A restored 3½ Hp "Omnia" Engine
This side view clearly shows the elegant curved-spoke flywheels and
also the very small aperture to fill the water hopper. The engine still
carries its 1987 Tatton Park Rally number. Note the Fellows HT magneto,
spark plug conversion and logo. The small slot in the valve operating push
rod was for the igniter in the original design.
Mrs Maurice Hewlett
Hilda Beatrice Hewlett (1864-1943) became England's first licensed woman pilot, having obtained her pilot's licence at Brooklands on August 29th 1911, in those far off days, long before the emancipation of women and long before most women even thought of driving a motor car. Her husband, Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), whom she married in 1888, became a distinguished poet and novelist whose works included The Forest Lovers and it would appear that he was her elder by some years. With her business partner, Gustav Blondeau, Mrs Hewlett had opened a flying school at Brooklands in 1910. Among their successful pupils was her son, Lieut. Francis E.T. Hewlett, RN, who qualified as a pilot on November 14th 1911; he went on to have a distinguished service career in what later became the RAF and rose to the rank of Group Captain.. Reported missing after the famous Cuxhaven Raid in 1915, (for which he was later awarded the DSO) his safe return a week later made headline news. The couple parted amicably after the war and Maurice Hewlett died in 1923.
Mrs Hewlett was said to be ‘an indefatigable worker, good organiser and shrewd business woman’ and a great 'character'.
Gustave Blondeau was born 8 March, 1871, at Tregnier according to Flight magazine (February 1911). A pupil of the Henri Farman school in Mourmelon, France, he won his brevet on 10 June,1910. Blondeau established himself at Brooklands, where as a trained engineer who had also studied the Gnome engine, he soon acquired a reputation for safety and thoroughness both as instructor and mechanic. He then opened his own flying school at Brooklands, Surrey where he encountered Hilda Hewlett. In partnership with Mrs Hewlett and with their Henri Farman machine, they formed "Hewlett and Blondeau Ltd" and built Farman, Caudron and Hanriot aircraft under licence, Caudron being the first in Britain. In 1912 they moved to larger premises in Battersea, London. The factory was a disused skating rink in Clapham, called the 'Omnia' . Needing a second aircraft for the school, Hewlett & Blondeau built another Farman under licence. Construction then became the main thrust of the partnership and the 'Omnia' works built Farman, Hanriot and Caudron aircraft under licence, Caudron being the first in Britain.
The War Effort
Government orders required the company to expand again and, in May 1914, Hewlett & Blondeau Ltd bought a field in Leagrave, Bedfordshire, on which to build a new factory. Taking the old telegraphic address 'Aeromnia' and a number of their Battersea staff with them, the factory was in production when war was declared in August 1914. The maximum number of employees grew to around 700 and a general clerk, who earned just 5/- (25p) per week from 1915 to 1919, said that the aircraft were crated on site and despatched to Gosport. In all, over 820 aircraft (BE2c, AW FK3 and Avro 504K) were built and eventually, by 1919, they had produced ten different types of aircraft.
Around early 1918 however, and despite good orders, the firm encountered labour difficulties so the Air Ministry appointed a Mr Ashley Pope to oversee the factory production because, at the time, one of the aircraft types in production had a large 90hp engine which was vital to the war effort. Mr Pope found that Mrs Hewlett worked tirelessly nearly 24 hours per day, not stopping for meals at all. He managed to increase efficiency and hence productivity because, probably as a final attempt to increase their image and their sales.
Mrs Hewlett’s chief interest was in running the Training School for women workers and she was remembered by one as having an Eton Crop, a very ruddy complexion, unusual clothes, and for driving a huge car very fast, with invariably, her Great Dane on the back seat. The Great Dane was a great friend of all who worked at Aeromnia and wandered through the factory at will.
