RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 38 Number 2 Article 1
May 2001

A note on Walter Sylvester and his invention(1)

Everyone knows about Jim Newton's secret weapon, the "Sylvester", an old ratchet and lever device that he has put to good effect over the years in shifting boulders from one shake hole to another, occasionally even revealing a cave entrance! Sylvester Pot, discovered using this technique in October 1989, was of course named after the device.(2)

We have often wondered about the origin of the name. Jim has seen similar devices at agricultural shows (farmers use them to tension fencing wire), and in garages to hoist out engine blocks, but a search through various farming and equipment catalogues failed to provide any historical details. A dictionary of engineering described a "Sylvester" as a hand-operated mining device used to pull out supports from old mine workings using a long chain.(3)

A recent article by Barry Job, a member of the Peak Mines Historical Society, in a recent volume of Mining History (1999), reveals the full story of "Walter Sylvester - Potteries inventor, and his famous invention: the Sylvester"! A brief summary of Barry Job's article is given below, but a copy of the full article is available from the RRCPC library (see Sandra).

During the late nineteenth century the commonest type of a fatal mine accident was a roof collapse caused by knocking out the pit props with a sledgehammer. In order to try and counter this problem, Walter Sylvester, who worked for a colliery in North Staffordshire, invented a ratcheted pulling device, which could be attached to the pit props by a long chain and used to haul them out without any danger to the operator. It could also be used for pulling trucks and other heavy items, and tightening-up cables. It was patented in 1895; known locally as a "Walter" it soon became widely used in mining and other industries as the "Sylvester", and was still made under that name until the 1970s. The use of a Sylvester for safety was made mandatory by the Coal Mine Act of 1911. However modern mining techniques eventually made them superfluous, also they could be dangerous if used improperly, and they were eventually banned by the Coal Board in 1978.

An interesting story, but the missing piece of data is Walter's life dates - any ideas? Anyway it seems the Sylvester has found a new use in the caving world. Jim is of course an expert in the improper use of the device, and would be pleased to demonstrate it to interested members at the Farm any weekend!

Peter & Julie Mohr
and Jim & Jackie Newton


  1. Full acknowledgement must be made to Barry Job's article, "Walter Sylvester - Potteries inventor and his famous invention: the Sylvester", in Mining History, Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter, 1999.
  2. RRCPC Journal, No. 9, 1983-92. Northern Caves 3, 1994, pp.164-6. RRCPC Newsletter, Vol. 35, July 1998.
  3. McGraw Hill, Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms.

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