[As printed in the Luton News, January 3, 1957]
When the President of the Royal Aeronautical Society came to Luton to speak at the Luton branch’s annual dinner, he searched local and aviation records for some Luton aeronautical history. Luton News reporter Colin Cross began investigating, and with the help of Borough Librarian Mr F.M. Gardner and the secretary of the Luton branch of the society, he unearthed a forgotten chapter of yesteryear - the story of a gallant pioneering couple and a factory.
A shock-haired woman and a brilliant Frenchman in 1914 bought a field at Leagrave with the help of a commercial traveller, and suddenly, without fanfare, Luton had its first aircraft factory.
So little fuss was there, indeed, that the only local records of this “missing link” in local history appear to be a brief mention in The Luton News and the memories of a few Lutonians.
Yet the remarkable shock-haired woman, Mrs Maurice Hewlett (Hilda Beatrice), had - before the age of the emancipation of woman - become Britain’s first licensed flyer and the senior partner of a thriving aircraft firm.
And this, remember, was in the days when the average woman thought twice before venturing out in that new-fangled contraption, the motor car.
Mrs Hewlett has gone down as a figure in aeronautical history. In Luton she has been almost forgotten.
The beginning of her life is not for Luton. Already well known in motoring circles, this fabulous woman realised the terrific possibilities of aviation at that early age, and in a typical manner devoted herself to it.
She went through the ordeal of training for her pilot’s licence, and at Brooklands on August 29, 1911, became Britain’s first licensed woman flyer in a Hewlett and Blondeau-built Farman aircraft. Then, not satisfied with flying herself, she set out to train her son as a pilot - a man who himself made flying history.
Meanwhile, another man had been gaining valuable experience with aircraft. Gustav Blondeau studied in the Farman school at Mourmelon, went on to gain experience and knowledge at the Gnome works and then opened a flying school at Brooklands, believed to be the first in England.
The two geniuses teamed up and at Brooklands scored their first success. They won the first prize at the Brighton race with the first Hewlett and Blondeau machine.
Success followed success and soon the firm had to move to Clapham because of expansion. They took over a disused roller-skating rink, when the craze was dying a temporary death. There they tackled aircraft construction in earnest, producing no fewer than ten distinct pattern of machine.
They never attempted to market a machine carrying their own name - but it soon became standard knowledge that a Hewlett and Blondeau-built aircraft was one of the most reliable and efficient to be had.
But expansion had them on the move again this time, in May 1914, to a field in Oak Road, Leagrave, the site of the present Electrolux factory.
The Luton News greeted this with: “We understand that Messrs Hewlett and Blondeau Ltd, aeroplane manufacturers, of Omnia Works, London, are bringing their works to Leagrave, and went on to say the site had been purchased from Mr Hy Abraham. Mr J.E. Upton, secretary of Luton branch of the Commercial Travellers’ Association, was "the means of getting the firm to Leagrave.”
One of the early employees of the firm was Miss F.M. White, of Manor Road, Caddington, who was a general clerk there from 1915 to 1919.
Of Mrs Hewlett she says: She was an absolute character without doubt. She walked about in the most weird costumes. She was a little woman with a very red complexion, and had a mop of steel-grey hair cut like a man’s - an Eton crop - at the back.”
Mrs Hewlett used to drive around in a big car, which had boards instead of seats in the back on which a Great Dane used to be.
Miss White started at five shillings a week, with an extra sixpence a week for punctuality - an early form of management study?
The firm employed a maximum of 700 employees. It had a canteen and a telephone. The phone was in a kiosk and served the whole organisation.
The aircraft were assembled at the factory, and then packed and sent to Gosport. Miss White recollects only two actual flights at Leagrave. On one occasion the whole firm gathered outside to send off a Mr Vandenbery from the drawing office, who set off for Holland by air.
“Incidentally, we didn’t hear any more about him,” said Miss White.
Aeromnia was the telegraphic address of the firm. The factory had just become settled when, in August, shatteringly, the First World War broke out.
The aeroplane was then a novelty. The Luton News at the time wrote of the important effects of the war.
Under a heading “Supply of Horses” it stated: “Apparently all the horses required for the immediate needs of the Army have been obtained for the seizing of animals in the streets has now ceased.
“It was continued, however, until the end of the week, and on Friday and Saturday many more captures were made. A well-known Luton doctor had his horse seized while it was waiting outside his house, and the animal had its hoofs branded before it was taken away from the door.”
While the world thought of horses, a woman and a Frenchman designed aircraft.
No mention was made in the paper of the efforts of the Omnia factory. Yet the firm was working on government orders - an aircraft supply for Britain.
However, it appears that things were not going smoothly for Hewlett and Blondeau Ltd. The two partners, deeply engrossed with "their minds in the air" had tended to let their feet be lifted from the ground.
Despite their brilliance, difficulties had arisen in the mundane practical affairs of the firm. They had been a rather happy-go-lucky couple. Now, low finances made it difficult to pay for supplies and in 1916 the firm was on the verge of closing down.
But the works, which had produced an aircraft powered by a 90hp engine, was still vital to the country, and the Air Ministry asked a Mr Ashley Pope, who had experience at a similar factory at Lincoln, to take over management.
The new manager found Mrs Hewlett working at all hours of the day, not bothering about hours or meals.
In the factory supervision was not up to the required standard of efficiency and workers were doing any jobs they thought needed doing. In his opinion they made tea too often and allocated themselves their own work.
Smoking was rife in this highly inflammable factory and there seemed to be more danger of losing the factory from fire than through economic difficulties. Even in the “dope” shop where highly inflammable “dope” was applied to wings, he found men smoked openly. He immediately stopped smoking throughout the factory and allocated responsibility and jobs.
With his wife, Mr Pope lived at Wainholm, Toddington, the present home of Sir Frederick and Lady Mander.
In 1915 the magazine Flight paid tribute to the firm. Looking back over 40 years, it is interesting to compare the reporter’s view of the factory to Mr Ashley Pope’s.
The reporter writes: “Everywhere in the busy works order and earnest application are seen, the shops being bright, healthy and spacious. No murmur of discontent is heard. It is a case of all working in harmony for their own, the firm’s and the country’s good. Truly the proverb about small beginnings seems likely to be proven, but the end is not yet.”
He mentions a third partner in the firm - the much-loved Kroshka, their dog. He paints a peaceful picture.
“Day in and day out Kroshka sits watching the growth of the aeroplanes, and appears to evince quite an intelligent interest in his surroundings.
“If perplexity at times comes to one of the other partner units, a touch of the head of 'man's friend' as he quietly sidles up for a caress seems to smooth out any difficulties that a moment before might be causing anxiety.
“So it is but fitting that the third partner should, as a tailpiece, adorn the close of this little tribute to two of the early workers in the aviation industry.”
After the war the factory was closed down. Mrs Hewlett lived on in Leagrave, a familiar figure with her two Dalmatian dogs, and often visited by her son, Group Captain F.E.T. Hewlett DSO. At growing Leagrave there became a Hewlett Road and a Hewlett Path.
A few years ago (in 1943) this remarkable woman died. She has never received the tribute she richly deserves. While Mrs Pankhurst chained herself to railings to achieve what women should get, Mrs Hewlett achieved what women could do. She helped to produce the aircraft that gave Britain the supremacy of the air.
[Hewlett & Blondeau factory pdf slideshow in panel, top left]