Today is the birthday of John Metcalf, also called Blind Jack of Knaresborough. He was born in 1717. He’s something of a local boy for me. I learned about him in primary school and I went to art college with one of his descendants. He is most famous for building about 180 miles of road in the north of England.
He became blind at the age of six following a bout of smallpox. What I like about him is that he didn’t let that hold him back at all. After six weeks he could find his way to the end of the street and back. After three years he could find his way all around town and was running messages for people. His blindness didn’t prevent him from swimming, fishing, climbing trees or playing cards with his friends. His father was a horse breeder and John became a keen rider. He went hunting and also claimed to have won a horse race in Knaresborough. He achieved this by getting his friends to stand around the course ringing bells so that he knew which way to go. What the other horses in the race thought of this isn’t recorded.
John learned the fiddle which he used to play in local pubs. He also became a guide for visitors to the area, day or night, it didn’t matter to him. A man who he led from York to the Granby Inn in Harrogate remarked to the landlord that he thought John must have suddenly drunk an awful lot because his eyes looked weird. He didn’t even realise his guide was blind.
He wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue. He got one girl pregnant and eloped with another on the eve of her wedding. He was an adventurer though. He was instrumental in helping to raise a private army who marched to Scotland to fight against the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Whilst there he seems to have managed to infiltrate the enemy camp in search of a friend who he believed had been kidnapped. He was also present at the Battle of Culloden.
In his civilian life he variously traded horses, imported stockings from Scotland, drove a horse and carriage,drove cart loads of fish from the Yorkshire coast to Leeds and Manchester and also sometimes returned to playing the fiddle. Almost all his work involved travel of some sort, so he must have been very aware how bad the roads were. Most were little more than cart tracks. In 1741 he spent some time in London where he was playing his fiddle and travelling with a friend who played the pipes. There he became friendly with a man called Colonel Liddell who offered him a seat in his coach when he returned north. Jack declined, saying that he would prefer to walk. Imagine a blind man who was prepared to walk 200 miles on unknown roads, that must have taken a lot of confidence and tenacity. Not only did he walk all the way, he arrived in Harrogate two days before the colonel. This little story shows how bad the roads really were.
In the 1760s the government began to set up a turnpike system of roads across the country. This meant people would pay to use the roads and the fee would be used for its upkeep. Jack tendered to build the first three miles of a road between Harrogate and Boroughbridge. He won the contract, finished the job on time and everyone was happy with it. That was the start of an almost thirty year career for him. He didn’t build them on his own of course, but he used to walk each finished section, tapping it with his stick to make sure it was sound. He specialized in building roads over boggy land. He achieved this by having his men tie tight bundles of heather and ling, laying them in rows on top of each other as a foundation, then laying stone and gravel over the top. The surface was cambered so that rainwater could drain off to either side.
He built his last road in 1792 at the age of 75. After that he returned to trading and also in 1806 narrated his life story to a publisher in York. He lived to be 93.