Born: Hilda Beatrice Herbert. Also known as Mrs Maurice Hewlett; Mrs Grace Bird
Sector: Aerospace and Defence
My knowledge of aviation history is exceedingly poor, so if you had asked me twelve months ago to name the first woman to qualify as a pilot in Britain, I would have said Amy Johnson. And I would have been wrong. Hilda Hewlett (1864-1943) got her wings in 1911, not five, not ten but eighteen years before Amy. And as well as training as a pilot, she opened a flying school and set up a plane manufacturing company that operated between 1912-1920. It was not what was expected in the Edwardian era from 40-year old mother-of-two.
Born in Clapham on 17th February 1864, Hilda, known as Billy, had a strict upbringing. She had a good relationship with her father, a clergyman, but a very poor one with her mother, Louisa. Before they married, her husband, Maurice, wrote to her: “I know that some people have the idea that the more miserable you make this life, the happier the next one will be, and I think your mother is one of these. It is a revival of the old system of hair shirts and peas in your shoes.” Mainly home-educated, followed by enrolment at the South Kensington Art School, it was a three month-trip to Egypt when she was 19 that the world opened up to her: ‘I woke up from a narrow, conventional, stultifying childhood and first thought for myself’, she later wrote. On her return to London in 1883, she started to make a new plan, to train as a nurse. In a show of independence, she went to a Berlin hospital to do this, where she spent a hard but happy year before being summoned home.
It was soon after this that she met Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), trainee barrister and aspiring writer. They married on 3rd January 1888 in her father’s church, St Peter’s, in Vauxhall. They had a son, Francis, nicknamed Cecco, in January 1891 and a daughter, Barbara, known as Pia, in May 1895. For the first ten years of their marriage, Maurice held down his day job while writing in what spare time he could find. In 1898 came the breakthrough: the novel that he had been slaving over, ‘The Forest Lovers’, was published to huge acclaim, praised for its originality and its enthralling story-telling. He gave up his legal career to write full time and further successes quickly followed. ‘Mr Maurice Henry Hewlett stands out as one of the writers whose works will be known and appreciated a long way down the present century’, incorrectly prophesied The Sketch in January 1901.
Life became more interesting and glamorous. The couple started to attend weddings, gallery openings and theatre productions where other guests were the leading painters, actors and writers of the day among them John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry and Henry James. Billy went to dinner parties with Mark Twain and James McNeill Whistler. Sarah Bernhardt and Thomas Hardy came to tea. One particular friend was JM Barrie who named one of the pirates in ‘Peter Pan’ Cecco, after Francis Hewlett.
The success of Maurice’s writing meant a move, to 7 Northwick Terrace, near Lord’s Cricket Ground, to a much larger house with a garage and a studio. Billy had been keeping up her art. In 1899, she showed a metallic-effect screen in gesso on wood at an exhibition of decorative handicrafts staged by the Society of Women Artists and leatherwork at the Home Arts and Industries Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1900. When a dispute over the display of ‘The Light of the World’ drove William Holman Hunt to make another, much larger, version it was Billy, a friend and collaborator of his daughter, Gladys, who made the frame he had designed. Finally completed in 1904, the painting set off on a world-wide tour, before ending up in St Paul’s Cathedral.
However it was the garage that would prove more significant. The Hewletts became car owners and Billy threw herself into the motoring world. She embraced not just the driving but the engineering challenges it presented. She was already picking up speeding fines in May and June 1905 but her proficiency behind the wheel got her noticed.
In June 1906, Billy was Muriel Hind’s working passenger and mechanic on two trips. The first was the annual London to Edinburgh trial, to be completed in less than 24 hours. Ten days later came a Reliability trial from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a six-day drive. Both were completed in a trip in a Singer tricar, which was a cross between a car and a motorcyle, looking something like this:
Sitting in the passenger seat at the front was a very exposed position…
A month later, Billy was in the driving seat for the Autocycle Club’s quarterly trial in July, a non-stop run of a 125 mile course around Uxbridge, where she made the second-fastest time on on leg up Dashwood Hill and carried on entering competitions during 1907.
Driving was fun but it was in 1909 that Billy would discover her true passion. In 1903, the Wright brothers had made their landmark flight at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina and while Billy was racing around the country, the aviation community was quickly growing. In July 1909, Louis Bleriot flew across the Channel, with his plane displayed in Selfridges, and in August, 500,000 visitors attended an aviation festival in Rheims. The following month, Britain held its first aviation show in Blackpool. Billy attended and it ‘got hold of her’. She returned obsessed and announced to her husband that she wanted to learn to fly.
Taking to the skies
There was nowhere to learn yet in the UK and so the only way Billy could get instruction was if she also ordered her own plane from one of the construction firms in France and go there to learn. She managed to raise the funds by selling some property and loans from family members and in January 1910 she headed to Mounmelon, where Farman were building their planes. There she joined Gustave Blondeau (1871-1965). They had been in Blackpool together, having probably met through the racing circuit, and discovered they shared a passion for aviation. Whether there was also a passionate personal relationship is not clear but they decided to go into business together, with the aim of making planes. Maurice, concerned about the scandal and ridicule that might come with stories of his wife leaving her husband and two children to embrace this latest craze, insisted she train under a pseudonym, so she became Mrs Grace Bird.
