HILDA “GRACE BIRD” HEWLITT
By Captain Nancy Aldrich
Hilda Beatrice was born to Louisa and George William Herbert on February 17, 1864, in Vauxhall, London, one of nine children. Her father George had resisted his family’s wishes and became a Church of England Vicar. It seems that young Hilda inherited her father’s willingness to go against family tradition. As a young woman she drove automobiles and rode bicycles, something disgraceful in the late 1800s.
She was very interested in art and attended the National Art Training School, in South Kensington, specializing in woodwork, metalwork, and needlework. She was quite accomplished and her art was good enough to be shown. She was friends with Holman Hunt’s daughter, Gladys. Hunt was an English painter, and she was able to use her art and woodworking training making a frame for one of his paintings, “The Light of the World.” She and Gladys also made an Italian Marriage Chest that was exhibited at the New Gallery. She commented that she would, “never be without some object or interest of such importance that all discomfort, annoyance or temporary misery counted as of quite secondary consideration.”
She was also interested in nursing, and, at 21, trained at a hospital in Berlin. In 1888, at the age of 24, she married Maurice Hewlitt, a historical novelist.
After marrying, her ‘interest of importance’ was motoring and the mechanics of the automobile. In 1909, she was a passenger/mechanic for the only female driver in a rally, Miss Hind. Also, in 1909, she attended an aviation meeting at Blackpool. S was so fascinated with aviation that she took on the nickname, Grace Bird, and traveled to Mourmelon-le-Grand in France to study aeronautics. There she met Gustav Blondeau, an aviation engineer. They became business partners and bought a Farman III Bi-plane, which she named Blue Bird, and brought to England. Her new ‘interest of importance’ was aviation.
There was no school for potential pilots in England, so she and Blondeau started one, in 1910. Their school was located at the Brooklands Race Track, Weybridge, Surrey. Of course, Hilda was one of Blondeau’s first students, and she became the first woman in the United Kingdom to receive a pilot’s license. Her license, #122, was issued on August 29, 1911, from the Royal Aero Club. Another notable student was Thomas Sopwith, who later gained fame as an aircraft designer and manufacturer, making the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel.
After learning to fly, Hilda became an instructor and one of her students was her own son, Frances. He earned license #156 on November 11, 1911, and went on to become a decorated military pilot, earning a Distinguished Service Order, in 1915. He eventually rose to the rank of Group Captain. He was the first military pilot taught to fly by his mother!
The flight school lasted for a year and a half, taught 13 people to fly, and never had an accident – a enviable safety record.
She also participated in airshows and other aviation demonstrations and competitions. She won a “quick-start” aviation competition in 1912.
In addition to the school, Hilda and Blondeau started an aircraft manufacturing business in 1912, Hewlitt & Blondeau Limited, which she managed. They were awarded a contract with the Royal Aircraft Factory, building BE 2 biplanes. They outgrew their facility, and in 1914 moved to Bedfordshire, where they continued building airplanes until 1920. They produced 10 different types of airplanes. During the war, they were building airplanes for the Army and the new service branch, the Royal Air Force. In 1916, their factory was “controlled,” meaning run by the government. During the war, they produced 820 military airplanes that the British government considered vital to the war effort: two-seaters, the BE 2c, Avro 504K, and the Armstrong-Whitworth FK 3. They employed 300 men and 300 women in their plants, and could have used another 300 if they had the ability to house them. A road in Luton, Hewlett Road, was named for her, to recognize the important contribution her company made to the war effort.
While Hilda was enamored of aviation, her husband Maurice was not. They separated in 1914, and eventually divorced. He did not think women had a place in aviation, and commented, “women will never be as successful in aviation as men. They have not the right kind of nerve.” It would seem she proved him wrong!
After the war ended, the company diversified into building farm equipment, but closed in 1920. The property did not sell until 1926, and then she moved to New Zealand to be with her daughter, Pia and her family. Hilda stated that,” the urge to escape the three Cs, crowds, convention, and civilization became strong.” She wanted to get away and enjoy the outdoors. She loved camping and fishing. After moving to New Zealand, her family changed her nickname from “Grace Bird,” to “Old Bird.”
While she wanted to get away from the three Cs, she did not want to get away from aviation. She attended the inaugural meeting of the Tauranga Aero and Gliding Club, and was elected their first President. She was also present at the opening of the new Tauranga aerodrome, in 1939. New Zealand’s Minister of Defence, Frederick Jones, named a road after Hilda and her son, Frances, in recognition of their service and contribution to aviation.
Hilda died on August 21, 1943, in Tauranga. According to her wishes, after a service on the wharf, she was buried at sea. Another wonderful, innovative, creative, and ambitious, woman whose name has been lost to history.
The fear of the Lord leads to life, And he who has it will abide in satisfaction; He will not be visited with evil. Prov 19:23
Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich
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