Percy Shaw (15th April 1890 to 1st September 1976)

 

Percy was an inventor and businessman who made a fortune when he invented the reflective road stud known as the "cat's eye." He patented the idea in 1934, started manufacture 1935 and the cat’s eye was at the centre of his days for the rest of his life. Here I am at his home where it all happened and part of the company is still operating behind the house.

 

There was nothing in Percy’s childhood that showed signs of the extraordinary success he’d find. He was born in Halifax, the fourth child and his dad was a labourer at a dye works. He had lots of siblings as his dad had been married before and produced seven children by his first wife. His parents moved their sprawling family to this house Boothtown in Halifax and Percy left in a coffin.

 

Aged 13 he left school and started working in a cloth mill. The wages were crumbs and he went onto various unskilled jobs locally. When the dye house where his dad worked closed down Percy and his dad set up a partnership here at this house. They made workshop in the stables attached to the house repairing household implements. They set up tool-making equipment and could engineer most things to manufacture parts for local mills. With the advent of the First World War they won government contracts to manufacture cartridge cases and shell noses.

 

Things started to happen when Percy was 39. His parents died and he set up a small road contractor company repairing roads and this would be his main business until his death. Though known for inventing the cat’s eyes he invented a motor roller that meant his lads didn’t have to hand rolling asphalt. This reduced labour times drastically and he had an edge on his competitors. Though he employed teams to lay tarmac drives and paths he still loved tinkering with mechanical things. This led to the cat’s eye stud still in use today.

 

Supposedly the idea was born when Percy was driving home from the Old Dolphin pub in Queensbury village one dark night. A cat on a fence reflected the car’s headlights back and Percy realised he was on the wrong side of the road. However when interviewed by Alan Whicker for his Whicker’s World programme Percy said a foggy night had prompted him to put the reflective strips in road signs into the tarmac. This might not be accurate either as children who were allowed to visit the factory said Percy told them his car headlights reflected on tram tracks helped him maintain the correct position in the road.

 

Whatever is the truth Percy invented the cat’s eye (patent No. 436,290 and 457,536) after much strife. Like most inventions there were long period of setbacks and frustrations. Percy was so dogged in his pursuit of perfection that he’d illegally dig up roads, install a cat’s eye, try it out with his own car headlights, reinstate the road, and then take the stud home to improve it. Within a year of the patent the newly-formed Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd was manufacturing the eyes but they did not sell well. Percy was allowed to demonstrate his invention at his own expense. The council allowed him to install 50 studs at a foggy crossroads between Leeds and Bradford. Sales were poor. And it was World War Two that set fire to the sales figures. As the war aged and the country was often blacked out something was needed to help road safety. Approval of the stud came from The Ministry of Transport and production was boosted tremendously. Soon the factory was making a million cat’s eyes per year and exporting them all over the world. A minor improvement made a major difference: a shallow reservoir was fitted into the shoe which would collect rain and wash the cat’s eye when a car drove of it.

 

Percy might not have become one of Yorkshire’s most famous people had it not been for his odd ways. I remember seeing him on Whicker’s World and thinking how odd that such a wealthy man led a spartan and reclusive lifestyle. He never married, had no children, didn’t go on holidays, removed most of the furniture and carpets from his home, kept four televisions running constantly (all muted, the fourth in colour) and never indulged his whims. When he built a roof over his yard he left a hole in the top so a tree could grow through it. He bought tripe in the market and ate it with his fingers. Despite his lean life he owned two Rolls-Royce Phantom cars, one spare when the other was being serviced.

 

When Percy was 75 he was awarded an OBE due to his company’s worldwide exports. All the time he had remained in this house. It was the family home. His parents had bought it and Percy lived in it for all but two of his 86 years.

 

In 1976 he died here from cancer and despite rumours of a personal fortune his estate was £193,500 (now about £1.2 million.) Though he was an agnostic a funeral service was held at Boothstown Methodist Church and he was cremated in Elland near Leeds.

 

When I arrived at the house I was sad to see a fence prevented intruders getting up close however a lady was sat in the garden sunning herself. I’m virtually invisible to women and it was her lively dog running at me that alerted the owner. She came over clutching an 8-week old puppy and was friendly.

   “I’m a bit of a blue plaque nerd,” I said hoping the lively dog didn’t want my arm for its supper, “and was wondering if I may take a quick close-up photo please.” She seemed to hover for a few seconds and then allowed me in. She’d lived there for about four years and lots of Percy’s play things - pool table, dart board, etc. - were still in the huge room to the left hand side of the house. I asked what happened to the cat-eyes fortune but she didn’t know if it had gone down the line but Percy’s nephew was still alive, lived locally and propped up the bar of a pub most nights.

 

When the owner had gone inside I took a few photos of the house. This had been Percy’s castle where he’d lived and played for eighty years. As a boy he’d grown vegetables on this land and used a donkey and cart to sell it. Though famous for being a rich oddity he was an inventive man with an unremitting Yorkshire grit, commercial ingenuity and dogged determination. Most patents die away quietly and never happen. Millions of cat’s eyes are looking up from roads all over the world today and have saved countless lives. Plaque deserved.

 

 

 

 

 

Some of Percy’s stuff were in the huge room to the left-hand side of the house…

 

 

To the right of the house is where part of the factory once stood…

 

 

Looking down on the house…

 

 

The house is off a main road…