There aren’t many people outside the Royal Family who can phone the Queen just for a chat. She has few trusted friends, and her confidantes are mostly drawn from within a small circle of aristocratic families.
But when Her Majesty struck up a rapport with an outspoken dairy farmer, she came to cherish their ordinary friendship that endured for more than 40 years.
It all began in 1975 when New Zealander Don Ferguson, a renowned Jersey breeder, visited the Royal Show at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, and wasn’t overly impressed by the royal herd.
‘Don told the herdsman, “I think we’ve got better back home,” recalls his widow June, now 86. ‘Most people wouldn’t have said what they were really thinking, but he was right!’
The royal herdsman was taken aback, until another breeder assured him Don’s cows were something special. When news of this got back to the Queen, far from taking offence she suggested swapping two heifers to bolster the Windsor herd.
Don Ferguson’s widow June reflects on his lasting friendship with the Queen. Pictured: The Queen with Don at his farm in 1990
When she visited New Zealand on her Silver Jubilee tour in 1977, Don and June were invited to meet the Queen at Te Rapa racecourse, the first time they’d ever been to the races. ‘I was very nervous,’ admits June.
Later they would be guests of the Queen twice on the Royal Yacht Britannia. By the second reception they were old friends, and spent much of the evening arranging another get-together before she flew home.
The Queen’s schedule didn’t allow for a visit to their farm, so instead they contrived for Don to bring some of his cattle to a stud where one of the Queen’s mares was being mated. ‘Don and the Queen just clicked,’ says June.
The next time she was in New Zealand, in 1990, the Queen made a special request to visit the Fergusons’ farm at Otorohanga on the North Island, two hours’ drive from where she was staying at Government House in Auckland. By New Zealand standards the farm isn’t huge; 360 cows, mostly Jerseys, on 335 acres of pasture.
First there was a visit from one of the royal party. ‘I said, “What do I give her for afternoon tea?” We didn’t even think of Earl Grey in those days!’ June laughs. ‘I’d given the gentleman who came a cup of tea, and he said, “Just give her the same tea that you’ve given us”.’
June set aside a bedroom and bathroom so the Queen could powder her nose, and everyone else used a Portaloo. ‘She didn’t want us to go to any expense, she wanted it to be natural,’ June says. ‘But I don’t know how many times the lawn got mowed and we cleaned the windows.’
The neighbours rallied round. They made asparagus rolls, blueberry tarts and June’s sister-in-law made pikelets, similar to Scotch pancakes. Out came the best rose-pattern china. Only the Queen and her lady-in-waiting took tea in the farmhouse with the family (June and Don, their son Warren and his wife Michelle).
Queen invited Don to Windsor to prepare her herd for the World Jersey Cattle Conference. Pictured: When he came to tend to her own herd in 1992
‘The others had a garden party on the lawn, which they appreciated I think, they scoffed the lot anyway!’ she laughs.
As Don showed the Queen around the paddock, she made a joke about Prince Philip’s bad language, saying, ‘All husbands swear, don’t they?’, which amused June because Don certainly didn’t.
Two years later the Queen invited Don to Windsor for a four-month visit, with June, to prepare her herd for the World Jersey Cattle Conference. He had to select the cows, train them to be led in a halter, and have them looking their best.
she touched don’s arm and said, ‘it’s great to have true friends
‘I might get the sack if she doesn’t win any ribbons,’ Don would joke. Far from sacking him, the Queen awarded him the New Zealand Order of Merit in her 2010 Birthday Honours.
For part of their Windsor stay, the couple lived in a flat in the Castle mews, and would meet the Queen in her private apartments with the corgis pushing at their legs. ‘She’s easy to talk to,’ says June. ‘She’s a countrywoman, she has a good eye for cattle and horses, and that’s what she and Don had in common.’
Often Prince Philip would drive down to the farm and stop for a chat, and one day June complimented him that he was looking much better than when they last met on Britannia. ‘He’d been to Nepal then and was gaunt-looking,’ she explains. ‘He said, “I’ll live till tomorrow.” I liked him, he was genuine.’
Don, who died two days short of his 82nd birthday, had been talking to the Queen (pictured) on the phone just a few days before his passing
The long visit to Windsor had set the seal on their friendship. ‘When we were leaving, the Queen said, “Keep in touch,” June recalls. And Don decided one day to phone her with news of a cow that had a sister in the royal herd.
‘From then on they carried on ringing and talking,’ says June. ‘They’d talk about the cows, then get on to talking about their families, and family is the same whoever you are. He used to get off the phone and say the Queen said this and that. You have to put up with whatever your family is.
‘Next time she visited New Zealand [on her Golden Jubilee tour in 2002], the Queen put her hand on Don’s arm at a garden party and said, “Thank you very much. It’s great to have true friends.” I thought that was really nice.’
Don died in 2017, two days short of his 82nd birthday. He’d been talking to the Queen on the phone just a few days before his death.
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