Hilda Hewlett was the first woman to qualify as a pilot in the UK. She was a pioneering aviator and part of the military-production machine in the Great War. In 1912 in Battersea she, with Gustave Blondeau, opened their factory to build the BE2 planes for the Royal Aircraft factory.
This is a good time to highlight her as an inspiring and spirited women taking her place in a very male sphere and playing a significant part in the First World War. I am putting her name forward for the Battersea Arts Centre’s request for nominations for Our Good Neighbours scheme of 12 plaques celebrating Battersea’s unsung heros which is intended as a permanent installation as part of their 12o years commemorations. Our Good Neighbours – Battersea Arts Centre
Hilda Hewlett’s photograph for her pilot’s licence wearing large hat
Hilda Beatrice Hewlett was born in 1864, the daughter of Rev George W Herbert, the vicar of St Peter’s Vauxhall, and his wife Louisa. She was one of nine children. She attended the National Art Training School in South Kensington where she specialised in woodwork, metalwork and needlework; three skills that served her well in her later aviation career. She spent time in Egypt with her parents when she was 19 and then at 21 trained as a nurse for a year at a hospital in Berlin. She was a fluent French speaker. Apparently, she only spoke French to Gustave Blondeau.
After marrying Maurice Hewlett in 1888, Hilda wound up living in Northwick Terrace, just of Edgware Road, and became a keen motorist. The couple, who were to have a son and a daughter, were known as eccentric characters. Maurice Hewlett was a romantic novelist. The couple had two children, a daughter, Pia, and a son, Francis, but separated in 1914. Maurice Hewlett was unsympathetic to his wife’s involvement in aviation and claimed, “Women will never be as successful in aviation as men. They have not the right kind of nerve.”
Maurice was a lawyer. Maurice had been a partner in his family’s law firm and keeper of land revenue records. However, in 1901, three years after writing a successful romantic novel, he gave up his profession for a literary career.
Hilda obviously ignored him and his opinions about women aviators. Hilda was described as short, with a ruddy complexion and a determined countenance. Elsewhere described as attractive with dark hair and a prominent nose and wore unusual clothes and a masculine Eton hair-style. She was was a familiar sight driving her large car with a big dog in the back!
In 1906 she was the passenger/mechanic for Miss Hind, the only female driver in the Land’s End to John O’Groats. At a 1909 event, she met Frenchman Gustave Blondeau with whom she developed a fascination with flying.
After buying an aeroplane and learning how to maintain it, Hewlett and Blondeau set up one of Britain’s first fully-fledged flying schools at Brooklands race track and airfield. One of their first pupils was T.O.M. Sopwith, whose company built the famous Great War fighter plane, the Sopwith Camel, but whose first flight was with Gustave Blondeau.
Another pupil was Hewlett herself, who became the first woman ever to qualify as a pilot in the UK, with Royal Aero Club licence number 122, issued on 29 August 1911. Hilda Hewlett’s pilot’s licence photo, showing her amazing hair and hat combination.
Soon after this, Hewlett and Blondeau went into business building aeroplanes. They opened a factory in Battersea in 1912 and were awarded a contract to build BE2 biplanes for the Royal Aircraft Factory. The first factory was a disused ice-skating rink called The Omnia in at 2-16 Vardens Road of St John’s Hill near Clapham Junction where eventually they produced ten different types of aircraft.By December 1912 it was in full production, building French Hanriot monoplanes. Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation This book has some interesting details about Hilda and the trade unions. Hilda had a flat at 34 Park Mansions on Prince of Wales Drive near Battersea Park whilst they had the factory at Vardens Road.
Finally they settled on a 10-acre site at Leagrave Bedfordshire, in May 1914. By August 1914 the company had produced 10 different types of aircraft. During the War the Hewlett’s company manufactured more than 800 military aircraft, a specialised 90 hp (67 kW) engine which the British government considered vital to the war effort, and employed up to 700 people. Here Hilda was a familiar sight driving her large car with a big dog in the back. She wore unusual clothes and a masculine Eton hair-style. The firm developed a good reputation and was very successful.
After the war the business diversified into making farming equipment, but the factory had closed by the end of October 1920. The site remained unsold until 1926. A road in Luton, Hewlett Road, was named after her in recognition of the importance of the company towards the war effort.
Hilda had set a training school for girls and women in skills which had been undertaken by men especially welding. Hilda had first hand experince of it a generation before Rosie the Riveter.
Hilda was described as an ‘indefatigable worker, good organiser and shrewd business woman’, had by August 1914 been employing 700 workers and was producing 10 different types of planes. During the First World War it supplied over 800 military aircraft. Around this time Hilda and Maurice ‘politely’ separated; he died in 1923.
