Throughout history, individuals have shaped their communities and countries through dedication and service. Today at Sundial Care Home in Tipton St John, we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate Joan Farmer, a family member living here and a remarkable woman who served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during World War II.

From Manchester to military, Joan’s story is one of the resilience, wittiness and service of an ATS girl, showcasing her role in the wartime effort and beyond into her family life.

 

Back to the Beginning

In the year of 1924, Joan Farmer was born in Levenshulme, Manchester. Her father, who began his career in the offices of a cotton manufacturing company, eventually rose to the position of Company Secretary. Joan would describe her mother’s profession as a “family maker”, who primarily stayed home to run the household, until the war broke and she went to work in a bank. As a family with Methodist values, Joan would recall her father reprimanding her mother for sitting in the window and knitting during Sunday afternoons! Joan’s elder brother was also a pupil of Burnage High School at the time.

In 1938, Joan passed her eleven plus exam and earned a coveted scholarship to Manchester High School, however it was at this time the family decided to move Stockport, Greater Manchester. Rather than Joan transferring to the local grammar school there, she carved a new path for herself by securing a place at Stockport College. Where she immersed herself in studying bookkeeping, shorthand and typing, setting the stage for her future endeavours.

Joan entered the working world by getting a job with McVities & Price biscuit manufacturers, but her time there was rather brief. She had to resign shortly after, as her father disapproved of her working in the typing pool, she had to go back and hand in her notice! Following this, Joan found a position with a coal firm working in the main office, where she utilised the skills she had learned in college. However, the offices were tragically bombed during the Manchester Blitz in 1940, causing her to relocate to Oldham.

 

A Calling to the Military

Joan realised that once she turned eighteen, her country would need her services and began to consider her options. She thought she may be assigned to a munitions factory in Liverpool, or be conscripted into the Land Army. But with a “natural fear of cows and Liverpudlians!” in Joan’s words, the obvious choice was to join the military.

In the year of 1942, Joan’s heart was set on the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS), but to her dismay, the Navy was already full. Determined to serve, she visited the Army Recruiting Office, where she was welcomed with open arms by the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and gladly joined their ranks.

During this time, Joan had met her beloved Reg, who was a part of the RAF. Sadly, duty called them both in different directions, forcing them to part ways. Despite the separation, they both persevered into their military careers, holding onto the hope they would one day be reunited. However, a broken heart didn’t hinder Joan’s determination, as shortly following this, she passed her medical exam and was sent to Dalkeith Army Camp up in Scotland to begin her training as an ATS girl.

 

Joan at 18 years old

 

The Knicker Conundrum

Joan’s life in the Army commenced rapidly, with six weeks of “square bashing” (marching drills) and polishing brass buttons.

As part of her uniform, Joan was issued two pairs of white woolly knickers and two pairs of khaki silk knickers. Joan recalls her mother advising her to wear the woolly knickers underneath the silk pair, as she warned the khaki dye would come off on her legs! She was ridiculed by the other girls for a short time at this, but when she explained, the ice was broken, laughter was shared and everybody became talkative and friendly. It was fair to say the white woolly knickers were consigned to the bottom of her kitbag after that.

 

From Driver, to Teleprinter & Communications

Once her initial training had been completed, Joan was posted to Camberley, Surrey, where she underwent an Army driving course and was introduced to saloon type motor-cars, ambulances and ten-ton lorries! Unfortunately, Joan was faced with a setback. The bitter cold caused painful chilblains to develop on her hands, leading to the decision that she was not best suited for outdoor work, and a reassessment of her career in the military.

However, Joan once again persevered, after her leaders discovered she was a trained shorthand typist and book-keeper. With these skills, she was then re-directed to a teleprinter and communications course, opening a new chapter in her service. Excelling in her new role, she was then selected to join the London War Office in the Signals Corps, where she was sworn under the Official Secrets Act, marking a significant and honorable milestone in her military career.

 

The War Office, Raids & Reunited with Reg

By 1943, along with twenty other colleagues, Joan worked as a teleprinter and communicator in a bunker eighty feet below the War Office that was just around the corner from Winston Churchill’s office in London. Joan and her fellow colleagues were billeted in a large Victorian house on Buckingham Palace road next door to the palace itself. Joan recalls the air raids that were taking place each day, and how aware her and the rest of the girls were about the present dangers at the time.

Joan said, “We defeated the Third Reich, not with guns, but with our teleprinters. From days before we landed in Normandy, up to D-Day and those months afterwards, until Germany surrendered, we girls below the War Office were fully informed from all quarters of the war zones, what was going on, and able to pass on this information, which was most secret to those parties who needed this information. The most upsetting part of all this was the casualty figures we were getting, the name, rank and service number of those killed.”

However, there was some light in these challenging times. Joan and Reg, who was now a fully- fledged Lancaster Bomber pilot, were reunited once more. Their paths crossed again in London and would meet up amidst the chaos that was happening.

 

Joan in her ATS uniform

 

Family Life After Victory

Following Germany’s surrender in May of 1945, Joan returned to civilian life as her days in the military had come to an end. On the 1st of September of that same year, she and her beloved Reg got married, a joyful occasion set against the backdrop of a world recovering from conflict. Just two weeks earlier, atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender and marking the official end of WWII.

As Joan settled back into civilian and married life, Reg unfortunately had to remain in the RAF for another year and a half. Joan adjusted to her new routine whilst living back in Heanton Moor, Stockport with her parents, carrying the memories of her wartime service and the hope of Reg coming home for good.

A year later, two became three, as the couple welcomed a son, Anthony, in September of 1946. Shortly after this, Reg left the Airforce and joined the Cheshire Constabulary, where the family then moved to Reddish, Stockport and lived in a police house. As time went on, the family continued to grow as they also welcomed a daughter, Susan, in January of 1950.

Joan recalls that during this time, she received a small parcel containing her war medal which stated “in recognition of service in the War of 1939-1945”, something she will cherish for many years to come.

 

Retirement & Life at Sundial Care Home

Joan and Reg spent their early years of retirement with their daughter, Susan, and her husband in North Cornwall, where the young couple had just settled and bought a holiday park. To this day their family has grown further, Joan has had the pleasure of welcoming four grandsons, three great-grandsons and three great-granddaughters!

Joan who will be celebrating her 100th birthday this year, now lives at Sundial Care Home near Sidmouth, where she is supported to live a continuation of life surrounded by companionship and community. Joan’s story reminds us of the extraordinary impact of women during the war, whose perseverance and resilience has changed the world for the better. Sundial Care Home creates a nurturing environment that honours and celebrates the lives of its family members, cherishing their memories and achievements in all their glory.

 

Joan and her daughter Sue, celebrating her 99th Birthday at Sundial Care Home.