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White Rose

Pannal village, WRY Yorkshire UK

BLIND JACK OF KNARESBOROUGH - otherwise JOHN METCALF, 1717-1810

BLIND JACK OF KNARESBOROUGH - otherwise JOHN METCALF, was perhaps one of the most remarkable Yorkshiremen who ever lived, principally because his life was one of prodigious effort, despite the fact that he was blind from the age of six, following an attack of smallpox. He became famous as a builder of roads and bridges, using techniques that in the 18th Century were revolutionary. He built roads on the Plain of York, as well as over the much more difficult terrain of the Pennines. His greatest speciality was in laying them across marshy ground, a problem no-one previously had solved. His only instrument was a stout staff. His method for laying foundations was to order his men to pull and bind heather in round bundles and to lay it on the intended road in rows, piling more bundles on top and pressing them down into the bog to soak up the water. He then brought carts loaded with stone and gravel to lay above the bundles of heather. Living at a time when turnpike roads were being built all over Britain, he was responsible for around 180 miles of road in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Cheshire, including the roads from Harrogate to Boroughbridge, Wakefield to Dewsbury and Doncaster, Knaresborough to Wetherby and Huddersfield to Halifax.

Jack Metcalf was born in a small thatched cottage opposite Knaresborough Castle on 25 August 1717. His father kept horses and after his illness which led to his blindness, Jack learned to ride. Determined not to be kept out of things by his handicap, he joined in all the normal boys' games. Once he dived into a river to try and save two drowning men, managing to pull one of them out. At 13 he learnt to play the violin, with a view to earning a living at it. He was tall, well-built and a normal young man apart from his blindness, and more than held his own at hunting, fishing, racing, wrestling and boxing. He was also a devotee of cockfighting and wagering at it. He learned the terrain around Knaresborough like the back of his hand and became adept at guiding travellers by day and night over the rough tracks and muddy roads of the then unenclosed Forest of Knaresborough. He also played his fiddle at gatherings in Harrogate and Ripon.

Whilst playing at the Royal Oak (later the Granby Hotel) at Harrogate he fell in love with the landlord's daughter, DOLLY BENSON. However, he then became entangled with another woman and to escape having to marry her fled to Scarborough. He moved between there and other towns like Whitby and Newcastle, playing his violin. Then he sailed from Whitby to London, where he stayed for 7 months, and then WALKED all the way back to Yorkshire. His true love Dolly had become engaged to a shoemaker in his absence, thinking Blind Jack too wild and irresponsible. However, she quickly regretted it and eloped with Jack the day before her wedding! Initially, the girl's parents were angry but later become reconciled when the marriage turned out happily, the couple having four daughters. Jack started a fish dealing business in Knaresborough, but it wasn't successful. He was still playing the fiddle and at the outbreak of the Bonnie Prince Charlie rebellion of 1745 he enlisted in the army, playing his violin in the field. He fought at Falkirk and Culloden before marching back home again. In 1754 he set up as a carrier between Knaresborough and York and it was this occupation that brought home to him the appalling condition of the roads.

Blind Jack seems to have been self taught regarding his road-building career and was lucky in that the Turnpike Acts had been passed in Parliament. The first stretch of road he worked on was that between Harrogate and Knaresborough, where he first tried out his method of crossing marshes and bogs. By the end of 1756 he was working on the turnpike from Halifax to Wakefield. In 1759 came his most difficult task, the road from Wakefield to Huddersfield and on over Crosland Moor and Marsden and over Standedge towards Manchester. On 9 miles of the road over the Pennine moors he employed 400 men and was paid the sum of 4,500. Later, Metcalf added to his road-building work by opening stone quarries and building bridges also. His wife became illl and he took her to be looked after by a married daughter at Stockton, where Dolly died in 1778. However, Blind Jack carried on road-building, with contracts in Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. He returned to Yorkshire in 1791, now aged 74, and retired to live with a daughter and her husband at Spofforth. At 77 he walked to York where he related his memoirs to a publisher. Blind Jack of Knaresborough died at Spofforth on 27 April 1810, in his 93rd year.

Roy Stockdill, Web page of the Stockdill Family History Society:- http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/roystock