Hilda Beatrice Hewlett
Life beyond Elmbridge
Hilda Beatrice Herbert was born on 17 February 1864 in Vauxhall, London, to the Rev. George William Herbert and his wife Louisa (formerly Hopgood). She was one of nine children. Her nickname in childhood was 'Billy' and in later life 'Old Bird'. Gail Hewlett, her grandson's wife, records that she was, 'Daring, dauntless in the face of authority, bursting with energy, fun loving (frivolous according to her mother) and single-minded in the pursuit of what interested her.' Hilda Beatrice Herbert was educated at home and attended the National Art Training School, South Kensington where she subsequently exhibited her work. Aged 19 she travelled to Egypt with her parents, and two years later trained as a nurse for a year in Berlin. She was a fluent French speaker. Hilda loved speed: bicycles, then motor cars and ultimately aeroplanes. She attended the first English flying meeting at Blackpool in 1909 with her husband Maurice Henry Hewlett (born at Oatlands, in Elmbridge c.1861) who she had married at her father's church, St. Peter's, Vauxhall on 3 January 1888.The couple had a son and a daughter.
1909 was a pivotal year in Hilda Hewlett's life; she became enamoured of flying and met Frenchman Gustave Blondeau, an engineer who worked on aeroplanes for Farman Brothers. They formed a business partnership establishing first a Flying School at Brooklands, Surrey and then as 'Hewlett & Blondeau Ltd.' built Farman, Caudron and Hanriot aircraft under licence; by 1919 they had built ten different types of aeroplanes.They moved production to Battersea in 1912 and then to Leagrave, Bedfordshire in 1914 as government orders necessitated expansion. At one point the Omnia works employed 700 people. Hilda Hewlett worked tirelessly and her key interest was running a training school for women workers. She was an easily recognisable figure sporting an Eton crop, having a ruddy complexion,wearing unusual clothes and driving a large fast car often with her Great Dane in the back. Hilda was described as an, ' indefatigable worker, good organiser and shrewd business woman'. After the First World War the company diversified into farming equipment and the site was finally sold in 1926 and incorporated into the new Electrolux factory. Hilda Hewlett then travelled extensively and moved to Tauranga, New Zealand to be with her daughter. She helped set up the Tauanga Gliding and Flying Club in 1928-9. Her son Francis Hewlett joined the family in New Zealand; Maurice Hewlett, from whom Hilda was separated, had died in 1923. She died in Tauranga on 21 August 1943 and was buried at sea as she had requested.
Life in Elmbridge
"Women will never be as successful in aviation as men. They have not got the right kind of nerve"! Hilda Hewlett's husband could not have been more wrong in his opinion, especially in relation to his wife. She and her colleague Gustave Blondeau opened their flying school at Brooklands, in September 1910 in shed no.32. They had one Farman bi-plane, the Blue Bird. Hilda was one of the first students. She took her Royal Aero Club (RAC) test on 18 August 1911 explaining later that, ' I did not feel a bit nervous then, only very happy...' Hilda seemed to have found her niche, 'I did the simple necessary turns, altitude and landing tests. Everyone was so glad and happy.....my dream was fulfilled.' On 29 August 1911, Hilda Beatrice Hewlett, then aged 47 , received Ticket No. 122 and became Britain's first woman pilot.
The Hewlett-Blondeau Flying School advertised itself as , 'The only School which has never had a crash nor damaged an aeroplane.' The fee for learning to fly was, '£75 inc. of breakages.' Great care had to be taken as for some time they had only one plane! There were many young men keen to fly as Hilda would later record, 'One boy in the Navy walked from Walton, 8 miles or so, at 4 am for his lessons. He threw stones at my window...' Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith had his first flying lesson at the Hewlett-Blondeau School and by the time the School closed in early 1912, 13 RAC Certs. had been awarded to their pupils who included: Geoffrey de Havilland (Feb. 1911), Maurice Ducrocq, Spencer Douglas Adair Grey ( RN Air Service, First World War, Distinquished Service Order), B.Graham Wood and Hilda's son, Sub - Lt. Francis Hewlett, RN. He was probably the only pilot to have been taught to fly by his mother. Francis Hewlett took part in the first combined sea and air attack on the Cuxhaven Zeppelin Sheds on Christmas Day 1914. This was also the first use of the sea planes of the Naval Air Service. He flew beyond Cuxhaven because of fog and as he tried to rejoin his squadron he fired on and was fired upon by the German fleet. He was forced to down his plane in the sea before destroying his motor and sinking the craft. Hewlett was rescued by a Dutch trawler. On his safe return after being posted missing for seven days King George V sent him the following message: 'I am delighted and greatly relieved to hear that you are safe, and I heartily congratulate you.' Francis Hewlett received the DSO for his part in the raid.
Hilda Beatrice Hewlett was a pioneering pilot, instructor, and aircraft manufacturer. Gail Hewlett has written of her that she, '...achieved what many women of her generation might have envied. She was accepted and respected by her male colleagues. As a fellow pioneer, hers was a small but significant footprint in the history of aviation.'
- Cuxhaven Air Raid, The Times, Sat.02, 1915 pg.10; Issue40741; col E, Surrey Libraries, The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985
- Gail Harvey, Royal International Air Tattoo, part two: Women in Aviation & Training
- M.H.Goodall, Flying Start: Flying Schools & Clubs at Brooklands, 1910-1939, Brooklands Museum in Publication, Elmbridge Museum Local History Collection
- Gail Hewlett at Troubador Publishing,
- The "Omnia" Stationery Engine by Hewlett & Blondeau, A History of the Hewlett & Blondeau Company,
- Winged Victory - Women in Aviation Web Magazine, Hilda Hewlett,
- Winton, Pat Irene, 'Hewlett, Hilda Beatrice 1864-1934'.Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007,