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  • Writer's pictureErin

History - Women of St Paul's Cathedral. Mrs Grace Bird AKA Hilda Beatrice Hewlett

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

A while ago I committed to writing more blog posts on the women involved in St Paul's Cathedral. Well, a year on from that I'm yet to write another blog post.

But I haven't forgotten, and I still have a list of women connected to St Paul's, so can I please introduce you to Hilda Beatrice Hewlett.

I'm sure many of you know William Holman-Hunt's Light of the World painting which hangs in the Chapel of St Erkenwald and St Ethelburga/The Middlesex Chapel, but can I take a moment to draw your attention to the beautiful frame? Because it's by a woman! And although that might not seem so exciting at first, it really is.

Sadly I can count the monuments and objects made by women, or even commemorating women in St Paul's on my hands so this really is something quite special.

But although it seems as though she was a talented artist, she's probably best known for being one of the first women to learn how to fly!

But starting off with the frame, Hilda was actually friends with Holman Hunt's daughter Glady's but she did attend the National Art Training School in South Kensington. Despite being a friend of the family, she wrote about the artist ‘a work of months of patience, not only because it was a very long job, and though Holman Hunt knew what he wanted, his sight was not good, his sketches were too vague for words: no – not for words, but for carving’.

But she really was a remarkable woman. She was the first woman to earn a pilots license, apparently much to her husbands disapproval, and the photograph of her above was actually taken for pilot's licence, don't you just I love it! She went on to found the first flying school and even ran a successful aircraft manufacturing business.

It seems she was a bit of an adrenaline junky - first getting into motor racing in the early 1900s which in turn saw her eyes set on getting in the sky. Going against her husbands wishes, she set off for Paris and enrolled in flying school, even changing her name to Mrs Grace Bird as he didn't want to his name used in this silly phase he thought she was going through.

But it seems it wasn't just out of pleasure, and she even went into partnership with her friend Gustav Blondeau, buying a former roller-skating rink in Battersea to set up Hewlett & Blondeau, a manufacturer of planes and other equipment. During the First World War they began taking orders form the government for aircraft too.

She really was an incredible woman, and it's a pity that she isn't celebrated as much as she should be! I hope to bring to light more women with connections to St Paul's in the future, so do keep an eye out for subsequent blog posts - and if you like, you can even subscribe to keep in the loop when I post new bits up by entering your email address on the homepage.

And if you missed my first blog post on Women of St Paul's, you can find that here. It's all about Mary Jane Brabazon, whose memorial is right behind the frame (albeit mainly to her husband)...

Heard in London

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