After the factory closed down in 1926, she went to New Zealand joing her daughter and her son. She lived out the last decades of her life in Tauranga, NZ, including being the first president of their Aero and Gliding Club. She died in 1943 and was buried at sea, as she had wished.
It is also important to note here how Battersea has a fascinating aviation connection because alongside Hilda Hewlett and Gustave Blondeau were the Short Brothers who have had a Blue Plaque commemorating them.
This plaque was unveiled September 2013 in Battersea under the arches at Queenstown Road/Queens Circus.
Britain’s first aircraft manufacturers, Horace, Eustace and Oswald Short have been commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at their former workshop in the railway arches by Queen’s Circus, Battersea. The plaque was unveiled by Jenny Body OBE, the first female President of the Royal Aeronautical Society, at 2pm on Tuesday 17th September.
Hewlett, Hilda Beatrice – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Hilda also found time to write “Our Flying Men” by Hilda Beatrice Hewlett although she was called Mrs Maurice Hewlett. Our flying men,by Mrs. Maurice Hewlett. : Hewlett, Hilda …
The Magazine Historic Wings had an an article about her in 2012 Grace Bird ‹ HistoricWings.com :: A Magazine for Aviators …
For Mrs. Hewlett, three challenges were ahead — to master the art of piloting an aeroplane, to overcome the sexist views of her era, and to prove even to her own husband that women could indeed fly. These were pioneering times and what, many in her family asked, would a housewife need with the dangers of this new aeroplane craze.
Less than three weeks after earning her pilot certificate, Hilda Hewlett performed her first of many air shows in a meet at Chelson Meadow, Plymouth. This time, it would be others who would sit in the stands and watch in amazement as she flew — cheering not just at the miracle of aviation, but as well for Britain’s first woman pilot. From there, flying becoming a major focus of her life. In fact, she was already teaching her son, Francis, how to fly. He earned Royal Aero Club certificate No.156 on November 14, 1911, just three months after his mother had certified. In 1912, she won a quick start competition at another aviation meet. By then, she was already considered a regular at air meets and flying events.
Hilda and her aeroplane
By 1914, the mother and son were considered quite experienced in the air. Yet that year would bring three major changes. Mrs. Hewlett’s husband would divorce her. Germany would invade France to begin the Great War. And finally, her son, Francis, would join the RNAS and commence a distinguished military flying career. Francis would be recorded as the only military pilot in British history to have been trained to fly by his mother. Three years later, he was Mentioned in Despatches on May 12, 1917, “For conspicuously good work in command of the seaplane stations at Dover and Dunkirk.”
When the war ended in 1918 the company diversified into farming equipment, but it closed in late 1920. During this period Hewlett spent nine months visiting New Zealand, Rarotonga and the United States. After the Leagrave factory and site were finally sold in 1926 she moved to Tauranga with her daughter Pia Richards, and Pia’s family. As Hilda explained, ‘the urge to escape from the three C’s, crowds, convention and civilization became strong’. New Zealand also offered opportunities to camp and fish, other long-time interests. Now 62, she was always addressed as ‘Old Bird’ by family members.
In 1934 Jean Batten, touring New Zealand after her celebrated flight from England to Australia, was welcomed to Tauranga and hosted by Hewlett. The meeting of the two pioneers from different eras was said to have ’caused quite a stir’. At the opening of the new Tauranga aerodrome in January 1939 the minister of defence, Frederick Jones, named an adjacent road after Hilda and her son in recognition of their services to aviation.
Whatever Hilda Hewlett wanted to do, she did and did well. With her adventurous spirit, determination, energy and ability she could have pursued a variety of careers, but it was in aviation that she made her mark. She died in Tauranga on 21 August 1943, survived by her children. After a service on the railway wharf she was buried at sea as she had requested.
Hilda featured in Brian Barnes mural Battersea in Perspective in 1988 along with Charlotte Despard and other previous Battersea MPs and politicians including John Archer, London’s first black mayor in 1913.
Hilda from Battersea in Perspective mural by Brian Barnes
I went to Vardens Road to the site of 2-16 where the aircraft works were. It had later become a snooker hall which was demolished and replaced by these luxury town houses. Perhaps I will be knocking on someone door to see if they want a plaque of the feisty and indomitable Hilda Hewlett!
2-8 Vardens Road – the site of the Hewlett and Blondeau Omniaworks aircraft factory 1912-1914
Her grandson’s wife Gail has carried out exhaustive research into the lives of both Hilda and Maurice Hewlett and recently published the results of this work; the book was officially launched on 26 April 2010 at St Peter’s Church in Vauxhall, London. Old Bird. The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett – Troubador Publishing