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Major Ronald Ferguson

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Loyal father and habitué of polo, palaces and parlours

Major Ronald Ferguson, who has died aged 71, was an amiable man, who came to public prominence as the father of the Queen's second daughter-in-law, Sarah, Duchess of York, and sustained the popular entertainment through his connections with polo and massage parlours. He might have been happier in an earlier era, which showed more respect for toffs and less prurient tabloid interest in their private lives and failings.

Ferguson's background was eminently "sound". He was born of country gentry rather than aristocracy, and lived, from the age of eight, on a 480-acre farm at Dummer, Hampshire. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, and with a commission in the Household Cavalry, he enjoyed a military career of nearly 20 years, with action in Aden and Cyprus. For several years, it also included a place in the sovereign's escort at Trooping the Colour.

His last years had a certain good-humoured and plucky dignity, as he endured a seven-year battle with prostate cancer, an arthritic knee that almost made him give up cricket, and heart problems.

Some members of the royal family and its entourage thought the Duchess of York was vulgar, though her father always seemed happy in royal company, once earning a gentle rebuke from the Queen for riding so close to her in a procession that he blocked out part of the public's view of its monarch. He was sometimes critical of Prince Philip's attitude towards the possibility of Sarah's reconciliation with the Duke of York, but it was all done with restrained dignity.

It was the period between Ferguson's early life and his last years that caused the trouble. Without doing anything contemptible, he none the less demonstrated that few people could be more unsuited to having already besieged royals as in-laws. He rode polo ponies for 42 years, and was manager of Prince Charles's horses, until the prince, allegedly cutting down on his sporting exercise, dismissed the major as his manager.

The fact that Major Ferguson - his continued use of the army rank in civilian life also belonged to an earlier era - had been making tabloid headlines in 1988 for using a seedy massage parlour was unlikely to have been entirely irrelevant to this decision. The Guards and Royal Berkshire polo clubs also showed no signs of resisting his departure.

But his following of the gentlemen's code of gracious departure left him with some, albeit dented, dignity, and there was some sympathy with him in 1992, when a businesswoman, Lesley Player, claimed to have had an affair with him, and suggested that he was willing to leave his second wife for her. "I won't deny that she was fairly long suffering over my various activities," remarked Major Ferguson of his second wife, "but I am very lucky that she has remained loyal to me."

Ferguson spent his latter years working on his farm, on a horse and sometimes exercising an eventer for his daughter Alice, or relaxing at a health farm. He continued to smoke, but boasted of being teetotal - apart from "a sip of champagne at weddings". He prided himself on being 6ft 2in tall but weighing only just over 13 stone.

In 1952, when he had been training for the army championships with his regimental ski team in Kitzbühel, he turned into woodland, struck a tree and was unconscious for 10 days. "Some people say that accounts for my extraordinary behaviour ever since," he once admitted.

Another saying of his, quite plausible, was, "I won't let anything get me down." He also said, at least half plausibly: "I just want to carry on doing what's right, supporting my children and my family, and carrying on with life as long as I can."

Ferguson was married to his first wife, Susan, for 18 years. They had two children, Jane and Sarah. They divorced after his infidelity, and he then married his second wife, also called Susan. They had three children, Andrew, Alice and Eliza.

Ronald Ferguson, soldier, farmer and equestrian, born October 10 1931; died March 16 2003

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