Royal memories: Riverview resident reflects on friendship with Queen Elizabeth II

Joan Brownson served with Her Majesty in the British Army during the Second World War

To the world, she was Queen Elizabeth II, but before she was the monarch who reigned as head of state of the United Kingdom and 14 Commonwealth realms, including Canada, then-19-year-old Joan Brownson knew her as “Lizzie.”

As a teenager in the 1940s, this was the name the future monarch preferred to be addressed by when she and Joan served alongside each other as mechanics in the Women’s Auxiliary Territory Service, a branch of the British Army, during the Second World War.

Six days after Queen Elizabeth II passed away on Sept. 8, Joan, a resident of Riverview Manor in Peterborough, sat down with The OMNIway in an interview organized by life enrichment aide Adam Wicklum to talk about her time spent with the woman who would become the longest reigning queen in history.

As mechanics in the army, Joan and Princess Elizabeth, as she was then known, worked side by side on military vehicles, diagnosing engine problems and making repairs.

Although “mechanic” may often be seen as a largely male-dominated profession, Joan says many women learned the trade during the war when everyone needed to pitch in to help. “We just needed people at that time and we all needed to pick up what we could do,” Joan tells The OMNIway.

Joan, 96, says she remembers then-Princess Elizabeth as being friendly and well-liked but also a humble young woman who would shun the attention that came with her notoriety.

“She was a person like me, (and) what she wanted and what I wanted were the same things,” Joan says.

Another memory Joan has is how she and others would protect the future monarch from media attention. When press photographers would try to take her picture, the future monarch’s comrades would form a circle around her to shield her from the cameras.

“There was a time when she suddenly (got more media attention) and we had to just watch whatever she was doing, and we would gather around her,” Joan says.

“There was somebody – and it wasn’t always obvious – but there was always somebody watching her.”

Princess Elizabeth would ascend to the throne and become Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. In 1957, Joan moved to Canada and settled in Peterborough, where she and her husband raised five sons.

Like the Queen, Joan has also led a life dedicated to public service. She has served as a volunteer with the Special Olympics and has been involved with the Royal Canadian Legion. She has also served as a member of the Riverview Manor residents’ council. In 2019, Joan received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Long Term Care Association for her service to others.

While this has been a sad time for Joan as she joins other citizens of the Commonwealth in mourning the passing of our Queen, she says she has also been reminiscing about happy times shared with her friend “Lizzie” many years ago.

“I was very upset when I heard,” Joan says of the Queen’s passing.

After a brief pause, she smiles as she recalls a happy memory of her youth.

“I enjoyed her company and I liked her a lot,” Joan says of the Queen. “We had a lot of fun and we got along so well together.”

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PHOTO CAPTION: Riverview Manor resident Joan Brownson holds a newspaper with a photo of Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away Sept. 8. Joan and the Queen served together in the British Army during the Second World War.