In the strange way that seems to happen quite often when you are rootling around in the dusty papers of archives, I have recently stumbled upon another very unusual woman* who was a pioneer in her work and her life.
I found a mention of Joy Ferguson in a slim folder of press cuttings in the Women’s Engineering Society held at the IET in London. She was mentioned in a 1953 cutting as having been a Chief Experimental Officer for the Ministry of Supply. This sparked my interest because this role sounded so similar to the women researchers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, so I made a brief note to myself to follow up on her. The Ministry of Supply was established at the start of WW2 to coordinate the supply of armaments etc for the armed forces and also absorbed the Ministry of Aircraft Production. So anyone doing experimental work would most likely being researching something for the forces.
On my return home I started Googling for more information about Joy and started to find the most amazing things about her.
Born in 1915 in Lurgan, Co Armagh, now in Northern Ireland, I have not yet found anything to confirm her parentage. The area was then famous for leather working and especially boot and shoe making and most of the Fergusons in the census for Lurgan then were in that line of business. None of them gave any impression of being prosperous, but whoever her parents were they had sufficient resources to send her Lurgan High School and Lurgan College.
Joy Ferguson’s Pilot’s Licence Picture in 1939
She became a “Lady Demonstrator” in Electricity Board showrooms, first in Northern Ireland and then in the South of England, whilst studying electrical engineering part time, probably at local technical colleges. Whilst working as an electrical appliances demonstrator for the Clacton Council’s Electricity Showrooms, she gained her Royal Aeronautical Club’s pilot’s licence (1939). Having won a public speaking competition organised by the British Electrical Development Association, she was introduced to Caroline Haslett who mentored her and helped her to find a job in the switchgear sales department at British Thompson-Houston, from which she was able to become a Technical Assistant TA2, under the Director of Technical Development, Ministry of Aircraft Production until she joined the ATA in 1943.
In the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary she rose flew as a 2nd Officer with them for the rest of the war, racking up some 1,000 flying hours. She then held a commission for five years after the war in the W.R.A.F.V.R. (flying list).
After the war we know she was working for the Ministry of Supply on their research and she remained with them for the rest of her working life. Her aviation background led her into aircraft research but the exact nature of this is now not in evidence in the records I have seen so far. I hope to find time next year for yet another visit to the National Archives at Kew, to see if somewhere in the Ministry of Supply box files there is any mention of her.
Joy Ferguson with Royal Aircraft Establishment engineers Chrystelle Fougere, Jane Whittle and Miss Brotherton (?) in front of a Gloster just delivered by Ferguson.
In her spare time she was involved with the Girl Guides, helping one of their senior section groups of Air Rangers and was also active in the Women’s Engineering Society. She was elected to the Society’s ruling Council in 1947 where she remained active until the mid 1950s, as well as helping to organise its London Branch activities. She seems to have left WES in about 1958.
Joy Ferguson in the 1950s
1958 is where Joy’s life takes a surprising turn, when a flurry of newspaper articles in the UK and around the world announce that Joy has had a “sex change operation” (we would nowadays use the phrase ‘gender reassignment’) and will henceforth be living as Jonathan Ferguson. Given the attitudes of the time an even more surprising fact is that Joy/Jonathan persuaded the authorities in Northern Ireland to not only change the sex and name on her/his birth certificate but also the entry in the original register of births. At this time only well-connected people were able to get this done, so Jonathan must have had access to influence somewhere.
His employers in the civil service were commendably unfazed by this change and the newspapers uniformly quoted as saying that “the alteration to the birth certificate will not affect his employment in the Ministry”.
Jonathan Ferguson died in 1974, following a fall from a ladder whilst doing some maintenance at home.
There is clearly still more to know about Joy’s life and Jonathan’s, especially to find out what the research was that s/he did. To reach Chief Experimental Officer as a woman in a technical field was no small achievement in the Civil Service in those days and it seems more than likely that the unruffled response of the Civil Service to the ‘sex change’ must have been in part due to the value of the work she had been doing.
It is, I suppose just about possible that people who worked in the same section as Jonathan may still be alive and it would be amazing to learn more about this interesting person.
If you, or anyone you know, is LGBTI+ and in engineering, there is now an organisation that might be of interest to you: Interengineering. They are
“A professional network aiming to connect, inform and empower lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender engineers and their straight allies.”
*I know that the convention now is to refer to trans people in the gender to which they have chosen to transition, however I felt that it would be interesting to readers to follow the story in the manner in which it revealed itself to me, such that Ferguson is referred to initially as a woman.