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Shaw, Percyfree

(1890–1976)
  • John A. Hargreaves

Percy Shaw (1890–1976)

by Peter Laurie, 1958

Getty Images – Peter Laurie

Shaw, Percy (1890–1976), manufacturer and inventor of the catseye road stud, was born on 15 April 1890 at Heginbottom Fold, 32 Ovenden Road, Halifax, the second son of James Shaw (1843–1929), a Halifax dyer's labourer, and his second wife, Esther Hannah Morrell (1856–1922), daughter of Joseph and Grace Morrell of Shelf, near Halifax. In 1891 nine of the fourteen children of his father's two marriages were living at home, and in the following year the family moved to 1 Mill Lane, Boothtown, Halifax, which remained Percy Shaw's home for the rest of his life.

From childhood, Shaw demonstrated a spirit of resourcefulness, contributing to the family budget by hawking home-produced fruit, herbs, and vegetables around the neighbourhood. He received his earliest education at Boothtown board school, leaving at the age of thirteen to commence work as a labourer at a blanket mill, but later attending evening classes in shorthand and bookkeeping. Low wages compelled him to abandon an apprenticeship with a Halifax wire manufacturer, and after a succession of jobs in welding, boilermaking, and machine tool construction, he went into partnership with his father in a small business specializing in the repair of mangle rollers, which supplied government contracts for cartridge cases, shell noses, and heddle wire during the First World War. After his father's death, Shaw built up a flourishing business constructing macadamized paths and drives, for which he developed a miniature motorized roller.

An early motoring enthusiast, Shaw's experience of negotiating the hazardous descent from Queensbury to Halifax after the removal of the tramlines, which had guided the motorist at night and in fog, induced a concern to improve road safety. Whether it was the reflection of his car headlamps on a reflective roadsign, as Shaw insisted in 1968, or his brother Cecil's perhaps apocryphal story of a cat's eyes transfixed in a beam of light, he realized by 1934 the need for reflecting studs set into the road surface as markers on unlit roads. A patent for a prototype road stud, in the shape of a Maltese cross, was approved in 1935 and a company formed, with the catseye as its registered trademark, and Percy Shaw as managing director. Initially, luminous glass lenses were obtained from Czechoslovakia and rubber pads from Manchester, but subsequently all components were manufactured and assembled on a 20 acre site at Boothtown, adjacent to Shaw's home. A series of further patents modified the original design, including the incorporation of a self-wiping mechanism, but orders were slow until Ministry of Transport backing, and the Second World War blackout, provided a major boost to production. Widening markets after the war ensured continuing expansion. In 1965 Shaw was appointed OBE for services to exports, and by the time of his death in 1976 some 15 million catseyes had been manufactured.

The broadcasters Richard Dimbleby and Alan Whicker travelled to Halifax in 1952 and 1968 respectively to interview Shaw—by now a celebrity—whose invention Whicker succinctly described as 'a blinking marvel' (The world of Whicker: Whicker with the catseyes man on the road from Rose Linda's, Yorkshire Television, 1968). Photographic and film archive reveals Shaw in later life as an engagingly eccentric Yorkshireman, short-statured, with Churchillian features, a droll sense of humour, and a penchant for straw hats.

It was widely, if inaccurately, assumed that Shaw's invention had made him a multi-millionaire. While Shaw himself often joked about his high tax liability, rumours of a £17 million personal fortune were repeatedly denied, and probate records reveal a relatively modest personal estate of £193,500. Apart from the luxury of a customized Rolls-Royce and a profusion of television sets, Shaw's lifestyle was essentially unostentatious. He owned only two suits and often appeared attired in worn, moth-eaten pullovers. Alan Whicker compared the spartan atmosphere of the living-room at his home at Boothtown to a railway station waiting-room. Shaw rejected conventional domestic adornments such as curtains or carpets, cooked all his own meals, and stacked crockery and cutlery on open shelves, thus dispensing with the need for cupboards. Indeed, he was a somewhat reclusive figure in later years, rarely visiting his factory, except when it was closed, or leaving his home, except to play a round of golf. He died on 1 September 1976, a bachelor, at the age of eighty-six, from cancer and heart disease. An agnostic, towards the end of his life Shaw developed a close personal friendship with a local Methodist minister, who conducted his funeral service at Boothtown Methodist Church and cremation at Park Wood, Elland, on 6 September 1976.

Sources

  • J. A. Hargreaves, ‘The catseye man: Percy Shaw of Halifax, road stud manufacturer, 1890–1976’, Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society, new ser., 4 (1996), 126–34
  • F. Edwards, Cats eyes (1972)
  • Evening Courier [Halifax] (2 Sept 1976)
  • The Times (3 Sept 1976)
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • patents, 1935–52
  • newspaper cuttings file, Halifax Courier Library
  • J. J. Mulroy, ed., The story of the town that bred us (1948)
  • L. Wells, ‘A million eyes lead you home’, Highway Times (Feb 1960), 8
  • F. Edwards, ‘The cats-eye man’, Yorkshire Life (Dec 1967)
  • census returns, 1891, TNA: PRO, RG 12/3603/ED4, p. 26, fol. 72
  • admissions register, Boothtown board school, 1893–1903, W. Yorks. AS, OR/ED 256 iii [microfilm]
  • News Chronicle (28 Nov 1939)
  • newspaper cuttings file, Calderdale Central Library

Archives

Film

  • ‘The world of Whicker: Whicker with the catseyes man on the road from Rose Linda's’ [Yorkshire Television documentary, 1968]

Sound

  • ‘Halifax down your way’ [BBC radio broadcast, 28 Nov 1952]

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1913, Boothtown Mansion, 1 Mill Lane, Boothtown, Halifax
  • double portrait, photograph, 1949 (with HRH Princess Elizabeth), Studio Lambert
  • double portrait, photograph, 1952 (with Richard Dimbleby), Kemsley Newspapers
  • P. Laurie, photograph, 1958, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • J. Van Dalen, oils, 1960, Boothtown Mansion, 1 Mill Lane, Boothtown, Halifax
  • three photographs, 1967, repro. in She
  • double portrait, photograph, 1968 (with Alan Whicker), Yorkshire Television Ltd
  • double portrait, photograph, 1972 (with Florence Edwards), repro. in Halifax Courier

Wealth at Death

£193,500: probate, 3 Dec 1976, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Podcast

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London