London "health" club, called the Wigmore Club, to which he repaired, by his own account, to "get a good massage". Strictly, this explanation was not convincing, nor supported by the oral evidence of the young ladies upon whom rested the onus of tending to the Major's requirements. The tabloids blazed with the story for days, and Private Eye had a field day. The Wigmore Club was closed down and the Major regretted he had "nowhere to go if I want to be cocooned away".

Ferguson continued at Smith's Lawn until October that year when, following a coup, he was "not re-elected" as Deputy Chairman. He then went to the Royal Berkshire Polo Club as Director of Sponsorship (a post which he surrendered in 1993). He continued to serve as Prince Charles's unpaid polo manager, but in the same year this association was drawn to a close, with a curt letter from the Prince's office, followed by a spate of unwelcome publicity. "The impression I got was that he had been advised to perform a royal version of ethnic cleansing by getting rid of the Ferguson family from his circle," wrote the Major, not without bitterness.

In the wake of this, it emerged that the Major had indulged in an extramarital affair, in which he had employed the "chat-up" line: "Do you realise this is the first time I have made love outside my marriage?" (He referred to his second marriage only in this calculation.) He had relaxed his marital vows in favour of one Lesley Player, a public relations executive, who arrived in his office to propose a Ladies' International Polo Game. The tournament took place in 1991 and was a success. Later, however, accusations were advanced about financial improprieties which damaged its image, and caused the sponsors to withdraw.

During the negotiations, the Major guided Mrs Player into a guest bedroom at her house. She later subjected him to a venomous account of the relationship, which even he did not deserve. In My Story, published in 1993, she did not spare her readers a description of his body "a bit on the flabby side", his thin legs nor his afternoon performance: "Ronald heaved himself on top of me, grunting and gasping, for the final furlong. Then he rolled off me with a deep sigh . . ." She awoke in his arms, "his craggy face on the pillow beside me smiling into mine". To this the Major rejoined: "I've always been rather proud of my legs and as to the other [the performance], no one has ever complained before." He added: "Whatever went on between Lesley Player and myself was unimportant and quickly over."

In 1994 Macmillan published his own memoirs, The Galloping Major, part romp, part apologia for a life ill spent. It contained such discredited prophesies as "I know, for instance, that Prince Charles will never make any major change in his life, such as a divorce, while the Queen Mother is alive".

Ferguson relished his erstwhile public glory, which had been achieved with a certain buccaneering braggadocio. A fall was inevitable, and it proved long, hard and irreversible. The slide continued with his daughter the butt of public disapprobation when photographs were published of her toe being chewed by a man described as her "financial adviser". The Major was dropped by the Royal Family, his association with polo ceased and he was ostracised by many former friends. After this fall from grace, he was unable to remount. Yet he was sanguine in defeat. He played cricket with a number of local Hampshire teams and continued to organise the cricket school in Dummer.

The Fergusons closed ranks. Despite the publicity, some of it thrust upon them unfairly, some of it sought, they proved a close-knit band. In modern parlance, "they were there for each other". They weathered and forgave crimes and disloyalties that would have torn less sturdy families apart, which says much for that rare old quality – loyalty.

In his last years, he became Patron of the Prostate Cancer Support Association, travelling about the country, sometimes with an oncologist, spreading the word about the need for men to have their PSA level checked. When his listeners told him they were frightened to be tested, he branded them as "wimps". Incontinence, impotence and other associated problems were therefore his latter-day preoccupations and, so zealous a preacher was he, many of his detractors felt he had made due amends.

He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996, and, when the illness was made public in December 1998, he appeared on ITN's News at Ten to urge men of his age to have regular check-ups and to confess that he himself had remained ignorant of the implications of the disease even when diagrams were produced for his elucidation. In this last statement, he summed himself up, for, despite many fatal lapses, he was never other than well-intentioned.

And, despite pronouncements by the Duke of Edinburgh, and revelations of new romances on both sides, he remained touchingly optimistic that his daughter would one day remarry the Duke of York.

Hugo Vickers

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