Could the mystery of what one of the region’s most important ever inventors actually looked like be about to be solved? Chris Webber finds out about the sometimes farcical quest to find a true likeness of John Walker, inventor of the friction match.

THE nation has giggled more than once about the story of how the people of Stockton once cast a bust of its most famous inventor...only to find it was the wrong man.

But the last laugh might be on the comedians of the BBC's Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY) who recently followed up a Northern Echo story on the subject for a few easy laughs – only to use another image also almost certainly showing the wrong man.

There is also third image, in the possession of Stockton Borough Council, which might, just possibly, prove to be our man.

For sure, there's a funny, farcical side to the story but it's important too. Few inventors have made a more useful contribution to the world than John Walker, 1781 to 1859, chemist at 59, High Street, Stockton, who gave his invention away for humanity only to see others make a fortune from his benevolence. He really is a true North-East hero. His image would be invaluable to promoting Stockton and our region.

And, surely, no-one alive has done more to keep his name in the public eye than father-and-daughter team Ray and Carolyn Hewitson, deeply proud Stocktonians both.

It was Mr Hewitson, now 92, who first established in the early 1990s that the bust of Walker paid for by public subscription and unveiled in the 1970s, was the wrong man. The bust is still there, in the Castlegate Shopping Centre, and Mr Hewitson agrees that it should be, since there is no proven image to replace it with. After all, that image of another John Walker, was accepted as the real thing and appears to have been verified by Walker's own grand-niece, Ann Wilkinson, in the Edwardian period for a publication featuring the great man.

However there is no shadow of doubt that this first John Walker image is the wrong man. That John Walker was a famous actor and lexicographer and his portrait appears in several books from the period of his own life.

But what of the second image, the one used by HIGNFY and the Daily Mail who followed up The Northern Echo's story? Once again, we rely on the Hewitsons to investigate and get closer to the truth. They found out that this portrait, was released by the Science & Society Picture Library (SSPL) and syndicated through a national press agency. However the Hewitsons checked it with the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) who also had the same portrait – but recorded the figure as James Walker who was a Scottish engineer.

It is conceivable that this image could be our John Walker, but senior image library manager at the SSPL, Jeremiah Solak, is fairly certain it has been mislabelled.

And yet there is a third option. Another portrait was sent to Stockton's former Green Dragon Museum in Stockton in the early 1990s by a man named Mr Hodgson from London. That portrait was dubbed, 'long-haired Johny' by John Walker's best known biographer, Doreen Thomas of Middlesbrough.

Mr Hewitson, a keen genealogist, corresponded with Mr Hodgson in the early nineties, sharing information on their family trees. Mr Hodgson said he believed JohnWalker to be a cousin of a Walker in his own line but according to Mr Hewitson’s research, John Walker had no cousins named Walker.

"I don't think an image of John Walker exists,"said Mr Hewitson, "it was expensive to get a portrait and John Walker was not a rich man."

Nonetheless a spokesman for Stockton council says the re-emergence of the story has piqued interest at the authority's arts and heritage team who have tried but failed to get hold of any hard information. A letter will be written to Mr Hodgson in the coming days.

Could there be a fourth, new option? If a written description could be found of the inventor, an artist or a police e-fit specialist might be persuaded to create a likeness.

The nearest the Hewitsons have found so far came from a History of Stockton book which reprints a description recorded by men who knew John Walker. It said: "He (John Walker) was a smart, trim, dapper little man. He wore a brown coat with tails, drab breeches down to the knees and grey stockings. He also wore an old-fashioned white cravat and tall beaver hat. He was a merry, facetious little fellow, who loved to hear and crack a joke."

The third, 'long-haired Johnny,' picture has the cravat and he seems a merrier figure than the others. But it is far from proof. But if anyone can crack the mystery, it is undoubtedly the doughty Hewitsons who will not let wishful thinking cloud hard fact.

Do you have any more information on the possible images of John Walker? If so contact Chris Webber on 01325 505079.