Joan Ford’s Quilt

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Article, Artifacts, History

“My 100-year-old friend Joan died recently, and I am trying to sort her belongings. I have a quilt that was given to her during the war; she told me that it had come from Canada and that when she first had it there was a note saying where it had come from. It is in very good condition. Would you be interested in having it back to add to the collection?”

Joan Ford’s quilt, now back in Canada where it was made

This email came to me in December 2023, and of course, I was happy to accept custody of Joan’s quilt returned back to Canada after 80 years. The design and construction and condition of a war-time quilt are of no matter to me – each quilt tells its own story and adds to the greater story of Canadian women’s voluntary quilting, knitting and sewing in wartime. But this quilt has provenance – we know who received it, we know her name, and what her role was during wartime, and that it was kept and treasured by her for all of these years. As you read the information about Joan and her participation in the war, remember that she is just 20 years old.

Joan Thelma Ford – 1923-2023

Here is what Sue shared with me about her friend Joan Ford.

“Joan Thelma Ford was born 11/04/1923. She joined the F.A.N.Y’s during World War 2, Number 17818. You asked me what Joan had told me about the quilt. Joan told me it was one of her treasured possessions I guess when she was given it, it was the first thing she actually owned. Joan kept is safely for all those years and I think it is in remarkable condition. When she was issued with it she said it had a piece of paper pinned to the corner that said either ‘W (Women’s Institute) or WVS Ontario (Women’s Voluntary Service). She had wanted to keep that piece of paper safe but somehow, she mislaid it. She wanted to write and thank them for sending it.”

I didn’t know anything about the F.A.N.Y. and was grateful that Sue sent along some information about them. F.A.N.Y. stands for First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Emergency Response – established in 1907.

Image of Joan’s registration

An excerpt from the notes that Sue sent to me: “Free FANYs were attached to the British Red Cross, the American Ambulance Corps GB and the British Committee for the French Red Cross from 1940 to 1945.  In September 1944, 23 FANYs of No 1 Motor Ambulance Convoy were amongst the first women to cross the Channel.

SEAC Welfare Unit: As the war in Europe drew to a close, FANYs from the Polish Units and the BRCS(British Red Cross) were recruited for service in the Far East.  Thousands of starving Allied prisoners-of-war were freed over the next few months. The FANYs served in Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaya, Japan and the East Indies.

Other FANYs worked during the war as radio officers, encryption specialists, wireless operators, radar operators, personal assistants (drivers, coders and decoders) in the UK, North Africa, Italy, India, Ceylon and the Far East.”

TIME Magazine – Princess Elizabeth with her mother the Queen, 1945

This excerpt is from the F.A.N.Y. website:

“In 1945, the then HRH Princess Elizabeth trained with the FANY/ATS as a driver and in motor mechanics. During the first three weeks of training, Princess Elizabeth received driving lessons in Windsor Great Park and went through the complete training of an ATS driver.  

Following Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s passing, members of the Corps provided support to a number of different agencies. Forty FANYs helped to ensure the smooth running of the Accession Council. Over 100 FANYs supported the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with the Accessibility Queue for the Lying in State, working alongside a team of voluntary organizations including the Scouts, Samaritans, The British Red Cross and The Salvation Army. And eight members of the Corps assisted with ushering duties and were positioned outside Westminster Abbey during the funeral.

We will forever be honoured that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth rolled up her sleeves as one of us.”

Joan Ford (right) with a friend c. 1943

In 2023, 99 year old Joan Ford was interviewed by a school child for a project. Her mind was clear, and she shared with this 10-year-old her memories of her role in war – at least the details she was allowed to disclose. Here is an excerpt from her interview, transcribed by Sue:

“In the first place I have to tell you and you need to understand … There were a lot of different parts of the FANYs and a lot of them were only Drivers.  And they were personal drivers to senior officers.  But I was in a Unit which was attached to Special Operations, which was secret work.  Now, it was … It felt as if it was an honour to be in the FANYs in this unit.  An honour to be in the secret unit … and I was a coder, first and foremost so I got things … I got all this (waving a hand at her paperwork) … and you could put it all into code to send it …

There was always, within every country, a resistance movement by the ordinary everyday people like your mum. And they would resist.  So they were not spies because they were working for the good of their own country … they were called agents. 

We (the FANYs) could send them information and supplies … we could send them people who were agents.  We could send them out into the occupied countries and we could help their resistance.  And that was important to our war effort …  they (the agents) were important to our war effort from within an occupied country.”

Detail of Joan Ford’s wartime quilt

If you or someone you know is working on a project about the war, I can make available the full transcript of Joan’s interview. I think the fact that we have her interview, photos of her as a young woman in wartime, her registration, plus the quilt she received at that time with period artifacts from her sewing box – all of this together is extremely rare. Joan Thelma Ford was a young woman serving in England during the war, and each piece of information and artifact that accompanies her quilt adds to the story of her life and her work, creating a context that helps us to understand the meaning the quilts had to her and to others – not only in wartime, but for the remainder of her life.

Thank you, Joan, for your service and for saving this quilt for all these years, and thank you Sue for reaching out to return it to Canada. I am hoping the Canadian War Museum will be interested in adding this quilt to their permanent collection, because of its excellent condition and provenance.