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. Hewlett & Blondeau – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
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 a large hat
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
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 eight children (one of whom had died age 3). 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, they wound up living in Northwick Terrace, just of Edgware Road, and she became a keen motorist. Maurice Hewlett was a romantic novelist. The couple had two children, a daughter, Pia, and a son, Francis, but separated sometime after 1914. Maurice has unfairly been described as unsympathetic to Hilda’s exploits as an aviator. According to Gail Hewlett he did not at first understand why Hilda, who was known as Billy within the family, was interested in what seemed a new-fangled thing, but he never ever tried to stop her. What concern he showed was to do with the danger inherent in flying. He was later to invest in the Hewlett & Blondeau company. Hilda said: ‘Maurice was so broadminded about my flying’.
Maurice was a lawyer and 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.
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. Hilda also taught her son Francis who earned his licence number 156 on 14 November 1911 and went on to have a distinguished military aviation career in both the UK and New Zealand, making him the first military pilot taught to fly by his mother. He earned a Distinguished Service Order in 1915 and rose to the rank of Group Captain.
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 called Omnia Works was a disused ice-skating rink which had been had been used by the car firm Mulliners who had briefly gone into aeroplane building. This was at 2-16 Vardens Road, off St John’s Hill near Clapham Junction, where eventually they produced six different types of aircraft. By December 1912 they had built three French Hanriot monoplanes. The blog piece Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation quotes from Gail Hewlett’s biography some interesting details about Hilda and the trade unions and that 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 6 different types all at Vardens Road and had produced eight other types at Leagrave. During the war the Hewlett’s company manufactored more than 800 military aircraft and and employed up to 700 people. Hewlett and Blondeau made all their own parts and supplied other companies with parts, but they did not make aircraft engines and electrical instruments. Here Hilda was a familiar sight driving her large car with a big dog in the back. She wore sensible clothes and had an Eton crop 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 experience of it a generation before Rosie the Riveter. Hilda was described as an ‘indefatigable worker, good organiser and shrewd business woman’.
Hilda and her aeroplane
After the factory closed down in 1926, she went to New Zealand joining her daughter and her son joined them later. As Hilda explained; ‘the urge to escape from the three C’s, crowds, convention and civilization became strong’. According to the website Hewlett, Hilda Beatrice – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand “New Zealand also offered Hilda opportunities to camp and fish, other long-time interests. Now 62, she was always addressed as ‘Old Bird’ by family members. It also mentioned that 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’.
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.
I ordered and just started to read her biography which I obtained from the author Gail Hewlett and am relishing it. She described Hilda as” brisk, bracing, intelligent,impatient, intrepid, – excellent qualities in a friend or travelling companion; hardy, energetic and fun-loving – frivolous she would call it; determined and single-minded, more than a little self-centred; not at all prudish, except in matters governed by her own strong moral code and brand of snobbery; warmly affectionate, coldly intolerant , Billy to Old Bird endeared or alienated herself in equal measure.”
Hilda Hewlett is a very worthy person to have her contribution to aviation and Battersea commemorated in some way. A plaque from the the Battersea Society would be great.
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.
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, someone will be knocking on one of these doors 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 Omnia Works aircraft factory 1912-1914