A Journalist Visits the Works
After the war was over, Gustave Blondeau attempted to use the facilities of the now-redundant factory for the production of agricultural machinmery. A reporter from Implement and Machinery Review was invited to look around the site in September 1919. He had this to say:-
"Having made a notable contribution to the war efforts of the nation by manufacturing large numbers of aeroplanes, Messrs. Hewlett & Blondeau Ltd., of The Omnia Works, Leagrave, Beds. have, for some time now, directed their attention to agricultural engineering. There are adequate reasons why their venture should be highly successful. In the first place, on the ten acres of freehold land which form the works site has been built a series of up-to-date substantial shops, fitted with the latest type of machinery and replete in every way with labour saving devices.
The whole of the 120,000 sq. ft of buildings is commodious, airy and thoroughly modern, for the works were of 'mushroom growth' so common during the war, albeit it cannot be too strongly emphasised that they are solidly and well constructed. "In addition to the usual offices, stores, etc., the works comprise machine, fitting, inspection, woodworking, erecting and smithing shops, a sheetmetal works, hardening & annealing rooms, an iron foundry and an acetylene welding department. Over three hundred 'hands' are today employed and the promising outlook makes the prospect of an increase in this number very probable."
Here follows a description of the first threshing machine, then there is a description of the engine..................
"We now turn to the manufacture of the 'Omnia' engine which is perhaps today a more seasonable topic. We found that Messrs Hewlett & Blondeau are preparing to put 5000 farm power engines on to the market. Work upon them was going ahead as we passed through the different departments and we had an opportunity of noting the excellence of the material and the finished workmanship. To say that the engine is of a superior pattern is but to state the simple truth whilst to give the results of the practical running demonstration vouchsafed us would be to convince anyone that the engine is of a high standard of efficiency as well as of finish. "Nominally a 2½hp engine, it has been found to generate 3.38hp and this moreover is not regarded as the maximum. We saw the 'Omnia' started on petrol and soon turned over onto paraffin whilst operating the sawbench. The start was speedily made and the transfer effected without harming or depreciating the power generated. The large circular saw was driven with sufficient power to cut very easily through a tough-looking collection of hardwood logs. A calculation made upon an actual trial was that the engine and saw would, in an hour and a half, do work usually occupying thirty men for a full working day. The engine, it should be noted, will provide efficient power for driving all classes of feed machinery, cream separators, etc., and in order to select the proper drive for the particular task in hand, various pulleys can be used. These pulleys are easily fitted and secured. "The engine is of the single-cylinder, four cycle pattern with British magneto ignition. It has a sensitive governor to ensure steady running whilst the use of two flywheels assure an even movement."
"Reciprocating parts are balanced by properly applied balance weights cast into the rim of each flywheel so that vibration is a negligible quantity. The petrol-paraffin toolbox tank is a happy combination, strongly made and well finished. Fuel passes through sieves into the different tanks whilst the tools and accessories with which each engine is supplied are placed in the bottom compartment by means of a small door. After the engine has started on petrol, the main paraffin supply is turned on by a cock provided on the tank and the flow can then be regulated by a needle valve on the vaporiser. Farmers, we were told, will find the 'Omnia' engine very simple to understand and run, and decidedly economical in the consumption of fuel. The engine can be had in the stationary pattern, to be bolted to a permanent bed, or with a well-built trolley, fitted with cast-iron wheels, draw-bar, swivelling forecarriage and hooks. The engine is offered at £40 delivered at the farmer's nearest station or to the agent's stores as desired and the trolley at £4 extra..........."
It is interesting to note that only one size of engine was mentioned even though, earlier in 1919, Messrs Hewlett & Blondeau were advertising for agents world-wide to sell 'paraffin-oil engines from 2½ to 24hp'.
A Brief period of Engine Manufacture
Advertisements for H & B engines and sawbenches appeared in the Luton News during late 1919 with the latest known advertisement being on the 12th February 1920. A decision was made to close the works and Messrs Fuller, Horley and Son & Cassell of London arranged a six-day sale of the site and effects commencing on Tuesday October 19th 1920. The eight acre site with 110,000 sq. ft of buildings failed to reach the second asking bid of £50,000 and in 1926 sold by private treaty, eventually being incorporated into the new Electrolux factory where many of the original buildings remain to this day. The plant, machinery, stock and effects sold well to a large number of businesses including Vauxhall Motors and Messrs Hayward & Tyler.
