Hilda was up, up and away as a female pilot

The achievements of Hilda Hewlett, a Vauxhall-born early aviator, aircraft manufacturer and flying instructor, were almost dismissed at the time – she was even humble about it herself. But she was the first British woman to earn a pilot’s licence.
She also ran a successful aircraft manufacturing business in Battersea – which built more than 800 aircraft during the First World War – as well as creating the first flying school in the UK in Weybridge, Surrey. TOBY PORTER tells her story.

Hilda Beatrice Herbert got her wings a full 18 years before one of the 20th Century’s most famous pioneer aviators, Amy Johnson – the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930.

But Hilda was hardly remembered for that achievement when she died in 1943. But at the time, even her husband wanted her to use an assumed identity while she trained as a pilot. .

Gail Hewlett, her grandson’s wife, recalled in a biography of the pioneer: “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, known as Billy and born in Vauxhall on February 17, 1864, was one of nine children of the Rev George William Herbert and his wife Louisa – formerly Hopgood.

She was educated at home and then attended the National Art Training School – now the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, where she later exhibited her work.

Aged 21, she trained as a nurse for a year in Berlin.

St Peter’s Vauxhall, her dad’s church, where she married author Maurice Hewlett

She soon met Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), trainee barrister and aspiring writer. They married on January 3. 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 10 years of their marriage, Maurice wrote in his spare time.

In 1898, his novel, The Forest Lovers, was published to huge acclaim for its originality and its enthralling story-telling.

He gave up his legal career to write full-time and further successes quickly followed. That meant a move, to 7 Northwick Terrace, near Lord’s Cricket Ground, to a much larger house with a garage and a studio.

It was the garage which would prove the most important part of the house for Billy.

She loved speed – bicycles, then motor cars and ultimately planes. She embraced not just the driving but the engineering side of her passion for cars.

She was already picking up speeding fines in May and June 1905. She would be seen driving a large fast vehicle, often with her Great Dane in the back.

In June 1906, Billy was the working passenger and mechanic on the annual 24-hour London to Edinburgh trial. Ten days later she did the same in a six-day race from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

She was also a prominent socialite – the Hewlett’s set included John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry and Henry James.

Sarah Bernhardt and Thomas Hardy came to tea. Billy went to dinner parties with Mark Twain and James McNeill Whistler.

A friend was JM Barrie – who in Peter Pan named one of the pirates Cecco, after Billy’s son Francis Hewlett.

She attended the first English flying meeting at Blackpool in 1909 – two months after Louis Bleriot had flown across the English Channel for the first time.

She was smitten by flying and met Frenchman Gustave Blondeau, an engineer who worked on planes for Farman Brothers.

She sold some property so she could travel to France to train with the firm.

Maurice, concerned about the “scandal” of her leaving him and two children to train, insisted she do so under a pseudonym. She gave herself the name Mrs Grace Bird.

Billy did not fly in a plane, even as a passenger, until April 1910 so spent three months building the plane she had paid for.

Storms and a crash destroyed her first two aircraft.

She formed a business partnership with Blondeau, establishing first a flying school at Brooklands, Surrey and setting up Hewlett & Blondeau Ltd.

She joined the Royal Aero Club but soon discovered women were banned from all except one of its rooms. She quit after less than two years.

The plaque unveiling in Vardens Road, Clapham, where plane-making Omnia Works was. From left, Tony Hewlett, Hilda’s grandson whose father Francis was the pilot trained by Hilda and who fought in both world wars; his wife Gail, who wrote the biography Old Bird – The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett; Pauline Vahey who unveiled was President of the British Women’s Pilots’ Association and Nicola Nardelli who was Mayor of Wandsworth.

The firm built Farman, Caudron and Hanriot aircraft under licence.

By 1919, they had built 10 different types of aeroplanes. The duo slept on camp beds and had primus stoves, some pots and pans.

Most waking hours were spent at the airfield. They built a welding plant to provide repair services for planes and cars.

In August 1911, Billy finally became the first woman to gain her pilot’s licence in Britain.

That November, her son Cecco, now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, also qualified as a pilot.

He went missing during a raid on Cuxhhaven on Christmas Day, 1914 and for six days was feared dead – but he was rescued by a Dutch trawler and later awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

The company created their own aviation works, which they named the Omnia Works, in 1912, at an old skating rink in Vardans Road in Clapham.

In 1914, they moved to Leagrave, Bedfordshire, and expanded, three months before war was declared.

At one point in 1918 the firm employed 700 people.

Demand slumped after the war and the site was sold in 1930.

Maurice died in 1923 and Billy, by then nicknamed “Old Bird”, emigrated to Tauranga, New Zealand, with her daughter Pia Richards and family.

She died there on August 21, 1943 and was buried at sea.

Vardans Road, the site of the factory

Hilda Hewlett: Aviators do not know what fear is

Hilda Hewlett, the first woman in Britain to earn a pilot’s licence and the first to set up an aircraft factory, was dismissive of her achievements.

Asked by the Pall Mall Gazette whether she was scared in the air, she said: “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 wanted at one stage to run a training school for women workers – she said it was the kind of “delicate and exacting work for which they are quite fitted”.

Her exploits were reported in suffrage publications like Common Cause and Vote.

At one stage, her factory was visited by a committee of the Imperial War Museum, wanting to record the achievements of women in the war effort.

The biography Old Bird – The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett

But she answered: “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.”

Some British papers marked her passing but the stories were short – or spent as much time talking about her son’s wartime exploits as her own.

But she had left a memoir, which was used by her granddaughter-in-law, Gail Hewlett to write Old Bird: The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett – the book that brought her back out of obscurity.

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, almost 80 years after her death.




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