John Metcalf (civil engineer)
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John Metcalf (1717–1810), also known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough or Blind Jack Metcalf, was the first professional road builder to emerge during the Industrial Revolution.
Blind from 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 180 miles (290 km) of turnpike road, mainly in the north of England.
Metcalf was born into a poor family in Knaresborough in Yorkshire, England on 15 August 1717. His father was a horse breeder. At the age of six John lost his sight after a smallpox infection; he 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 his early adult years. In 1732, aged 15, Metcalf succeeded Morrison as fiddler at the Queen's Head, a tavern in Harrogate. Morrison had played there for 70 years. Metcalf also 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 was paid to work as a guide to visitors.
In 1739 Jack befriended Dorothy Benson, the daughter of the landlord of the Granby Inn in Harrogate. When aged 21 he made another woman pregnant; Dorothy begged him not to marry the woman and Jack fled. He spent some time living along the North Sea Coast between Newcastle and London, and lodged with his aunt in Whitby. He continued to work as a fiddler. When he heard Dorothy was to be married to a shoemaker, he returned and they eloped. They married and had 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 him to London, 190 miles (310 km) to the south. John found the colonel’s leisurely progress slow and went ahead on foot. He reached London first and returned to Yorkshire before the colonel. He managed this on foot despite his blindness, demonstrating his determination and resourcefulness.
During the Jacobite rising of 1745 his connections got him the job of assistant to the royal recruiting sergeant 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 captured but released. He used his Scottish experience to begin importing Aberdeen stockings to England.
Before his army service Metcalf worked as a carrier using a four-wheeled chaise and a one-horse chair on local trips. When competition cut into the 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 in the winter months.
In 1765 Parliament passed an act authorising the creation of turnpike trusts to build new toll funded roads in the Knaresborough area. There were few people 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 (5 km) section of road between Minskip and Ferrensby on a new road from Harrogate to Boroughbridge. He explored the section of countryside alone and worked out the most practical route.
- Knaresborough and Wetherby
- Wakefield, Huddersfield and Saddleworth (via the Standedge pass)
- Bury and Blackburn with a branch to Accrington
- Skipton, Colne and Burnley
Metcalf believed a good road should have good foundations, be well drained and have a smooth convex surface to allow rainwater to drain quickly into ditches at the side. He understood the importance of good drainage, knowing it was rain that caused most 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 type of heather) and furze (gorse) tied in bundles as foundations. This established his reputation as a road builder since other engineers had believed it could not be done.
He acquired a mastery of his trade with his own method of calculating costs and materials, which he could never successfully explain to others.
Competition from canals eventually cut into his profits and he retired in 1792 to live with a daughter and her husband at Spofforth in Yorkshire. Throughout his career he built 180 miles (290 km) of road. At 77 he walked to York, where he related a detailed account of his life to a publisher.
Blind Jack of Knaresborough died aged 92 on 26 April 1810, at his home in Spofforth. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints' Church, Spofforth.
A statue of John Metcalf has been placed in the market square in Knaresborough, across from Blind Jack's pub.
His headstone, erected in the churchyard of All Saints Church, Spofforth, at the cost of Lord Dundas, bears this epitaph:
"Here lies John Metcalf, one whose infant sight
Felt the dark pressure of an endless night;
Yet such the fervour of his dauntless mind,
His limbs full strung, his spirits unconfined,
That, long ere yet life’s bolder years began,
The sightless efforts mark’d th’ aspiring man;
Nor mark’d in vain—high deeds his manhood dared,
And commerce, travel, both his ardour shared.
’Twas his a guide’s unerring aid to lend—
O’er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
And, when rebellion reared her giant size,
’Twas his to burn with patriot enterprise;
For parting wife and babes, one pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country’s weal.
Reader, like him, exert thy utmost talent given!
Reader, like him, adore the bounteous hand of Heaven."
Notes and references
- - -, 1795, The Life of John Metcalf, Commonly Called Blind Jack of Knaresborough, Printed and sold by E. and R. Peck, York, 153 Pages | Google books: [permanent dead link], 
- - -, 1804, The Life of John Metcalf, Third edition, Leeds
- Smiles, 1861, John Metcalf, Road Maker, chapter in Lives of the Engineers Vol 1 Part III Ch V
- Porrit, A. 6th Feb 1962, John Metcalf Blind Road Maker, Halifax Antiquarian Society Pamphlet.
- Andrews, William. "Epitaphs on Notable Persons." Curious Epitaphs. 1883. Reprint. London: Hull Press, 1899. 149-153. Print. |Project Gutenberg: