Jack of all trades: celebrating the blind road-building legend

Post date: 
Wednesday, 2 August 2017

2017 marks 300 years since the birth of Blind Jack from Knaresborough. Joe Shute, writing for Welcome to Yorkshire, tells the tale of the legendary musician, drinker, gambler, huntsman, smuggler and road builder, who overcame disability in the most amazing way.

In a quiet northernmost corner of the graveyard of All Saints Church in North Yorkshire, lies the strapping 6 foot 2 inch frame of John Metcalf, who came to be known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough. At first glance, the casual visitor would not even suppose a person of particular note was buried there. But stop to read the 16 lines of text carved into the moss-covered stone, and a picture of a different man begins to emerge.

Metcalf was supposedly condemned into a life of obscurity when he was left blind by smallpox at the age of six. For many children born to a family with low social status in the early part of the 18th century, that would have been a death sentence of sorts. But through immeasurable talent and sheer force of will, he ended up changing his fate.

What did he become? The list is nothing short of incredible, but the most notable of these achievements is becoming the man who shaped the modern motorway system of the north. Three hundred years since his birth in 1717, the giant image of Blind Jack still dominates Knaresborough.
For the three-hundreth anniversary celebrations this year, the town is putting on numerous community events to commemorate the life of Blind Jack. But in truth, one could visit Knaresborough at any time in any year and immerse themselves in the life of John Metcalf. In the ancient market square, where there has been a weekly market held continually since 1310, a statue of Blind Jack sits beaming out, clutching the viameter (road surveyor’s measuring wheel) he used to build new turnpikes across Yorkshire.
Prior to his career as a civil engineer, he was a keen musician and regularly played the pubs and hotels of the burgeoning spa town of Harrogate. In particular, he frequented the Royal Oak – where he met his future wife Dorothy “Dolly” Benson whose father was landlord of the pub – and the Queen’s Head (now the Cedar Court Hotel) where he serenaded guests over their breakfasts.

“Today he remains a real inspiration to people,” says Roger Hewitt, the town crier of Knaresborough. “Everybody in Knaresborough loves the link to his past. It’s because he could turn his hand to so many things that lots of people can identify with Blind Jack. They think if he can do that then they should try something outside of their comfort zone as well.”

By the time of his birth, Knaresborough was already on the tourist map. More and more visitors came to take the waters in Harrogate's famous mineral springs. In 1717 the great writer and journalist Daniel Defoe was among those to travel here. As Blind Jack’s biographer Arnold Kellett points out, Metcalf was not born into “abject poverty” but neither was there much in the way of opportunities. Blind Jack’s parents are described plainly in his own memoirs as “working people”.
Rather, from a young age he was a serial networker. Through his music he regularly rubbed shoulders with wealthy and aristocratic families and was invited to play at numerous grand country estates across the country. He nurtured high-ranking friendships and was taken under the wing of a patron, William Thornton, who was later to become MP for York.
That friendship was to lead Blind Jack to war. During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Thornton raised a company of men to send over the border to Scotland and enlisted Blind Jack as chief recruiter and musician. Metcalfe survived brutal combat and capture by the Jacobites to rise to prominence within the ranks for his skill at rousing people.
It was only after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 that he returned home, to the news that Dolly had given birth to their fourth child. But Blind Jack was still not ready to settle into family life, and instead turned his hand to smuggling. He was already a sharp wheeler-dealer and from his hometown set up a smuggling route right to Scotland. All manner of contraband was whisked away from the prying eyes of the authorities under Blind Jack’s command. According to his biographer he even receives an “honourable” mention in the records of Scottish trafficking.
The chance for a more wholesome career choice came about in 1752, with the announcement of a new turnpike to be built between Harrogate and Boroughbridge. Blind Jack bid for the contract and won. It was to prove the first of an estimated 180 miles of road that he built in Yorkshire and four other counties. His aptitude for completing the work within budget and over treacherous terrain was unparalled.

“On foot and horseback he had explored more of Britain than the majority of his contemporaries,” says Knaresborough resident Bernard Higgins, who is helping lead the three-hundreth anniversary celebrations of Blind Jack. “In particular, he knew the northern part of the country better by smell, feel and touch than most sighted natives.”

Blind Jack only retired in 1792, at the age of 75 and already a widower after Dolly had died in 1778 while he was roadbuilding in Cheshire. It was not until 1810, at the age of 93, that Blind Jack was to finally join her, leaving behind four children and 20 grandchildren.
Metcalf still does not receive the attention outside of the town that is warranted by his achievements. “He is not forgotten but neither has he been elevated to the position that a person with his courage and perseverance deserves,” Higgins says. Perhaps in this 300th year since his birth, Blind Jack will finally assume his rightful place as one of Yorkshire’s most inspirational sons.

Further information

  • North Yorkshire sight loss charities RNIB Tate House (our care home for older people with sight loss), Henshaws and Vision Support (Harrogate District) have been working to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Blind Jack's birth. Together, they have successfully arranged for part of Harrogate ring road to be named "John Metcalf Way" in his honour.

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