Young Walter Sylvester

On October 30th 1944 at Hosten House, Pinnox Street, Tunstall, Walter, dearly loved husband of Agnes Sylvester aged 76 years. The Service will be held in the Congregational Church Tunstall, on Thursday November 2nd at 2:30pm. Internment at Tunstall Cemetery, private funeral from Hosten House. Friends desirous of attending kindly assemble at the church.

This short notice in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel gives scant regard to the achievements of this great man. So much so that whenever a list of famous people from Stoke on Trent is compiled we always get the usual suspects, Stanley Matthews, Josiah Wedgewood, Arnold Bennett, and Oliver Lodge. However, one name is always missing. That name is Walter Sylvester. This man did more for miners safety than almost anyone before or since. The mechanical device he invented known to most North Staffordshire miners as the Sylvester must have saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in mining all over the world.

Walter was born on the 18th December 1867 at Newbold in Derbyshire. His father also named Walter was a coal miner and had been born in Yorkshire. His mother Mary Jane was born in Staffordshire and they had been married for about six years. Young Walter had an older sister Ann Elizabeth and a younger brother Charles. The 1871 census found them living in the borough of Chesterfield.

Ten years later in 1881 he was living at 181 Sheepbridge Lane, Wittingham with his parents. He was the eldest of six children at home on the night of the census and is described as a scholar. His older sister Annie must have been at another address. His father was still employed as a coal miner.

By 1891 the family had moved to Third Street, Fegg-Hayes in North Staffordshire. Walter senior now aged 50 was still working in the mines, and young Walter was employed at Chatterley Whitfield Colliery as a Time Keeper in the Institute Pit. Two of his brothers, Charles and Percy were employed as drapers assistants. His sister Caroline was a dressmaker. Kellys business directory for 1896, listed two shops with the Sylvester name. Charles Sylvester, a draper was Walters brother. Thomas Sylvester, a shop keeper was Walters uncle.

Map of Fegg Hayes C1900 / An old photograph of Chatterley whitfield

The following is from a book written by James Jacks in 1935 and is called History of Chatterley Whitfield Colliery.

In 1882 a fifteen year old youth by the name of Walter Sylvester came to work at Whitfield colliery in North Staffordshire. As he grew up in his teens he became very sedate and religious in life. He never took part in light or frivolous conversation. He was observed to take off his cap and utter a silent prayer the moment he arrived on the companies premises.

His religious bent was of a very puritanical character. He was most methodical in his beliefs and practices. One day he left his notebook on the office desk. It was at once seized by the other clerks of the office and the manger of the colliery that was also present, and its contents read. One of the persons present, by no means of a religious character, found his name entered as follows: "A prayer for W..... B...... a notorious evil liver". W.B. had to stand the fire of his colleagues sarcasm and his remakes were certainly not pious.

What the manger thought when he came to the entry "A prayer for a rise in wages" is not known, but the clerks noticed that shortly afterwards Walter received one. All this may not be of interest except that after Walter had been on the colliery a few years, in about 1892 or 1893 it became known that he had patented an appliance for drawing timber in the pit which would minimise danger to the miners. This turned out to be correct and the Walter he had given it his own Christian name, became universally in demand for colliery work.

This is a diagram of the Sylvester together with the Conway attachment

Although employed as a clerk Walter was very aware of the dangers that miners faced underground especially when withdrawing timber for re-use. This was the cause of many injuries and deaths. Over the next few years with the help of Mr E. B. Wain, who we believe was the manager of Chatterley Whitfield, who gave Walter the benefit of his help guidance and experience, he designed, manufactured and sold equipment that became synonymous with his name.

The invention of Walters device must be seen in the context of mining in the late 19th century. At this time coal mines although still working the pillar and stall system had started to convert to longwall production. Longwall mining required much more timber which had to be recovered as the faces moved forward. To make the system efficient miners would have to recover the supports from the wastes behind the face. Any timber lost would have been a drain on profits, and colliery owners would have been reluctant to lose them. The problem was that in order to recover them the miner would invariably have to knock them out with a hammer. This was a very dangerous practice. After all, the wooden post was there to support the roof. Therefore if the support is removed it is likely that the roof would collapse upon the unfortunate worker.

