Joy Ferguson and Jonathan Ferguson

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.

irene_ferguson_1939 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, Chrystell fougere, Jane Whittle, ?Brotherton and plane

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.

w113_ferguson_irene 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.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Joy Crowther says:

    Joy Ferguson had played hockey possibly for Chiswick Ladies Hocky Club. I remember her coaching us at Ealing Ladies Hocky Club in the early 1950s. She seemed a charming and friendly person. By Joy Crowther (past captain).


    1. This is a delightful addition to what little we know about her in the 1950s. Many thanks. Do you have any team photos with her in? If such items are in a local archive, do let me know as I visit London several times a year and often go to various archives.

      I assume she would have resigned before having the gender reassignment surgery.


  2. Ciarán Masterson says:

    A decade ago, I watched the BBC documentary “Spitfire Women”. I remember that Joy Ferguson was talked about by one of the interviewees in the documentary but I couldn’t remember the name until I watched a repeat broadcast on the PBS America channel on Sky just now.

    I was surprised by the fact that Joy was from Northern Ireland. It is a fact that I learned from this site after typing Joy’s name into Google and is of special interest to me personally because I live on the other side of the border – in County Cavan – and I’ve had a huge interest in military history since my childhood.


    1. Ciaran,
      Thanks for this. One frustration with Ferguson’s story is that I have never been able to get any sort of reply (or even acknowlegement) from the school she attended in Lurgan – emails, letters all go unanswered. I had hoped that school records might have recorded if she was planning to go to university or whatever. I have also not had much luck with her family history as the name is so commonplace.



    I am Fiona, daughter of Sheila Wainwright-Hamlin, nee Naylor. Researching Joy Ferguson’s life for my mum who is giving a small talk on her next week, I stumbled across your site. After telling mum about your interest in hearing from anyone who had known her, she asked me to tell her story:

    “I first met up with Joy Ferguson when my sister Paddy and I along with four other members of the 4th Withington Girl Guides attended a Federation of University Women’s Camps for Girls, otherwise known as FUWCS, in Bampton, The Lake District. My mother wished us to become more conversant with the outside world and thought the fortnight camp would be a good education for us.
    All officers at the camp were known by their prospective activities and Joy, who took us on excursions was therefore nicknamed Rambles. She was extremely popular, extrovert, showed much enthusiasm for anything entered into and was utterly charming, along with her Irish burr. Her personality was magnetic and those beautiful blue eyes sparkled with intelligence and humour. I remarked to Paddy that we never ever saw Joy in a dress, but she did not respond.
    As we sat around our camp fire singing together on that last Friday evening, Joy divulged to us that she held a pilot’s license and knew the great aviator Amelia Earhart. We did not believe it. To prove to us that she could actually fly planes, she promised to fly a spitfire over the camp as we broke up the next day. The spitfire certainly flew over our heads and it was truly amazing to see it diving and looping the loop at tremendous speed. Joy was waving at us from the cockpit and the campers went wild, shouting, “Joy, Joy.” On her return to camp we duly exchanged addresses and phone numbers and then we parted our separate ways.
    It was not long before Paddy and I along with the other four girls, Eileen Livesy, Marianne Joyce, Jean Macintyre and Marie Wright received an invitation from Joy to stay at her Holland Park home. My Irish father invited her to come to our home to meet him before allowing Paddy and I to visit. That meeting was a great success and of course he consented to our going. Joy seemed to have taken quite a liking to the six of us.
    As we approached the Holland Park residence, a most salubrious area of London, we could see Joy on the doorstep with her housemate waving to us. She introduced her as Freydis Leaf, a tall, gangling woman with an athletic build. It was a name that I was never to forget. She was departing and that left a spare bed for one of us and I obliged. The rest of the group were to go to the back of the house.
    That evening we were taken for a wonderful meal to a nearby restaurant. We returned, had a nightcap and I duly departed to my room. I washed, undressed, cleaned my teeth and got into bed. This was in 1944, just after D-Day and at that age 16 years old, in Holland Park being visited in my bed by my newly found friend, Joy Ferguson. Neither of us spoke, I turned to the wall and became as stiff as a ramrod. She put her arms around my waist and gave me a cuddle. I was woken up in the morning with a cup of tea and the curtains were thrown back to reveal a beautiful sunny day. She never referred to the incident and neither did I. However, mentioned it to Paddy and she would not hear anything about it, accusing me of betraying a really good friend and how dare I say such a thing.
    Some years later, I received a letter of apology from my sister enclosing a Sunday Times cut out of a published statement from Joy saying that she no longer wished to be known as Joy, but Joseph Ferguson. I believe now it is Jonathan. We never met again.”


  4. M.H. says:

    Hi–I’m a historian who has been looking into Ferguson’s life before and after his transition using holdings in the National Archives at Kew. I am interested in looking at the IET folder of clippings you mentioned. Could you give me the full archive folder information–the record identifier, etc.? I would like to look at it but can’t find it in their catalog. Are these photos and all of the information on this page from that folder? Thanks for your help!


    1. Emailing you about this. I am so pleased that someone else is interested in this interesting person.


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