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Hilda Hewlett, Britain’s first female pilot

25 Jan

Our first female Londoner was a genuine first: the first woman to qualify as a pilot in the UK. A pioneering aviator and part of the military-production machine in the Great War.

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. After marrying novelist Maurice Hewlett in 1888, Hewlett wound up living in Northwick Terrace, just of Edgware Road, and became a keen motorist. 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, alongside 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

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. In 1914, they moved to a larger site in Bedfordshire.

Less prominent hair, more prominent aeroplane

During the war, they continued to produce aeroplanes for the army and (from 1918) the newly-formed Royal Air Force. In 1916 it became a “controlled” (i.e. government-run) establishment, and by 1918 they employed 300 men and 300 women, with potential capacity for ‘at least another 300 women’ if they could be housed. They produced 820 aircraft during the war: two-seaters the BE2c, Armstrong-Whitworth FK3 and Avro 504K.

Photo of Hewlett at work during the war, with a slightly condescending title (Daily Mirror 28/8/1915)

Photo of Hewlett at work during the war, with a slightly condescending title (Daily Mirror 28/8/1915)

After the factory closed down in 1926, she went to New Zealand – as did her son Francis who had been another early pilot and was a decorated aviator in the war. Hewlett and her husband (the poet and author Maurice Hewlett) separated soon after the war. 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.

Hilda Hewlett was fascinated by the new forms of transport that wealthy Edwardians had access to on road and in the air. She was a real pioneer, both as the first female aviator (or ‘aviatrix’ as the contemporary lexicon would have it) in the UK and as the owner of an aircraft factory before and during the Great War.

Other sources:

Winged Victory: pilot – Hilda Hewlett

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Hilda Beatrice Hewlett

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Posted by on 25 January 2012 in People, Women

 

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