Walter's machine allowed the workman to remove the support from a place of safety. The Sylvester came in three parts, the sword, the chain and the box. It was robust, simple to use and any damaged parts could be exchanged. In time the machine was also used to lift derailed wagons back onto the rails. It received universal acceptance in the mining world and it was not long before its use was insisted upon in mining regulations. But Walter made a serious error in not patenting his invention abroad. As a result another person (unknown) from Chatterley Whitfield went over the water to America with the invention and made his fortune. As James Jack said in a written article in 1952, This is an example of Mans inhumanity to man.

When researching this story in 2009 Mrs Valerie Whittaker, Walters grandniece said

Walter's brother Percy went over to America with his wife and family in 1918 to be an agent for Walter. They lived at Parkersburg. Although he stayed in America he certainly did not make a fortune. During the recession over there he gave up the agency in the 1930's. There was some friction between the brothers due to nothing being set down on paper. Walter took out patents for the "Sylvester" in a number of countries where it was sold. The war interrupted sales, as they were unable to export. With Walter's death business didn't seem to pick up. The family carried on with the factory in Tunstall until the 1960's.

This is a copy of an advertisement for the Sylat post puller from Parkersburg West Virginia. We would like to thank Apedale Heritage Centre for permission to use it

Walter's original specification Patent No 9396 dated the 13th of May 1895 calls his device an appliance. In December 1896 at a meeting of the North Staffordshire Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers a paper was read by Mr E.B. Wain, M.Inst.C.E. regarding an improved method for withdrawing pit props. He then went on to describe the machine and highlighted its benefits. Mr Wain also said that he had used this machine away from the face for lifting wagons back onto the rails and for helping in a mess. (A mess describes the after effects of runaway wagons, full and empty colliding in an underground roadway) He was of the opinion that this new machine was much better than the one presently in use especially given its leveragepotential of 30 to 1 compared with the present machines that rate only 7 to 1. Another member of the Institute Mr J. Heath considered that the machine was a very good one and he had used it successfully where other dogs (machines) had failed. The machine of course was the Sylvester. At the end of the meeting Mr Sylvester said the machines cost 1.10s and at present there are 24 at Whitfield colliery and a further 18 in other places. Given the rapid expansion in the use of Sylvesters machines I think we can say the meeting went well.

Having invented his machine he decided to manufacturer it. When he gave up his job up at Chatterley Whitfield as a mark of esteem the directors and staff at the colliery presented him with an illuminated address.

Walter's house in Hamil Road and a photograph of Walter, is wife Agnes and baby Millicent

In 1900 Walter married Agnes Worthington of Fegg Hayes. The following year they were living at in Hamil Road, Burslem. Walter is described as an employer making mechanical machinery for use underground.

Walter's father in 1901 was residing at 65 Stanley Street, Tunstall. Living with him is his wife Mary, daughters Ann, Caroline, Emily and Ellen, sons Percy and Francis William known as Billy. Walter senior, Percy and Francis William were all described as mechanical machine fitters. It is almost certain they were all working for Walter. His workshop premises were in Pinnox Street Tunstall. He soon prospered, expanding into the motor trade selling both cars and motor bikes. But for all that Walter was still an inventor and the main thrust of his life was to do all he could to improve the lot of the miners.

This derelict building is part of Walter's Pinnox Street factory in Tunstall

Two Adverts for Walter's motor trade

He continued to design and manufacture a number of new inventions. Firstly he improved the Sylvester then went on to patent Haulage Clips in 1904, 1912 and again in 1913. In 1909 he patented Pulling Jacks. In 1918 it was Chain Couplings and Adjusting Appliances. In 1931 he applied his talents to the pottery industry when he invented Metal Stands for supporting pottery when firing.

This photograph shows a collier using a Sylvester from a place of safty. We would like to thank Apedale Heritage Centre for permission to use it

Despite Walters continuing success he never forgot his faith. In 1932 The Wesleyan Sunday School in Chell were having their 58th Annual Sermons (anniversary). Among the notaries was the treasurer, no other than Walter Sylvester. Under Walter's stewardship even during the dark days of the depression the church still managed an income of 61 15s 2d.

