Metcalf, John [called Blind Jack of Knaresborough]
- Christine S. Hallas
Metcalf, John [called Blind Jack of Knaresborough] (1717–1810), road builder and surveyor, was born on 15 August 1717 at Knaresborough, of parents of modest means. He was sent to school at the age of four but two years later became blind after an attack of smallpox. Despite his blindness he became an accomplished rider, swimmer, and card player. He enjoyed a wager and was involved in cockfighting, horse-racing, and philandering. Metcalf played the violin and oboe and from the age of fifteen earned a living entertaining wealthy visitors to the rapidly developing spa of Harrogate. He was also a successful horse dealer.
According to the Memoirs that Metcalf published in 1795, at the age of twenty he became enamoured of a local innkeeper's daughter, Dorothy Benson (1716/17–1778), but, owing to an indiscretion with another woman, had to leave the area. He travelled to the coast and at Whitby boarded a ship for London. While in the capital he renewed some of his earlier contacts. One of these acquaintances, Colonel Liddell, was about to travel to Harrogate and offered to take Blind Jack with him. However, Jack, aware of the poor condition of the roads, struck a wager that he would get to Harrogate more quickly on foot than by coach. Jack took five and a half days to walk about 210 miles and won the wager.
Shortly after his return in 1739 Metcalf discovered that Dorothy was to be married. He ascertained her continuing affection for him and on the eve of her wedding they eloped. They subsequently married and settled in Knaresborough. The couple had four surviving children. In addition to continuing his career as a musician Metcalf established the first public chaise enterprise in Harrogate and a business carrying fresh fish from the coast to Leeds and Manchester. He soon gave up this latter venture, finding the profits small for the effort expended.
In 1745 Metcalf became involved in suppression of the Jacobite rising, raising troops locally for William Thornton of York. Metcalf accompanied the troops north, and was present at the battle of Falkirk, and later at Culloden. While with the army Metcalf established a number of contacts and on his return home traded in textiles from Scotland. He also conveyed army baggage and, despite some near disasters, carried contraband such as tea, brandy, and rum. In 1751, when he was thirty-four years old, Metcalf established a stage-wagon service between York and Knaresborough. His extensive travelling meant that he was fully conversant with the poor state of roads in the area and when the opportunity arose to embark on a new career of road building, he took it.
In 1752 the first Turnpike Act in the locality authorized a route between Boroughbridge and Harrogate. Metcalf approached Thomas Ostler, the surveyor, and contracted to build a 3 mile section, which he successfully completed ahead of schedule. As a consequence of the high quality of his work and of his novel ideas of construction, he was awarded the contract to build a bridge at Boroughbridge. Despite obstruction from his competitors he completed the bridge successfully and by August 1754 had received over £500 for his work. Metcalf sold his stage-wagon business in order to concentrate on this new and more profitable career. His next major contract was a 6 mile stretch between Harrogate and Harewood, near Leeds, for which he received £1200. As Metcalf's reputation grew he was awarded contracts in other parts of Yorkshire and, subsequently, in Lancashire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire. A contemporary noted that Metcalf was 'a projector and surveyor of highways in difficult and mountainous parts' using only his staff as a guide (Bew, 173).
Metcalf frequently undertook projects that other people refused and managed to complete all his contracts, though on occasions he lost financially. In order to deal with marshy areas he devised a method of laying heather and gorse as the foundation and building the road on top. This proved very successful and in many places enabled a more direct route to be taken. He built several stretches of moorland road linking Yorkshire and Lancashire and altered many routes in the Peak District. Metcalf was meticulous in his surveys and was so convinced as to the correctness of his routes and methods that for a new Pennine road over Pule and Standish common he offered to bear the cost if his scheme was not successful. He used his heather and gorse remedy and employed 400 men for the 9 mile stretch. Metcalf proudly notes that this section of road required no repairs for twelve years. For the whole contract of 21 miles he received £4500. His next projects were in Cheshire and for a total of 26 miles he received £6500. In addition to road building, Metcalf occasionally constructed houses.
In 1778 Metcalf's wife died in Stockport, where she had been seeking a cure for her rheumatism. Metcalf subsequently established a cotton-spinning business with his son-in-law in Cheshire. It was not successful and after a brief foray into cotton weaving he returned to road building which he continued until 1792 when he was seventy-five years old.
In the course of his career Metcalf had constructed over 120 miles of high-quality road, for which he received in excess of £40,000. Metcalf attributed his success to his excellent memory for detail, which had developed as a result of his blindness. He made a valuable contribution to communications in the late eighteenth century by improving routes and thus enabling wheeled vehicles to move more easily in the critical period of rapid industrial expansion.
Metcalf retired to a smallholding in Spofforth near Wetherby, but remained active, dealing in hay and timber. Having dictated memoirs of his remarkable life, Metcalf published these in 1795, selling them to visitors in Harrogate. He died, aged ninety-two, in Spofforth, on 27 April 1810 and was buried on 30 April in All Saints' churchyard, Spofforth. An epitaph on his gravestone praises his great achievements, despite being 'one whose infant sight/Felt the dark pressure of an endless night'.
- S. Smiles, Lives of the engineers, 1 (1861), 208–34
- parish register, Spofforth, All Saints, 30 April 1810, N. Yorks. CRO, MIC1645, vol. 9 [burial]
- turnpike trust accounts, Harrowgate–Boroughbridge, 1752–1876, N. Yorks. CRO, TD16/1-2, MIC669
- E. Hargrove, The history of the castle, town, and forest of Knaresborough, 7th edn (1832)
- G. Bew, ‘Observations on blindness and on the employment of the other senses to supply the loss of sight’, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, 1 (1785), 159–84, esp. 172–4, 176
- The life of John Metcalf, commonly called Blind Jack of Knaresborough, 3rd edn (1804)
- Harrogate Library, Harrogate, Yorkshire, boxfile on John Metcalf, chapbooks
- T. Treddlehoyle, Bairnsla foaks annual (1847), 2–30
- S. Smiles, Life of Telford (1867), 74–98
- parish registers, Knaresborough, 1710–30, N. Yorks. CRO, MIC2397, vol. 1/4 [baptisms; no mention of the baptism of a Metcalf]
- Three celebrities of Knaresborough , 23–48
- M. Hartley and J. Ingilby, Yorkshire portraits (1961), 71–4
- J. R. Smith, line drawing, 1795, BM, NPG; repro. in Metcalf, Life of John Metcalf (1795)