Only one pupil per machine ordered could train and Billy reluctantly agreed that Gustave go first as he was more likely to be able to start earning money in flying trails and competitions. There was not a warm welcome for women who wanted to fly and Billy was the only Englishwoman attempting to learn. She joined a bunch of daring adventurers who sat obsessively on the edge of the cold, muddy airfield, waiting for the flag to tell them that the wind conditions were in their favour. If conditions were unfavourable, she joined the men who packed into the grimy Aero Bar to learn aviation basics or dance off some pent-up energy.
Billy did not get into a plane, even as a passenger, until April 1910 so had to spend three long months building the plane she had paid for and watching others soar up into the clouds before she had her first glorious experience in the air. Storms and a crash destroyed Billy and Blondeau’s first two planes and it was not until the summer of 1910 that Billy and Blondeau made their way back to London, ‘with a white elephant and no elephant house, a pilot and no ground – and no money’.
They based themselves at the Brooklands in Surrey and Billy joined the Royal Aero Club though quickly discovered that women were banned from all except one of the Club’s rooms.
The ‘Mrs Grace Bird’ identity was dropped when they set up the Hewlett and Blondeau Aviation School, reported as ‘flourishing’ in The Sketch in November 1910, with two pilots already qualified.
Billy and Gustave were living, or rather camping, in a cottage nearby, fitted out with the basics: camp beds, primus stoves, some pots and pans. Most waking hours were spent at the airfield. To supplement the income from the flying school, they built a small welding plant to provide repair services for planes and cars. In March 1911, they unveiled their second Farman plane, with Billy responsible for fitting all the canvas to the frame, which flew successfully on its first attempt, a new milestone for Brooklands. Throughout this time, Billy had been training as a pilot under Blondeau’s tuition and in August 1911, she finally became the first woman to gain her pilot’s licence in Britain and in October spoke at the Women’s Aerial League. Billy’s children were swept along by her passion Her daughter, Pia, went up in the sky as a passenger and in November 1911, her son Cecco, now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, joined his mother as a qualified as a pilot. The story of a man being taught to fly by his mother caught the imagination, even if the truth was the majority of his instruction came from others. He became front-page news himself in the early days of the war after going missing during a raid on Cuxhhaven on Christmas Day, 1914 and for six days was feared dead only to turn up alive and well having been rescued by a Dutch trawler. He was awarded the DSO.
Billy was becoming a very well-known figure. She is, said one newspaper, “a remarkably skilled and daring pilot.. She is an interesting personality, too, and her handsome sun-browned face framed in her aviator hood is very charming and full of character.” In July 1912, she gave an interview to the Pall Mall Gazette. She was asked if she was ever scared when she was up in the air. Her reply was clear:
“Aviators do not know what fear is. When you are up in the air, the exhilaration of flight and the necessity for careful control of your machine takes away all other feeling.”
Billy also shared the news that, with thirteen pupils now qualified, the flying school would be closing ‘as I wish to go in entirely for construction.’
She and Blondeau had found a suitable site for their own aviation works, an old skating rink on Vardans Road in Clapham, which they named the Omnia Works. The same paper went to see how she was getting on a year later. “Day after day from eight in the morning she is busy at her works” with orders from the War Office and the Admirality.
They were busy making a Caudron biplane and a Hanriot two-seater monoplane. “This practical woman aviator does all the canvas work, sewing, stretching, fitting, doping [waterproofing] and finally painting the colour which each inventor elects to sport so as to distinguish his planes from others.” The company always made engine frames, not the engines or propellors, and built the designs of early manufacturers, like Farnham and Sopwith.
Billy was convinced that aviation manufacturing offered women the chance of profitable work and that, as a new science, aeronautics was one where women could study on equal terms with men, viewing it as ‘delicate and exacting work for which they are quite fitted’. She had no truck with sexist treatment and quit the Royal Aero Club after less than two years, saying “it has not been the slightest use to me.” Her exploits were reported in suffrage publications like Common Cause and Vote but she was too busy to get involved in the suffrage movement and did not support the violent tactics of the suffragettes. She was aggrieved to be treated with suspicion by the police when King George V came to open the Aero exhibition at Olympia in 1914. They tried to prevent her from reaching the company’s stand and when she forced her way through put two policemen on guard to keep her there until he had left the building, fearful that she would launch some kind of attack.
Business was going well and in April 1914, Hewlett and Blondeau became a registered limited company. Billy and Gustave held the majority of the shares but Maurice also invested. This enabled them to find much-needed new space and in May the Luton Reporter noted that ‘Messrs Hulett and Blondeau’ (sic) had bought land off Oak Road in Leagrave on which to build an aeroplane factory. The entire contents of Omnia Works was moving north. A new site was built, gas and water supplies secured and a telephone installed. And then, on 4th August, war was declared.
