Royals

The Waikato farmers who Queen Elizabeth counts as "true friends"

''We used to go up to the castle and have an audience with her, and the corgis would be pushing up against our legs!''

By Lynley Ward

On a hot summer's afternoon nearly 30 years ago, Waikato farmers Don and June Ferguson enjoyed a visit to their home like no other – their friend the Queen popped in for pikelets, tarts and a cuppa.

It's perhaps one of Aotearoa's most heartwarming tales – an unlikely friendship spanning hemispheres and generations between the House of Windsor and an Otorohanga farming family, whose connection remains so close the monarch is a only phone call away.

World-renowned Jersey breeder Don first crossed paths with the Queen in the mid '70s when he sent cows to England to bolster the Windsor herd.

It wasn't long before he and his wife were sitting opposite Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Hamilton sharing afternoon tea during a royal tour – the first of many occasions over the decades where they would enjoy each other's company.

June tells Woman's Day it was an incredibly special day when, in 1990, she and her late husband welcomed Her Majesty into the lounge of the family home for a private cuppa, a bite to eat and a chat with her son Warren and daughter-in-law Michelle.

"It's not every day people can say they hosted the Queen in their own home!" declares the 83-year-old.

Don and June welcome the Queen onto their farm. Photo: Richard Wallace
Don and June welcome the Queen onto their farm. Photo: Richard Wallace

She recalls the buzz that filled the south Waikato rural community as family and friends pulled out all the stops to make it a day to remember."We had a garden party with the neighbours and various Jersey breeders. It was a private gathering. One neighbour made blueberry tarts and my sister-in-law, who lives close by, made the pikelets."

With sunny skies overhead, the day went off like a charm. The relaxed monarch even broke royal protocol when she agreed to pose for photos with the Ferguson clan.

"Don asked if he could have a family photo and the powers that be were saying 'oh no, she never has photos with anyone but her own family.' But she agreed and had a photo taken with our family."

Photo: Richard Wallace
Photo: Richard Wallace

While the gathering would only last an hour, June says the couple continued to spend more time with Her Majesty over the years at her country estate in Windsor.

"We've been guests of the Queen a number of times over the years – I guess we're personal friends. At one point, we managed the royal herd for about four months. We used to go up to the castle and have an audience with her, and the corgis would be pushing up against our legs!"

June says despite their backgrounds, conversation was never difficult.

"I suppose when you've got common interests it might be a little bit easier, but it's really just like talking to anyone else."

Even the Queen needs to rest her feet after a walk around the farm. Photo: Richard Wallace
Even the Queen needs to rest her feet after a walk around the farm. Photo: Richard Wallace

With a direct line to the palace, June says Don had frequent contact with the Queen, keeping her up to date with important news about the herd, especially the cattle she had a personal stake in.

"If something was going on, he'd ring and have a chat with her."

Describing her as "a country woman at heart", June says the monarch and Don shared a special closeness that, over the years, branched beyond farming matters.

"When Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother died, Don phoned and offered his sympathy. Occasionally, she would say the family's just like our family.

"When she was out here at a garden party at Government House, she came and put her hand on Don's arm and said, 'Thank you very much for ringing me. It's nice to know I've got true friends.' Don thought that was lovely."

Sadly, Don died last year after losing his battle with cancer. This time, it was the Queen's turn to offer words of comfort.

Tells June, "He had only been talking to her a few days before and she said, 'I knew by his voice that he wasn't lasting long.'"

Warren, 58, who has taken over his father's role, says the bond his dad had with the royal was special, and they would often confide in each other about life's trials and tribulations.

"Dad and her spoke about the cows, but they'd also talk about the grandkids just like anyone else." June reveals after nearly three decades there was always one aspect the day Her Majesty's came round home that took the shine off an otherwise perfect occasion with the death of Don's mother the following morning.

"He always said it was a highlight and the worst day of his life all in one!"

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