The rear of Pitshill Wesleyan Church and the front page of the Anniversary programme

In 1932 it was back to coal mining with the invention of the Safety P Prop. It was roof supports again in 1936 while in 1938 it was brackets for pit props.

Walter's "P" Prop

Soon it was war time; although it would be against Walter's nature to support the war there is no doubt that both he and the company did their duty. It is impossible to underestimate the pivotal position Walter found himself in. His numerous inventions were desperately needed to produce the coal required for British industry. Before and during the war Sylvesters factory were extremely busy filling orders for coal mines all over the country. We have letters, order forms, receipts and telegrams some of which are shown below.

A letter from Sneyd Colliery in May 1937

On the left a telegram from Hadfield colliery in 1942. The ministry letter on the right refers to Hardwick colliery dated October 1943

Later in the year Walter received a letter from the Midland Region of the Ministry of Fuel and Power to the effect that Hardwick Colliery, Nottingham were desperate for 72 Sylvester safety props and the regional Mining Supplies Officer Mr Taigel would take it as a personal favour if Walter could oblige on this occasion.

Walter added collapsible pit props to his list of inventions in 1939 together with devices for shoring. Between 1940 and his death in 1944 he patented two further pit props. Just when victory in the war was in sight Walter sadly passed way. His death was announced in the Evening Sentinel of November 2nd 1944.

Walter's house in Tunstall

We regret the record the death of Mr Walter Sylvester, M.I.M.E., well known in North Staffordshire engineering circles as a manufacturer of mining appliances and as a motor engineer, in Pinnox Street, Tunstall.

Mr Sylvester who was 76 years old came of a family of mining engineers, and followed his fathers calling. At an early age he gained valuable experience at Chatterley Whitfield Collieries, as a result of which he invented an appliance for withdrawing pit props, for the greater safety of all miners on underground work, including road maintenance and packing.

He decided to manufacture this appliance, and on his retirement from his position at Chatterley Whitfield he was presented with an illuminated address from the directors and staff, as a mark of their high esteem for his conscientious work for so many years.

Among the mining community his appliance became known affectionately as Walter throughout North Staffordshire, its use was recommended in mining text-books, as the safest means of withdrawing either steel or wood props.

When foreign timber became difficult to obtain early in the war, Mr Sylvester invented a steel prop with an ingenious steel cap or lid which was easily detachable. This saved much labour and expense, and could be used in conjunction with the earlier invention. He also perfected a rope clip for use in haulage purposes. This saving wear and tear in steel rope service is in extensive use in local collieries.

Mr Sylvester was intensely interested in social and religious work. At one time he considered entering the mission field. His wife, formally Miss Agnes Worthington of Fegg-Hayes was closely interested in Mr Sylvesters religious work and an invaluable help to him in all his activities in this direction.

Deep sympathy will be extended to her, and to her son and three daughters in their sad loss.

Later in the week came this response. To the Editor

Sir, I was pleased to see the report in the Sentinel giving some account of the late Walter Sylvester and his work. His inventions have been of so great a value in saving lives in the pits that his name ought to rank with those of the great benefactors such as Humphrey Davy, of whom everyone has heard about.

Mr Sylvester's paramount ambition was to prevent casualties in the pits. He cared little or nothing for publicity and wealth, and he attained very, very little of these. But surely in this North Staffordshire district in which he lived and worked so unassumingly will want to evince some sense of the value and importance of his work. Indeed all Britain ought to do so.

His funeral was attended by about 120 people in all, yet daily thousands of men throughout our land have cause to bless his memory. I hope that when the memorial service is held in our church on November 12th 1944 there may be bigger signs of appreciation of a great man.

Rev Alan Stevens, Woodhall Memorial Church, Moorland Road, Burslem.

After his death in 1944 two more patents for pit props were submitted under the Sylvester banner.

In 1948 a letter was sent to Walter Sylvester Ltd, Scotia Works, Pinnox Street, Tunstall,(see below left) from Mr H. Shaw, Director of the Science Museum, South Kensington, London, S.W.7 to the effect.

