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History Society Report

Great Uncle Percy: Inventor of ‘Cats’ Eyes’

Speaker: Glenda Shaw

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Glenda Shaw shared the story of Percy Shaw, inventor of the reflecting road studs we call ‘Cats’ Eyes’, with Hebden Bridge Local History Society, and showed how he became a ‘Yorkshire icon’. She spoke with obvious fondness and admiration for her great uncle and his achievements, joking that he was responsible for ‘her 15 minutes of fame’.

Percy Shaw

The Shaw family moved into the grandly named Boothtown Mansion soon after Percy, the eleventh child, was born. He lived there for the rest of his life, developing his highly successful Reflecting Road Studs Company on the site. Glenda painted a vivid picture of a highly inventive buccaneering spirit on the look out with his younger brother (Glenda’s grandfather) for money making schemes.

It was a search for a practical solution to a problem that famously led Percy to invent the Cats’ Eyes. Making his way home on foggy nights from his favourite Queensbury pub Percy had relied on the glint of headlight on tram tracks to guide the way. With the demise of trams, these guidelines had disappeared, but having picked out the gleam of a cat’s eyes, the idea for his invention struck. By the early 1930s he had perfected the invention and was ready to go into production. The space where he wanted to build his workshop was occupied by his favourite tree, so he incorporated the tree into the building. Practicality did not have to trump sentiment.

What was ingenious about the Cats’ Eyes was the simplicity of the idea – glass given a reflective surface; a flexible rubber stud; and the casting that held the stud in the road. The rain was an ally, as water which drained into the rubber would act as a wiper to keep the glass clean everytime it was squashed by passing traffic. Patents were granted in 1934 and 35 and by the time of the black-out in World War II  40,000 Cats’ Eyes a week were being produced In Boothtown. Everything was produced on the site, with both brothers innovating and adapting the technology to develop the invention.

Percy Shaw’s fame grew, enhanced no doubt by his outgoing and slightly eccentric personality. He enjoyed his success, buying a top of the range Rolls Royce Phantom and filling its boot with crates of local beer when he went to London to collect his OBE, refusing to pay London prices!

He was celebrated during his life-time, being an extraordinary interviewee for Alan Whicker and featuring in magazines and on local TV. He died in 1976, and has continued to be celebrated with appearances in lists of the greatest inventors, designers and Yorkshiremen well into the 21st century.

His life and achievements have been marked by blue plaques and commemorative stamps as well as a song. He might well have appreciated most the public’s choice of ‘Percy Shaw’ as the name of a pub, since it was his love of a pint that led to his invention - one that has contributed significantly to road safety for over 75 years.

The programme of talks continues on Wednesday 8th and 22nd March at Hebden Bridge Methodist Church, starting at 7.30. Speakers will be looking into Victorian sewers and celebrating Artisan naturalists.

Details of all the Society’s activities can be found on the website  and you can also follow us on our Facebook page.

With thanks to to Sheila Graham for this report

See also

Hebden Bridge History Website

HebWeb History section