Engineer of the Week No.101: Irene Joy Ferguson, later Jonathan Ferguson, ARAeSoc (30th October 1915 - 31st May 1974)
On what would have been his 104th birthday we remember Jonathan Ferguson, pilot and technical civil servant.
Jonathan Ferguson, pilot and scientific civil servant, was born Irene Joy Ferguson on 30th October 1915, Wellington Street, Lurgan, Co Armagh, Ireland (now Northern Ireland). Her father was Edward Ferguson (1880-1947), a boot salesman, and her mother was Jessie Robertson Fyfe (died 1950). Ferguson had gender reassignment surgery in 1958 and lived the remainder of his life as a man, until his death in 1974. [For convenience of the narrative I will use the female pronouns for the part of Ferguson’s life when she lived as a woman, i.e. from 1915-58, and male pronouns from that point onwards. I am advised that it is nowadays the convention to use the gender pronouns of the gender to which a person has been reassigned but in this biography I feel this would make for a confused story and clumsy syntax. No disrespect is meant towards Ferguson’s ultimate gender choice.]
She was educated at Lurgan High School and Lurgan College. 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. 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.
Although her employment records indicate that she did not have a degree, the grade she later reached in the scientific civil service were normally only open to graduates. Also, on entry to the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), she was noted as having a much greater technical background than their usual new entry pilots, most of whom had a great deal more flight experience than she did. She joined the volunteer Civil Air Guard and obtained her private pilot’s licence. She entered the ATA as a Third Officer and was promoted to Second Officer in January 1944. Joy was posted to a number of different Ferry Pools (FPs). Of these she spent the most aggregate time at No.15 FP, at Hamble. Hamble was one of only two Fps which were all-women, the others being mixed. Joy was not the most natural of pilots, for all her enthusiasm, and had to resit some of her practical flying tests, and remained at the Class 3 level, flying 26 different sorts of aircraft.
In October 1945 Joy was demobilised from the ATA and returned to her work as a scientific civil servant in the Ministry of Supply. It is not clear what her role was but may have been related to the production of Pilot Notes, the handbooks for new aircraft, which the ATA pioneered in their need to provide clear summaries of what pilots needed to know to fly a new aircraft quickly. She moved back to live in north London and 1948 Ferguson became an associate member of the Royal Aeronautical Society. At this time Joy had a commission as a Pilot Officer in the WRAFVR from 1949-54, acted as an advisor to the Girl Guides’ Air Rangers section for older girls and took an active interest in the complexities of the mathematics required for setting the handicaps for air races. She was active in the Women’s Engineering Society from 1947-57 and gave a talk on the handicapping maths to the London WES group in 1952.
In 1958 Ferguson announced publicly that he would be living as Jonathan, rather than Joy, following what in those days was referred to as “sex change” but which we now call “gender reassignnment” surgery. Interestingly, one of Ferguson’s ATA friends said that she had been told as early as 1939 that such surgery would have been possible then but decided to postpone it until after the war on the reasonable premise that she could serve her country just as well as a woman as a man. The change to living as a man resulted in worldwide press reports of this, stating that Ferguson’s civil service employers were unconcerned about the change and that he would continue with his work as before, but with an increase in pay to the male grade.
That she joined the Ministry of Supply in a technical role during the war would be unremarkable at a time when many women found such doors opening in the desperate need to release men for the front line. It is more remarkable however that she not only returned to that work after the war, when there was a very considerable social and legislative drive to force women out of their wartime technical work and back into the domestic sphere, but also remained and prospered into the higher ranks of the scientific civil service. She must have been doing valued work to achieve that and also to gain the unstinted support of her bosses when the time came to come out and become Jonathan.
We may never know the full story of what Jonathan’s work contributed to the development of aviation in the UK, but I think we can be sure that it held significance at the time.