Following the sale, Mrs Hilda Hewlett who, after the war, had travelled extensively to New Zealand and USA, moved to Tauranga, New Zealand along with her daughter Pia, where she helped inaugurate the Tauanga Gliding and Flying Club in 1928/29. She died in 1943 and, at her request was buried at sea, but both her and her son are commemorated in Luton and in Tauranga by a street name, Hewlett Road.
Gustave Blondeau, after fading into obscurity for many years, lived into his nineties and died on March 3rd 1965 at 176 Old Bedford Rd., Luton .
The Last Remaining Known Engines
In spite of the planned variety and expected volume of engine production, only five examples of H & B engine are known to still exist, four of them being the same model and size. Taking each of those engines in turn:-
The first, formerly owned by Martin Tucker and Ross Sims of Swansea, South Wales, has what can only be assumed to be the original low tension ignition system as seen in contemporary advertisements. The magneto is made by C.T.*** - an obscure manufacturer, now unheard of, and the igniter actuator is attached in the normal way to the valve striker rod. The hopper carries a small brass nameplate bearing Ser. No. 103, 650 rpm and 3hp with H & B's address at Leagrave, Bedfordshire. Ross had repainted the engine, following as far as possible the colours of the traces of paint found under the dirt and oil when it was acquired. The main body of the engine is dark green with the flywheels and ancillary parts in black. The flywheels have a red stripe around the rims with the arrow showing rotational direction in white. The red is repeated on the flywheel of the logo cast into the water hopper. Both of the other engines have identical high tension ignition systems using Fellows magnetos with an ignition timing lever for finer adjustment to give good running under all conditions. A sparking plug is fitted into the igniter hole using a normal adapter plate just above the slot in the push-rod where the actuator was fitted previously. This conversion of each engine is identical so it could only have been a factory original, perhaps a panic measure when C.T. ceased trading (as their initials would imply.. !) - or more probably to follow the general trend at around that time as L.T. was becoming superseded by more efficient H.T. magnetos in general usage. The engine is undergoing extensive further restoration in new hands and is currently totally dismantled.
The second engine, which appeared in Stationary Engine, issue 25 of March 1976, once owned by Philip Gallimore, has a much larger brass nameplate than that of Ross Sims. However, it does not have any mention of the maker's name or address but simply states Ser. No. 143, 650 revs and 3hp. It is now owned by Alastair and Craig Morrison.
The third engine, which I have re-restored myself and rallied occasionally for a few years, has no serial number plate ** but just the rivet holes showing me that the plate should be as Philip's. Curiously, among the documentation passed to me with the engine is a letter from someone who discovered the engine at Canford Magna, Dorset, many years ago and in his description of his 'find' he states that the horse power is 3½ at 640rpm. This means that over recent years, during a number of owners' attempts at restoration, the all important plate with serial number has gone missing. Interestingly, the horsepower is quoted as more than Philip's but the rpm is less and it is an identical engine.
The fourth engine appeared as recently as 2004 at a sale. Not having the usual cast-in logo on the hopper, ( as examples on contemporary sales brochures) it was passed over by many enthusiasts but has since appeared at a number of rallies in 2006 in unrestored, "as found" condition and on its original unique pattern trolley. The hopper is smaller than the other three examples, the water-filling hole is in a different place, and it is believed to be an earlier model. It could be that this, being earlier, is the alleged 3hp engine, and at the update was re-rated to 3½hp. This engine has not only been converted to HT ignition but unlike the later engines which were (factory?) converted to the Fellows HT magneto, this one now has the rather less reliable BTH. More on this new arrival on the scene as details emerge. I have not established the serial number as yet.
A fifth Omnia appeared 'blinking into the daylight' during late 2011 following a bereavement. This engine had worked on a sawbench upto a few years ago, has both the original silencers and seems to have the usual HT conversion. It also appears to have the original paint and the cast-in logo on the larger style hopper but the splash guard and the strangely-designed wooden base and steel tank/toolbox unit are missing. Its serial number is 111 - which is interesting since no engine, however early, has yet been discovered with a serial number below 100; was this a sales ploy to make prospective customers think production was greater than it really was?? The production figures certainly were not high, probably barely into three figures. This engine was advertised for sale (Jan 2012) and has now found a new home in the South of England.
