Engineer of the Week No. 14 – Mrs Maurice Hewlett
Happy 155th birthday, ‘Billy’! Hilda Beatrice Herbert (Mrs Hewlett) 17 February 1864-21 August 1943
Publicly known mainly by her married name of Mrs Maurice Hewlett, but ‘Billy’ to her friends, Hewlett was England's first licensed woman pilot and was an early bicycle and motor car enthusiast and race participant.
The daughter of a clergyman, Hewlett’s formal training had been at the National Art Training School in South Kensington, in woodwork, metalwork, and needlework. In 1888 she married lawyer and author Maurice Henry Hewlett and they had a son and daughter but separated in 1914. He may have been baffled by her interests but he did invest money in her factory.
She obtained her pilot's licence at Brooklands on August 29th 1911, but, even before she had her licence, she and her business partner, Frenchman Gustav Blondeau, had opened their flying school there, where they built their own version of a Farman aeroplane in which she took her test. She was almost immediately teaching others, including her son who became a famous WW1 flying ace. Hewlett and Blondeau continued to build planes, under licences from other designers, at their school, then expanded to the former ‘Omnia’ ice rink in Clapham but even that was insufficient. Their planes had a good reputation and, in 1914 she and Blondeau bought a field at Leagrave, now a suburb of Luton, to set up Luton’s first aircraft factory, which they named Omnia.
Despite producing various successful planes under licence from Armstrong Whitworths, Avros and others, neither Hewlett nor Blondeau were good at running the company and in 1916 the Ministry of Munitions sent an experienced aircraft factory manager, Ashley Pope. At its height the factory employed 700 people and over the years produced 800 planes. Hewlett took a particular interest in their onsite training school for the women workers. After the war the company tried to move into making agricultural machinery but this too failed and the company closed in 1920. Having eventually sold the factory site with some difficulty, Hewlett moved to New Zealand where she spent the rest of her life, still flying. She was definitely an eccentric, styling her hair in a very short ‘Eton crop’, driving a car with the rear seats removed for her great dane dogs, and wearing colourful flamboyant outfits, but no other woman of her period comes near her for her achievements in the aviation manufacture sphere, despite her more general fame as an early pilot