Metcalf, John (DNB00)

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METCALF, JOHN (1717-1810), commonly known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough,' was born at Knaresborough, of poor parents, on 15 Aug. 1717. When six years old he lost his sight as a consequence of a severe attack of small-pox, but his self-confidence was uninjured, and he soon excelled most boys of his age in performances which require activity and daring. He was taught the fiddle, so that he might obtain a subsistence as a strolling musician, then regarded as the sole occupation open to a blind man, but Jack Metcalf had more natural taste for the cry of a hound or a harrier.' He became a good rider and swimmer, led nesting and orchard-robbing expeditions, distinguished himself as a diver, a cock-fighter, and in the hunting-field. He was soon known, moreover, as a gallant, as a wag, a successful card-player, and a shrewd dealer in horses. By 1738, when he attained the age of twenty-one, he was barely under six feet two inches in height, extremely robust, and ready- tongued. He rode several races with success, and desired to become a jockey. In 1739 he surprised the country-side by eloping with a publican's daughter named Dorothy Benson, on the night before her marriage with a certain Dickinson, and he married her the next morning, before the disconsolate Dickinson had obtained a clue to her whereabouts. He took a small house at Knaresborough, and seems to have been a model husband, though his exploits grew more and more daring. He walked to London and back, easily outstripping the coach of one of his patrons, Colonel Liddel, on the return journey. In 1745 he became recruiting-sergeant on the king's side, and enlisted 140 Knaresborough men with extraordinary rapidity. Sixty-four of the men were drafted into a company formed by William Thornton, and marched, with Blind Jack playing at their head, to Newcastle, where, by General Wade's orders, they were incorporated in Pulteney's regiment. Metcalf fought at and escaped from the battle of Falkirk. He afterwards fiddled at a ball given at Aberdeen by the Duke of Cumberland, who 'spoke him fair,' and gave him two guineas, and he was present at Culloden. After returning to Knaresborough he engaged in horse-dealing at Harrogate, being an excellent judge of horseflesh, entirely by touch. He also traded in cotton and worsted goods, and did a vigorous stroke of smuggling (chiefly brandy and tea) whenever occasion offered. In 1750 he made good profits out of some military transport work, and in 1754 commenced a new business, setting up a stage-coach between York and Knaresborough, which he conducted himself twice a week in summer and once in winter. He also bought and sold timber and hay in the stack, measuring with his arms and rapidly reducing cubic contents to feet and inches, after a mental process of his own.

Metcalf's travels had given him an unrivalled familiarity with the northern roads. He knew how bad they were, and how their worst features could best be remedied. He now became a pioneer road-maker and bridge-builder, and one of the chief predecessors of Telford and Macadam. In 1765 parliament passed an act authorising the construction of a new turnpike-road between Harrogate and Boroughbridge. Metcalf offered to construct three miles of the proposed road, between Minskip and Fearnsby. and the master-surveyor, Ostler, who knew him well and had the greatest confidence in his abilities, let him the contract. Metcalf devoted himself wholly to the new undertaking. He completed his work with unusual speed and thoroughness, and, encouraged by success, undertook to build a bridge at Boroughbridge, which he again completed satisfactorily. His success led to his constant employment on similar work during a period of more than thirty years. The total mileage of the turnpike-roads constructed by him, involving the building of many bridges, retaining walls, and culverts, was about 180 miles, for which he received not less than 65,000l. Among his roads were those between Wakefield and Doncaster, Huddersfield and Halifax, Ashton and Stockport, and Bury and Blackburn. The Huddersfield and Manchester road was carried by him, over a bog which had been thought quite impracticable.

In all these undertakings Metcalf took an active personal share. A contemporary writes: 'With the assistance only of a long staff, I have several times met this man traversing the roads, ascending steep and rugged heights, exploring valleys, and investigating their several extents, forms, and situations, so as to answer his designs in the best manner. The plans which he makes and the estimates which he prepares are done in a method peculiar to himself, and of which he cannot well convey the meaning to others. His abilities in this respect are nevertheless so great that he finds constant employment. Most of the roads over the Peak in Derbyshire have been altered by his directions… I have met this blind projector while engaged in making his survey. He was alone as usual, and amongst other conversation I made some enquiries respecting the new road [from Wilmslow to Congleton]. It was really astonishing to hear with what accuracy he described its course and the nature of the different soils through which it was conducted' (Bew, Observations on Blindness).

He finally relinquished road-making in 1792, and, after an unsuccessful venture in the cotton business, retired to a small farm at Spofforth, near Wetherby. He retained his shrewd mother-wit and resolute spirit to the last, and dying on 26 April 1810, at Follifoot, near Knaresborough, was buried at Spofforth. An epitaph in All Saints churchyard bears a well written inscription in heroic verse (quoted in Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 323). He was ninety-three years of age at the time of his death, and left behind him ninety great-grandchildren. Mrs. Metcalf died at Stockport in 1778.

[The best account of Metcalf, doing full justice to his value as a road-maker, is that in Smiles's Telford, 1867, pp. 74-94 (with portrait and cuts of his birthplace and farm at Spofforth); Life of John Metcalf, York, 1795 (with portrait after J. II. Smith); another edition (with portrait engraved by Pigot), Manchester, 1826; Life of Blind Jack of Knaresborough in Baring-Gould's Yorkshire Oddities, i. 120-76 (mainly based on chap-books); Gent. Mag. 1810, i. 597; Spencer Walpole's Hist, of England, i. 73-4; Memoirs of Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, i. 172-4; Hargrove's Hist, of Knaresborough, 1809; Calvert's Hist, of Knaresborough, 1844, p. 104; Boynes's Yorkshire Library, p. 246.]

T. S.