A tribute to Peter Hewitt, a most respected beekeeper, exhibitor, speaker and so much more (28.9.1923 – 10.9.2023).

Peter died at home, peacefully in his sleep, in the early morning of 10th September, just 18 days short of his 100th birthday.

Born in an impoverished area of Birkenhead, Merseyside, Peter suffered from rickets in childhood, an unlikely beginning for such a long life. Although money was tight, he was a bright pupil and achieved a Leverhulme Scholarship to the local grammar school. This gained him access to the education provided, but the cost of extra-curricular activities was beyond the means of his family. With regard to the grammar school system, he described himself as “in it, but not of it.”.

On leaving school, Peter began an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker at the Cammell Laird Shipyard. Here he had his first encounter with the craft of beekeeping, when an older workmate asked him to construct some wooden boxes. On completion, Peter discovered that he had made his first beehive.

During the war years, as a worker in a reserved occupation, Peter served as a member of the Home Guard and helped defend the Liverpool area against incursions by German bombers. From his experiences in this role, he often remarked that the outcome of the war owed more to sheer luck than good management. He went on to join the Merchant Navy as ships’ carpenter on a hospital vessel that retrieved the wounded from India and Africa; work that left many lasting memories of third world poverty and suffering.

After a couple of years, he returned to the UK and re-trained as a teacher in London. His memories of this period included some characters that might have been found in the pages of a novel by Charles Dickens. He immersed himself in opportunities to visit museums, galleries and concerts reflecting a life-long interest in learning and the arts.

Peter married Doris, who had also grown up in Birkenhead and the couple lived in accommodation provided at a series of schools in Farnham, Corby, and Lancashire, as the family grew to include their son John and daughter Barbara. Peter’s early teaching career involved many youngsters who had experienced social deprivation and/or displayed challenging behaviour. He enjoyed the opportunity to help them learn, even though he discovered that after they had spent the school holidays at home, invariably they would have forgotten everything. It was in these posts that he gained his first hands-on experiences of beekeeping, by helping fellow members of staff manage the colonies that were used to teach technical skills to the students.

When Peter moved the family to Keighley, in the 1970s to take an initial post at the Technical School in Strawberry Street, he was finally able to have his own bees and joined the local beekeeping associations at Airedale and Wharfedale, both of which were affiliated with Yorkshire Beekeepers Association. Over time, Peter was awarded Honorary Membership of all three organisations and became President of Airedale Beekeepers, in recognition of his many contributions to the craft of beekeeping, both locally and further afield.

Peter speaking at a Leeds BKA meeting in October 1977, at the Agricultural Sciences Building of Leeds University. Photo courtesy of Michael Badger

Peter was a keen and very successful exhibitor of his hive products at shows throughout the country. He was invited to many district associations to talk about various aspects of beekeeping, including the use of his beloved Horsley Board.

His interest in honey bees extended well beyond the hive and apiary. He was a keen photographer and slide-maker of all bee-related items, from bee boles, and bee-themed pub signs, to architectural features involving bees (such as the old Co-Operative Society frontages) and churches dedicated to St Ambrose and others. He was not above taking a picture of a street sign, a commercial property or trades vehicle, a drinks can or match box, provided it reflected some connection with bees. Peter also amassed a large collection of honeypots and a substantial library. He was an enthusiastic member of the Leeds Microscopy Society equipping himself with microscopes, centrifuges and books, and painstakingly preparing many slides.

Peter receiving his Honorary Membership of YBKA award, at home in May 2020. Photo courtesy of Linda Schofield

As a skilled craftsman, he made various items of equipment and tried his hand at most aspects of beekeeping DIY. Peter made his own wax foundation, solar wax melters, converted spin dryers into honey extractors and generally tinkered with and constructed items that might not always have worked, but certainly gave him pleasure in the making. He also enjoyed creative pursuits such as encaustic art and moulding fruit shapes from wax. After his retirement, as a keen walker, he somehow found time to become a Countryside Ranger and he attended classes in silver smithing and jewellery making at Bradford College.

Peter was always generous with his time and knowledge and spent many happy hours helping others. He was the local go-to beekeeper for folk with a “problem” colony of bees, an awkward swarm or just needing a hand getting colonies up to the heather moors and back. Some of his most amusing anecdotes came from such escapades and he was a very entertaining raconteur. He had certainly met most of the “big names” in beekeeping and could always remember the where and when of their encounters. More surprising was his throw away account of once coming across a group of “rather scruffy and smelly” young lads, when he had gone to help someone with a plumbing problem. They turned out to be The Who, staying over after a late-night gig during their early years of performing.

When Doris’ health failed, Peter withdrew from active involvement in the world of beekeeping to become her carer. It was a great privilege to be able to re-introduce him to meetings, conferences, and workshops again after her death. It would be fair to say that many people did a double take when they first saw him after such a long absence.

Latterly, Peter’s own health deteriorated, and he gradually lost the use of his hearing, fine motor skills, and mobility. Nevertheless, he retained his interest in beekeeping, the natural world, and his most remarkable powers of memory almost to the end.

For all his many achievements and accomplishments, Peter was a very modest man and never boasted about what he had done or all he knew. He truly loved and respected his bees and was known to shed a tear or two when speaking of them. As recently as 2018, as he stood by his garage one afternoon in the late spring, a swarm of bees descended and settled on his head and shoulders. Peter stayed perfectly still until they peaceably made their way into one of his empty hives nearby. He always strongly recommended that beekeepers should, above all else, “Enjoy your bees!"

Rest in peace, Peter.

Linda Schofield
Airedale Beekeepers Association