I have also seen a postcard of a museum in France with what certainly looks like an Omnia engine in the line up of displays.
(This is not an original colour scheme)
Note the two fuel pipes to the changeover tap on the carburettor, also the jacket around the carburettor allowing the exhaust to enable the kerosene to vapourise more easily, and the piston, crank, and drive gearing to the Fellows high-tension magneto .
Restoring the Omnia
At a rally, in a line-up of other engines, the 'Omnia' is often dismissed as merely "a green Amanco" or a "British Hired-Man". This is in no way the case. Indeed, the general appearance and the style and function of its parts are, to the casual observer, reminiscent of a kerosene Hired Man but a closer inspection reveals this not to be true. Although the designer at H & B must have had a photograph of an Amanco pinned to his drawing-board, there is not one identical part. The 'Omnia' is rather larger, has thinner, even cruder, castings while its most obvious features are the handsome, curved-spoke flywheels. The carburettor, or vaporiser, has a cast heating-jacket encircling it through which a large proportion of the warm exhaust is directed to enable better vaporisation of the kerosene fuel. The outlet from this jacket is larger than the main exhaust itself. "My" engine arrived with no provision for kerosene, only the two-way tap; the vaporiser outlet had been blanked off so, for a number of reasons at that time, I left it so and ran it solely on petrol. Being ostensibly a kerosene engine, it has a throttling governor. Initially this caused a few problems until a proper setting was achieved but now it performs steadily and reliably.
Not being aware of Ross Sims' engine at the time, I repainted the 'Omnia'
similar to the colour it was when collected, being bright green and black.
I tried various schemes on the logo and finally settled for black for the
script over a contrasting dark-green motif. This may not be as it left
Leagrave but I think it looks OK.
From the description given by Implement and Machinery Review, and also the artist's impression in H & B's advertising, the combination fuel tanks and toolbox was a compact affair, being a three-tiered metal device and all circular in shape. The middle section was a small petrol tank for starting, while the top or main tank contained the kerosene. The bottom section held the tools but as it was all in one sheet-steel fabrication, it was a recipe for disaster since if one section rusted then the entire thing was totally useless. Only a few remnants of an example of the assembly survive with one engine.
For 'my' engine however, as I intended running on petrol only, I used a much less elaborate rectangular tank, more in keeping I think with the squarer, more angular contours of the engine.
Apart from these five known engines, how many more Hewlett & Blondeau engines have survived? What of their other products, the sawbenches, the threshing machines? What really caused their eventual demise and when?* If you have any knowledge or can answer these questions, we would be pleased to hear from you.
© Eric Brain. Feb 2012
(With grateful thanks to David Edgington, Philip Gallimore, Ross Sims, "Matt", 'Mark', and especially to Roy Geary of the Bedfordshire & Buckinghamshire Stationary Engine Club, for all their help in providing information for the original 1989 article. Thanks are due also to Roland Craven for his scanning of the text of the original 1989 article and reproducing it in Word for my records.)
More thanks, most recently to Gail Hewlett, (whose husband is the grandson of Maurice and Hilda Hewlett and the son of F.E.T. Hewlett) who, on spotting errors in my earlier pages, helped me with some vital corrections in order that history was not distorted.
If anyone knows of any other example(s) I have not mentioned, I would like to be informed in order to keep the record straight.
* This is answered in "Old Bird" - see below.
**See letter in Stationary Engine Magazine October 1994, Issue 248, page 5 regarding the making of a replica nameplate for this engine.
***This could be a misinterpretation of 'CI' for Conner Ignition
(©Eric G. Brain 1989 and constantly revised as new facts emerge, from early 1999 to February 2012)
See "Old Bird" a biography of the life of Hilda
Beatrice Hewlett by Gail Hewlett and published by Troubador
£11-99 from May 2010 Very much recommended especially for aircraft
historians as well as engine enthusiasts.
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