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John Metcalf

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John Metcalf, or as he was more popularly known, Blind Jack Metcalf (August 15, 1717 – April 26, 1810) was the first of the professional road builders to emerge during the Industrial Revolution.

Although made blind from smallpox at the age of six, John had an eventful life, which was well documented by his own account just before his death. In the period 1765 to 1792 he built about 300 km (180 miles) of turnpike road, mainly in Lancashire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire.

 

Early life

John was born in Knaresborough, England about 15 miles north of Leeds, Yorkshire on August 15, 1717 into a poor family, the son of a horse breeder. At the age of six, he lost his sight to a smallpox infection. The child was given fiddle lessons as a way of making provision for him to earn a living later in life. He became an accomplished fiddler and made this his livelihood in the early adult years. He had an affinity for horses and added to his living with some horse trading. Though blind, he took up swimming and diving, fighting cocks, playing cards, riding, and even hunting. He knew his local area so well he got paid to work as a guide to visitors.

In 1739 Jack befriended Dorothy Benson the landlord's daughter of the Granby inn in Harrogate. When, at the age of 21 he made another woman pregnant, Dorothy begged him not to marry the woman and Jack fled. He then spent some time living along the North Sea coast between Newcastle and London, also lodging with his aunt at Whitby. He continued to work as a fiddler. When he heard Dorothy was to be married to a shoemaker, Jack returned and eloped with her. They married and went on to have four children. Dorothy died in 1778.

His fiddle playing gave him social connections and a patron, Colonel Liddell. In one much repeated story the colonel decided to take his young protégé to London, 190 miles away to the south. John found the colonel’s leisurely progress too slow and went ahead on foot. He reached London first and then returned to Yorkshire before the colonel. He managed this though on foot and blind and the story demonstrates Jacks determination and resourcefulness.

During the Second Jacobite rebellion of 1745 Jack’s connections got him the job of assistant to the recruiting sergeant who was raising a company for the King in the Knaresborough area. Jack went with the army to Scotland. He did not experience action but was employed moving guns over boggy ground. He was later captured but released.

After the war he used his Scottish experience to begin importing Aberdeen stockings to England.

CarrierBefore his army service Jack had tried his hand as a carrier using a four wheeled chaise and a one-horse chair on local trips. When competition cut into this business he switched to carrying fish from the coast to Leeds and Manchester. After 1745 he bought a stone wagon and worked it between York and Knaresborough. By 1754 his business had grown to a stagecoach line. He drove a coach himself, making two trips a week during the summer and one a week in the winter months.

 

Road builder

In 1765 Parliament passed an act authorising turnpike building in the Knaresborough area. There were few people around with road building experience and John seized the opportunity, building on his practical experience as a carrier. He won a contract to build a three-mile section between Minskip and Feamsby of a new road from Harrogate to Boroughbridge. He explored this section of countryside alone and worked out the most practical path. He went on to build roads all over Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Metcalf believed that a good road should have good foundations, be well drained and have a smooth convex (rounded) surface to allow rainwater to drain quickly into ditches at the side of the road. He understood the importance of good drainage, knowing it was rain which caused most of the problems on the roads.

He worked out a way to build a road across a bog using a series of rafts made from ling (a variety of rush or marsh grass) and furze (heather) tied in bundles as foundations. This established his reputation as a road builder as other engineers had believed it could not be done.

He acquired an unequalled mastery of his trade with his own accurate method of calculating costs and materials, which he could never successfully explain to others.

 

Later life

Competition from canals eventually cut into his profits and he retired in 1792 to live with a daughter and her husband at Spofforth Yorkshire. Throughout his career he built 180 miles of road. At 77 he walked to York where he related a detailed account of his life to a publisher (see Ref below). Blind Jack of Knaresborough died in his 93rd year on April 26, 1810, in his home in Spofforth. He is buried in Spofforth Churchyard.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com


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