Hilda Beatrice Hewlett (1864 – 1943)

Hilda Hewlett who in 1911 became the 1st woman to gain a British pilot’s licence and was co-creator with Gustav Blondeau of one the first flying schools in the UK.

Hilda Hewlett beside a flyer

Hilda Beatrice Hewlett (17 February 1864 – 21 August 1943) was born in Vauxhall, London on 17 February 1864 to Louisa Herbert née Hopgood and George William Herbert, a Church of England vicar. Hilda was one of nine siblings, an early aviator and aviation entrepreneur. She was the first British woman to earn a pilot’s licence. She founded and ran two related businesses: the first flying school in the United Kingdom, and a successful aircraft manufacturing business which produced more than 800 aeroplanes and employed up to 700 people. She later emigrated to New Zealand.

As a young woman she attended the National Art Training School in South Kensington. She specialised in three skills which served her well in her later aviation engineering career: woodwork, metalwork, and needlework. Her art was good enough to be exhibited. When she was 19 she visited Egypt with her parents. At the age of 21 she spent a year training as a nurse at a hospital in Berlin. She was an early bicycle and motor car enthusiast and participated in automobile rallies.

She married Maurice Henry Hewlett on 3 January 1888 in St Peter’s Church, Vauxhall, where her father was the incumbent. 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.” 

Hewlett attended her first aviation meeting at Blackpool in 1909. Later that year, after adopting the pseudonym “Grace Bird”, she travelled to the airfield at Mourmelon-le-Grand, France, to study aeronautics. She met aviation engineer Gustav Blondeau and they became business partners. Hewlett returned to England with a Farman IIIbiplane, nicknamed the Blue Bird. In the summer of 1910 she and Blondeau opened the first flying school in the United Kingdom at the Brooklands motor-racing circuit at Weybridge, Surrey. Many people gained their first experience of flying at Hewlett and Blondeau’s school, including Thomas Sopwith. Thirteen pupils graduated from the school in the year and a half it operated and, with a remarkable safety record for the time, there were no accidents.

Hilda Hewlett participated in airshows and aviation competitions. On 11 September 1911 she flew her Farman biplane in an airshow at Chelson Meadow, Plymouth. In 1912 Hewlett won a quick-start aviation competition.

 

Hewlett and Blondeau started an aircraft manufacturing business, Hewlett & Blondeau Limited, which was managed by Hewlett. They built Farman, Caudron and Hanriot aircraft under licence. The business began at Brooklands, moved to Battersea, London, and finally settled on a 10-acre (40,000 m2) site at Leagrave, Bedfordshire, in May 1914. By August 1914 the company had produced 10 different types of aircraft. During the First World War, 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. 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.

Hewlett giving flying lessons in Farman FB2

Hewlett had previously spent nine months touring New ZealandRarotonga, and the United States, but it was not until the factory site was sold that she emigrated to Tauranga, New Zealand, with her daughter Pia Richards and Pia’s family. Hilda stated, “The urge to escape from the three Cs, crowds, convention, and civilization, became strong.” She enjoyed the outdoor life, especially camping and fishing. Her family gave her the nickname “Old Bird”.

In June 1932 Hewlett was present at the inaugural meeting of the Tauranga Aero and Gliding Club. In July she was elected as the club’s first president. In January 1939, at the opening of a new aerodrome in Tauranga, Frederick Jones, New Zealand’s then Minister of Defence, named a nearby road after Hilda Hewlett and her son Francis, in recognition of their services to aviation.

Hewlett died on 21 August 1943 in Tauranga, North Island, New Zealand. Following a service on the railway wharf, she was buried at sea.

As an aside:

A case of unusual interest was heard at the Luton Divisional Sessions on Monday afternoon of July 5th, 1917. Emille Bouillon, a Belgian refugee formerly of Leagrave and now of Victoria Road, Mill Hill, was charged on the information supplied by Mrs Hilda Beatrice Hewlett, managing director of the Omnia Aeroplane Works, Leagrave, with committing an offence under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, by unlawfully retaining in his possession documents, notes, photographs, plans, sketches, books and designs of a nature calculated to be of use to the enemy when he had no right to retain them.

Omnia Works of Messrs. Hewlett & Blondeau in Luton

Mr H. W. Lathom, prosecuting, said it was the first case of its kind brought before the court, and, if found proved, could carry a fine of up to £100 or six months imprisonment – or both.

Bouillon was employed at the Omnia Works of Messrs Hewlett and Blondeau from March 20th, 1915, at a salary of £3 per week. He left in January 1917 as a skilled draughtsman with a salary of £450 per annum.

Towards the end of 1916 a man named Worms, taken on temporarily in the business department, and Bouillon were frequently noticed in conversation. Questioned by Mr Blondeau, both admitted that, having acquired sufficient knowledge, they thought of starting business and of leaving the firm. It did not work out and Worms left to set up business alone.

These two had all the plans, intricate, delicate, technical details of the firm’s work for the Admiralty and others, and in his discretion Mr Blondeau thought fit to warn the Admiralty of what he suspected was going on. A detective was sent down to make investigations.

In response to Defence Counsel Mr H. Drysdale Woodcock , Mr Blondeau said he knew the defendant had since been employed at the Nieuport Co’s works, but did not know that Flight Commander Dyett (Royal Naval Air Service) had Admiralty permission to employ him and that he had been sent to France with important documents.

Mr Woodcock described the case as a vindictive prosecution. “I venture to say it is nothing short of a scandal that a charge of this sort should ne kept hanging over this man’s head for more than five months before he is brought to justice. In the meantime he is allowed to go into employment by another firm of a similar kind, doing an enormous amount of work of a secret and confidential character.” He contended that Mr Bouillon had been in a position in which he had a right to retain the documents involved.

The court imposed a fine of £10, including costs, or six weeks’ imprisonment. Mr Woodcock said the fine should enable the defendant to appeal, and the Bench allowed 14 days for the money to be paid.