Jonathan Ferguson served in the Air Transport Auxiliary (W-113) and worked for the Ministry of Aircraft Production during the Second World War. He was born Irene Joy Ferguson to boot salesman Edward Ferguson and Jessie Robertson Ferguson (née Fyfe) on 30th October 1915 at 13 Wellington Street, Lurgan, Co. Armagh.
In civilian life, then known as Joy, Ferguson attended Lurgan High School and Lurgan College in their hometown. The Northern Whig newspaper on 19th October 1927 named Miss Joy Ferguson (11 years old) as a runner-up in a spot the difference competition. For this, the prize was a Fyne Point Silver Pencil. The following year, 1928, listed Irene Joy Ferguson as placing second in an entrance scholarship examination at Thomas Street Public Elementary School in Portadown, Co. Armagh. This would have permitted acceptance to Portadown College grammar school but Ferguson would go on to attend the grammar school in the neighbouring town.
Applications for renewal of Senr. Scholarships for 3rd Year.
We considered applications for extension of scholarships for year 1933-1934 submitted by the following students, who have given the undernoted reasons for their applications:-
Joy Ferguson, Lurgan College (for 6th year) – to study for advanced Civil Service examination. This student passed the Senior Certificate examination, obtaining 2 credits and 1 distinction.
Ferguson later worked as an Electricity Board showroom demonstrator in Northern Ireland and the South of England. At the same time, they studied electrical engineering part-time at a technical college. With these qualifications and having won a public speaking competition organised by the British Electrical Development Association, Ferguson was introduced to Caroline Haslett. Under Haslett’s mentorship, Ferguson gained employment with British Thompson-Houston in the switchgear sales department.
In 1939, Ferguson gained a Royal Aeronautical Club pilot’s license but during the first years of the conflict engaged in work as a technical assistant under the Director of Technical Development at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In 1940, Ferguson joined the Women’s Engineering Society, later announced on 28th September 1947 as a new member of the Council, and remained involved with the organisation until the late 1950s. As part of this involvement, Ferguson was a member of the panel that established the Amy Johnson Memorial Scholarship to support young women furthering a career in flying.
In May 1943, Ferguson joined the Air Transport Auxiliary as a Third Officer and operated as a ferry pilot. At this time, their address was Langham House, 89 Hide Road, Harrow, London, England. Ferguson had a much greater technical background than other new entry pilots, however her flying experience was less. After resitting some practical flying tests and reaching Class 3 level by January 1944, Ferguson had gained promotion to Second Officer.
Ferguson received postings to No. 7 Ferry Pilot’s Pool and spent most of their time with No. 15 Ferry Pilot’s Pool at Hamble, Hampshire, England, achieving around 1,000 flying hours in 26 different aircraft in total. They had been an early recruit to the Civil Air Guard and continued to serve in the A.T.A. until October 1945. During the Second World War, Second Officer Ferguson was involved in at least two minor incidents. On 3rd November 1943, they crash-landed Fairey Swordfish NE862 following an engine failure. A little over a year later, on 12th December 1944, they again force landed, this time in Argus I LV804 following another mechanical failure.
In October 1945, Ferguson left the Air Transport Auxiliary and returned to work as a scientific civil servant within the Ministry of Supply. They became an associate member of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1948. From 1949-1954, Ferguson served as a Pilot Officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. A supporter of women in flying, Ferguson acted as an adviser to the Air Rangers section of the Girl Guides Association following the war.
In 1958, while living at Holden Road, North Finchley, Middlesex, England, Ferguson was a Chief Experimental Officer in the field of aircraft research and development at the Ministry of Supply. Normally this level of role was reserved for graduates, however, there is no record of Ferguson having obtained a university degree and so it was presumably on merit and experience that they rose through the ranks. It was during this time, they underwent gender reassignment, taking the name Jonathan. Many British newspapers reported the story around 11th-13th January 1958. In Northern Ireland, Jonathan persuaded authorities to amend the name and sex on his birth certificate as well as the entry in the official birth register.
I want to get this done in as dignified a way as possible.
In no. 229, Col. 3 for “Irene Joy” read “Jonathan” and Col. 4 for “female” read “male”. Corrected on the 7th Jany. 1958 by me J.E. Bell, Supt. Registrar on production of a statutory declaration made by Jessie Robertson Ferguson, mother.
Jonathan’s gender reassignment did not negatively affect his career within the civil service. In fact, one issue that arose was that Jonathan received a pay rise as men earned more in the civil service than women in the same role. Colleagues who served in the A.T.A. with Ferguson noted that conversations about what was then known as “sex change” surgery had been had as early as 1939 but it was thought that Jonathan waited until after the Second World War under the premise that they could serve their country just as well as a woman.
Outside of flying and the technical research work for the civil service, Ferguson was a keen sportsperson. In the early 1930s, they played for several teams including representing Co. Armagh in a number of fixtures. While living in England, they also played for Chiswick Ladies Hockey Club, and later coached the Ealing Ladies Hockey Club in the early 1950s.
By the mid-1960s, Jonathan was in command of a civilian group of around 20 former pilots, working alongside test pilots and R.A.F. staff to produce Aircrew Manuals. He referred to his life before transitioning as “when I wore a skirt”.
Jonathan Ferguson died on 31st May 1974 as a result of an accident, falling from a ladder at his home in Bracknell, Berkshire, England.
We are incredibly grateful to Dr. Nina Baker BSc PhD for her in-depth research into the life of Jonathan Ferguson. Follow her work on the Women Engineers’ History Site.