Dear Sirs, many thanks for your letter of the 19th May, informing me that as soon as the name plate is available you will be forwarding to me the model prop and Sylvester to the museum. Yours etc.

In January of 1949 the Science Museum sent a further letter(see above right)to the Sylvester factory thanking them for delivering the models to them by car. This is another example of the recognition of Walter Sylvester's contribution to the mining industry when his expertise is displayed for all to see in London but he is virtually unknown in his native city, of Stoke on Trent.

Hadfields advert for Walter's device with "Day's" twisting attatchment

Walter in late middle age and his gravestone in Tunstall cemetary

Although Walters inventions were many he was and still is best known for the device that bore his name, the Sylvester. So how good was it? His invention outlived five monarchs, an abdication, sixteen prime ministers, some more than once, two world wars and a number of depressions. In all it reigned supreme for 80 years. Thats how good it was.

So our research into the life of Walter Sylvester was completed, but as far as we were concerned he was still Stoke on Trent's forgotten man. We decided that something had to be done to rectify this situation. So we then contacted Walters relative Valerie Whitaker, and with her blessing we decided to take our story to the top man Mr. Roy Capey the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent

We made an appointment and met him in his parlour at the civic centre. We told him all about Walter and wondered, that given, next year there was to be a celebration of 100 years since the Federation of the five towns into a city this might be the time to honour Walter for his work in saving the lives of mineworkers not just in Britain but all over the world. We suggested the possibility of erecting a plaque in his memory. Lord Mayor Capey explained that there was a committee overseeing events for next year and he would take our request to them give it what backing he could.

Early in 2010 we were delighted to receive the news that Walter would at last have the honour he so richly deserved. The new Lord Mayor Jean Bowers would preside over the ceremony in May of 2010.

The Lord Mayor Jean Bowers does the honours, and the plaque commissioned by the Stoke on Trent City Council

The day of the unveiling dawned fine and good crowd attended. Among the honored guests was Walters's great niece Val Whitaker who was to help with the unveiling. Both the Lord Mayor and Valerie said some nice things about us and the website. The Sentinel's reporter and photographer were in attendance. Afterward we all went to Ford Green Hall for light refreshments. Many people then went to Walters's grave in Tunstall Cemetery. It was a great day and we feel we can now say Walter Sylvester is no longer the "Forgotten Man". July 2010.

Below is a copy if the illuminated address presented to Walter when he left Chatterley Whitfield over 100 years ago. On the left hand side half way up there is a picture of a miner using his famous invention the "Sylvester." The following words were inscribed.

"Dear Sir, we the undersigned on behalf of the officials and workmen of Whitfield Colliery ask you accept this Address and the accompanying Secretaire, as an expression of our appreciation of your past conduct amongst us and of our good wishes for your future prosperity.

During the fifteen years you have been engaged at the Whitfield colliery, all of those with whom you have worked could not fail to appreciate your high moral character and earnest application to those duties you have had to perform.

Your thoughtful consideration for the safety and welfare of the workmen will always be remembered with gratitude and your ingenuity and careful attention to even the smallest details of your work must have left its mark as an example to all of us."

It was signed on behalf of the committee by

E.B. Wain Manager, W.S. Hobbs undermanager, Underlookers, John Thorpe, Edward Haywood, Samuel Swincoe and Edward Thomson. Clerk in Charge, George Turner. Pit Firemen Thomas Sheldon, Richard Sargeant and John Yardley. Two workmen were also named James Sargeant and Henry Whalley

Walter's Illuminated Address

We would like to put on record our thanks to the following people without whom this story would not have been written:

Joyce Wilson and John Burston

Mr Ian Bailey, Tutor Stoke-on-Trent Cauldon College.

Mr Tony Jakubek, of Autoweld Tunstall.

The late James Jack, Local Historian.

Mr Barry Job, of the Peak District Historical Society.

Mr Jim Worgan, Local Historian.

Dr Lloyd Boardman, Geologist.

The Staff at Hanley Archives.

The Staffordshire Evening Sentinel.

The Staff at Apedale Colliery Museum.

Valerie Whittaker nee Sylvester, the grandniece of Walter Sylvester.


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