Book Reviews, September 1973, September 1973

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“Modest Millionaire”

by William Hywel. 344 pp. 84 in. x 54 in. (Gee & Son, Chapel Street, Denbigh. £3.00.)

This is a very remarkable book, as enthralling as are most books about millionaires. It is the biography of the late Vivian Hewitt, by his medical advisor. Vivian Hewitt was a very rich man indeed, and an eccentric, which makes the story of how he conducted his remarkable life, virtually as a recluse in later years, walled inside his Welsh bird sanctuary, most fascinating. His story is written with sympathy, insight and understanding by his doctor. It will be of the utmost interest to nature lovers and those who study unusual personalities, but it has its place in these pages because Hewitt, whose wealth came from the Tower Brewery in Grimsby, was a pioneer aviator and a racing driver.

His outstanding aerial feat was a first flight across the Irish sea, in a Bleriot monoplane in 1912. The author’s description of this captures the thrill and adventure of such early flights better than almost anything else I have read. At Brooklands Hewitt occupied shed No. 18, where he dealt in used cars and aeroplanes, repaired Bleriots, made wings, etc. He was employed by Singer’s to drive their cars but I cannot trace that he gained much success; he apparently had a narrow escape on one occasion when a con-rod broke and the car nearly overturned. He is said to have won a Montagu Cup Race, which he didn’t, and one car he did race at Brooklands, a 15.9 White & Poppe, isn’t referred to.

Hewitt’s love of large, fast cars is emphasised by references to the 75 h.p. Targa Florio Bianchi with powerful Rushmore headlamps, in which he rushed to Rhyl when he thought his chance of getting his Bleriot first across the Irish sea was likely to be challenged. The book also refers to other cars – his 60 h.p. Daimler in which he acted as support mechanic to Valentine on his Daily Mail cross-country flight, a Fiat, and a Benz. He used to attend the French GP and he flew an Antionette at Brooklands, and had two Bleriots. He gained much fame for his pioneer flights over Rhyl and he flew at Llandrindod Wells, from the ground behind the Rock Park Hotel used much later by Cobham’s Air Circus. He also attended an At-Home of Lord Northcliffe’s at Sutton Place by air, flying over from Brooklands before the 1914/18 war. His cars are well illustrated in this book, but uncaptioned, giving the reader an exercise in identity. The racing Singer is depicted towing one of the Bleriots and another car is almost certainly a Napier, photographed, I think, on the hill at Brooklands.

The author confesses that he is unversed in mechanics and some of his spelling and references bear this out (including his incorrect estimate of the Brooklands lap-distance) but I nevertheless found the book most interesting, especially as Hewitt, late in life, retained his interest in things engineering. He had two 8-litre Bentleys, one a specially-tuned version said to give 265b.h.p. (Lycett claimed 250 b.h.p.) and be capable of 127m.p.h. Yet, his favourite means of transport was an old 30 cwt. Morris Commercial van, which caused rare scenes when this multimillionaire arrived at hotels in it and tried to gain admission! Especially as he was addicted to dressing like his workmen. He had previously had a Model-T Ford van and in 1927 had bought the 14-litre twin-cam Aston Martin which Humphrey Cook had raced in 1925. (This was bought by Dudley Coram in recent years.) He also had a 1929 blown 2-litre Lagonda which he gave away as scrap when the war came and after the war was over he used a very rough Vauxhall which he parked in a field. There was also a Talbot Ten. Then there were his meticulously-constructed 7 1/4 in. and 15 in.-gauge locomotives, his traction engines, a Fowler, two Garretts, etc., six in all, kept in perfect order, while a Robey hot-bulb paraffin engine is mentioned. There were many boats, which the book details.

One 8-litre Bentley was derelict in London when war broke out and both are known to the Bentley DC through the painstaking researches of Stanley Sedgwick. The rest of the fabulous Hewitt collection, embracing birds’ eggs, coins, stamps, guns, stamps and objets d’art as well as engineering models and fullscale machines, was kept in complete confusion in the candle-lit house at Cemaes, to where the aviator and ornithologist returned from a very different home in the Bahamas to die.

“Modest Millionaire” is as remarkable as it is unusual and I would have been very sorry to have missed it. – W. B.