The war years
Production in Luton ramped up fast. The company quickly went from employing 25 staff to 300. This presented a whole new set of management challenges: expansion of the site; new working regulations imposed by the Ministry of Munitions; regular government inspections and as the war pressed on, shortages of both raw materials and skilled labour.
Soon facing labour shortages, Billy set up a training school to teach women the basics of aeroplane construction. It was such a success that it became an official centre under the auspices of the Ministry of Munitions to train women to work not only at Hewlett & Blondeau but at manufacturing plants around the country. Seventy students could be accommodated at any one time and the course lasted three months. “There is something artistically pleasing in an aeroplane factory, with the soft continuous whir and whiz of the engines and the various mysterious parts of the monster bird. Hundreds of girls and women, in caps and overalls of blue, pink or heliotrope are busy. They are all deeply interested and concentrated on the work in hand… [performing] tasks which a few years ago aeroplane manufacturers would have declared they could never accomplish. There was, however, one manufacturer, Mrs Maurice Hewlett, who had vision of what was coming. She, as she started her own factory, prophesied that before long woman’s delicate touch and careful eye would be recognised as invaluable for certain parts of the work.’
Not everyone was so thrilled about this visible demonstration of female capability. In May 1917, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers supported a series of unofficial strikes to protest against the employment of unskilled workers, which caused a ten-day walk out of 73 staff at Hewlett & Blondeau. Within the factory, women who were learning new, and much-needed, skills like cable-splicing had their work returned to them by male supervisors as rejects. Billy told them to start inserting small pieces of red cotton so she could prove the rejected work had actually been made by other men. And then she fired the supervisors.
The company kept operating after the war ended but demand for planes slumped and Billy and Gustave were unable to find another product to manufacture instead. They closed the factory in March 1920 and eventually sold the site to Electrolux in 1926. There is now a small street named Hewlett Road near Leagrave train station. Maurice died in 1923 and in 1927, Billy decided to emigrate to New Zealand. One of the last big events she attended before she left the country was the closing dinner for the Women’s Engineering Society annual conference, presided over by Laura Annie Willson, where the achievements of women on the road and in the sky were celebrated.
Both Pia and Cecco eventually joined Billy in New Zealand. She never lost her love of flying and became President of the Tauranga Aero Club. When Billy died in November 1943, some of the British papers marked the passing of the ‘First Woman Pilot’ but the stories were short or spent as much time talking about her son’s wartime exploits as her own.
Hilda ‘Billy’ Hewlett was a true pioneer, an intrepid woman who refused to kow-tow to convention and deserves to be celebrated for her many and varied achievements. She is proof, if more is needed, that new technology is not just the province of the young and is an inspiration to anyone mid-way through their life who is considering a career pivot or striking out in an entirely new direction.
But her story could so easily have got lost. There are many reasons why women’s stories are given less space in the historical narrative. In Billy’s case, the main one was that she didn’t think what she was doing was particularly noteworthy. In March 1918 Lady Priscilla Norman CBE (1883-1964) visited the works of Hewlett & Blondeau in her capacity as Chair of the Women’s Work Sub-Committee, set up by the nascent Imperial War Museum to ensure the contribution of women to the war was properly documented. She and her team wanted to record the story and details of this unique enterprise but Billy would not play ball: “Many women have done more extraordinary things than taking a pilot’s certificate and running a firm. I have had so much help from others that I take no credit to myself.” The committee tried again: “I think perhaps… you do not realise that we are collecting for future generations more than for the present generation”, but Billy would not budge.
Fortunately, she did eventually write a memoir and it was this that made it possible for her grand-daughter-in-law, Gail Hewlett to write ‘Old Bird: The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett’, the book that brought her back out of relative obscurity a decade ago. In 2015 Billy was celebrated with a plaque on Vardans Road, put up by the Battersea Society, in 2018 she was added to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and her story is now regularly told at the Brooklands Museum as part of their schools education programme. If feels like a century after she turned down Lady Norman, Hilda ‘Billy’ Hewlett’s story is finally here to stay.
The Queen 11/2/1899; The Era 15/4/1899; The Queen 2/6/1900; The Sketch 23/1/1901; The Daily News 9/3/1904; Morning Post 12/05/1905; The Sketch 23/11/1910; The Globe 9/10/1911; Bedfordshire Mercury 2/2/1912; The Tatler 3/7/1912; Pall Mall Gazette 6/7/1912; The Falkirk Herald 10/7/1912; Pall Mall Gazette 24/5/1913; The Luton Reporter 25/5/1914; Weekly Dispatch 25/3/1917; The Luton News & Bedfordshire Advertiser 20/9/1917; Stirling Observer 22/12/1917
‘The Letters of Maurice Hewlett’ ed. Laurence Binyon (1926); ‘Old Bird: The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett’ by Gail Hewlett (2010);