Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at Cats Eyes, finding out how a near accident in Halifax led to one of the most famous road safety features in the world.
Born at Lee Mount in Halifax in 1890, Percy Shaw was the fourth child and second son of James Shaw Esther Hannah Morrell, who was his second wife. He also had seven half brothers and sisters from his father’s first marriage. With the expanding family, they moved to Boothtown Mansion when Percy was just two years old. He and his siblings subsidised their father’s £1 wage by selling vegetables from their garden.
Leaving school at the age of 13, Percy found work as a labourer at a cloth mill, carrying bobbins of wool from the winders to the weavers. Although he had hated school, Shaw knew the value of education and decided to learn book-keeping at night school, before taking a job as a book-keeper. He later found an apprenticeship with a wire drawer, but wasn’t happy with the low wages, so he took a number of unskilled engineering jobs instead.
By the 1930s, Percy’s parents died, leaving him to run the household with his oldest unmarried sister. He was now making a living laying tarmac paths and drives with several employees. It is at this point where the story becomes unclear and there are several versions of what happens next.
The first, and most famous version was that Shaw drove through Clayton Heights from the Old Dolphin at Ambler Thorn towards his home in Halifax. The eyes of a cat sat on the fence during a long bend, reflected his headlights back at him,which saved him from veering off the road and down the steep drop below.
In an interview with Alan Whicker, Percy told a second version, where on a foggy night he pondered a way of moving the reflective studs from the street signs onto the road surface. A third version, often told to children who visited the factory in the 1970s, was that drivers would use the reflective surface of tramlines to follow the road on dark or foggy nights and this idea was behind his new invention.
Whichever is the correct version; in 1933 Percy Shaw invented the reflective road studs he called ‘Cat’s Eyes’. He patented the design in 1934, then in the following year formed the company Reflective Roadstuds Limited in his home town of Halifax. The original design was first laid at the crossroads of the Bradford-Wakefield and Halifax-Leeds Roads at Drighlington, but after a few days of rain the glass reflectors were obscured by mud. Percy adapted the design so that vehicles passing over the rubber mounting would cause them to depress, thus cleaning the beads – this is particularly effective when the metal housing has filled with water.
Originally, all the parts were manufactured elsewhere and simply brought together at his factory, but from 1939 the company has produced everything themselves. The big break for the company came during World War Two, when a national blackout made the roadstuds a necessity. In the 1960s, ‘Cat’s Eyes’ were being shipped all across the world and the name of Percy Shaw became known as the man behind this new motoring innovation. He was given an OBE in 1965 and died eleven years later aged 86.
At its peak, the factory employed 130 people making over a million roadstuds each year. The factory is still at the same site in Boothtown, Halifax, although with a reduced workforce. It is the inventiveness and grit of a Yorkshireman who has probably saved thousands of lives across the world.
In the next post in this series, we will look at Silver Cross.
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