The story of the Gentleman Ferret of Mayfair was a newspaper staple for the best part of half a century. Originating in the gossip pages of London papers in the 1930s, the image of Hampton, the waistcoat-wearing ferret, snaffling ham and beer in his own chair at an exclusive Brook Street Club, inspired sketches, cartoons and running jokes which far outlived the ferret itself.
Hampton was the eccentric pet of the Dorneys, whose mansion on Hill Street had been in the family for generations. Jeffrey Dorney – an aristocrat with literary pretensions who in midlife had found himself patriarch – divided his time between his City office and the family estate in Wiltshire. He was rarely seen at the Gentleman’s Club of which he was a distinguished member; but his butler was a regular Mayfair sight, walking Hampton on a lead to his seat at the Club.
The legend gained a new lease of life in the 60s and 70s, when Jeffrey published his memoirs. The books were mainly a vehicle for slander against his ex-wife, Nancy. Tabloids dined out on salacious revelations that the ferret had been brought to the house by her as a reminder of Jeffrey’s cuckolding – according to her husband, Nancy had been having an affair with a ferreter from their Wiltshire village.
Friends of Nancy denied the story. Many described the memoirs as mostly fictional, the delusions of a man who had become a lonely recluse; a tragic character who had been served a silver platter at birth and let his good name fall away.
But there is another, darker version of Hampton’s story.
We have Graham Herod – a former City of London tour guide and diligent compiler of London’s more esoteric history – to thank for the following testimony. It is an interview with Lisa, once a maid in the Dorney household, recorded for BBC radio but never broadcast. The tapes were lost long ago, but we hope you agree the transcript (edited for ease of reading) is illuminating:
“The first I heard about it was that the cat had been ate. The ferret came in through the back door when the kitchen boy opened it for a delivery. Lord knows where it came from. Escaped from a rat-catcher’s house, I suppose.
Anyway, Gladdy – that was the kitten’s name – was just inside the house. The ferret went straight for puss. Tore Gladdy’s throat open like a rag, as I was told it. Had ate half the poor thing before cook even knew what was what.
Everyone present went in to a panic, as you can picture. Nobody wanted to get near the vicious thing. He was a big ferret, was Hampton. A lot bigger, with teeth a lot sharper, than you’d think. But cook did run at him with a pan. He gathered the cat’s bloody remains in his jaws and scurried off up the stairs.
The butler back then was a man named Gyles. Gruff, no-nonsense sort. When Gyles heard of our interloper he went hell-for-leather up the stairs with Mr Dorney’s gun. But by the time Gyles found the ferret, the ferret had found Mr Dorney’s study, and Mr Dorney – who did like to lock himself away up there, even then – was using his silk scarf as hare whilst the ferret ran laps round his desk like a greyhound.
Mr Dorney declared that the ferret was staying, and that was that.
It took the name Hampton, on account of the fact it had a liking for ham. In fact, Hampton had a liking for most of what was served up in the dining room. And here’s the thing: Mr Dorney insisted that no extra food be prepared. He wanted Hampton fed out of his share.
Now, it wasn’t long before Mr Dorney didn’t come down to the dining room at all. Mrs Dorney was having none of it, so now we had two sittings of each meal. One for Mrs Dorney and the children, one for Hampton. That ferret would sit at the head of the dining table, eating Mr Dorney’s food.
Mrs Dorney hated Hampton, of course. So did the children. Funny thing was, Mr Dorney didn’t seem to get on too well with the creature either. On the few times that Mr Dorney was seen around the house – a miserable figure he was, by now – Hampton would be there, snarling and nipping at his ankles.
I know Gyles harboured murderous thoughts. Dreamed of an accident while cleaning the gun. Or a run-in with a reckless bus driver on one of Hampton’s walks to the Club.
And Mr Dorney did try himself to get rid of Hampton, once. This was after Mrs Dorney and the children had left to live in Wiltshire. And his business had gone down the pan. The poor man was at his wit’s end. We heard shouting and screaming. “Enough! Get out! Get out of my house!!” And the ferret squealing, screeching and gnashing. Mr Dorney trying to beat him down the stairs with a stick.
We all – what was left of us by then – we stood at the bottom of the stairs gawping. Gyles saw his chance and ran off to get the gun.
By the time he returned, Mr Dorney was back in his quarters with the ferret, the shouting and screeching over. I drew the short straw that evening; took them their late supper – crumpets and cheeses for Hampton, bread without butter for Mr Dorney. I stood outside the door for a moment, plucking up courage to knock.
And that was the one time I heard it.
Before then, I hadn’t believed the stories, though they came from several people. But that night I distinctly heard two sounds. One was Mr Dorney sobbing. Loud, hopeless sobs. The other was a voice. A low voice I had not heard before, nor since. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was calm yet firm. More than firm: there was a hint of malice.
When I knocked on the door the voice stopped. I entered, and saw only Mr Dorney, slumped on a settee, sniffing into his handkerchief. And Hampton, the black-eyed ferret, sitting on the armchair by the fire, glaring at me. Fixing me with a stare that to this day chills my bones.
Hampton left of his own accord about two years after that. One day when the front door was open, he simply sauntered down the grand staircase, out through the entrance and off down the street.
By then, the damage to Mr Dorney had been done. A broken man. No business partner, society man or family member wanted to know. I hear he keeps to his rooms mostly, writing his books.
Except nights. At night he wanders Mayfair, they say, searching down alleys and mews, round the backs of houses.
Searching for something he lost”.
- Candidate: The Gentleman Ferret of Mayfair
- Type: Parazoological event
- Status: Historic