John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe or Metcalf – aka Blind Jack of Knaresborough – was a road-builder who constructed many roads and turnpikes in the 18th century.

He was born at Knaresborough.

He lost his sight as a result of smallpox when he was 6 years old, but he went on to become

In 1747, he stayed at the Angel Inn, Halifax with a packhorse team carrying fish from the east coast to Leeds and Manchester.

He was tall – reports say 6 ft 3 ins and 7 ft 3 ins.

He rode and won several races, and once walked from Knaresborough to London and back.

He visited Halifax in 1744 on his way north to fight against the Young Pretender.

He was a recruiting-sergeant in 1745, fought at Falkirk in 1746, and at Culloden in 1746.

He was a proficient violinist and played his violin to encourage the English at the Battle of Culloden.

He established a stage-coach service between York and Knaresborough in 1754.

He became interested in road building through his coach business. He was best known as a pioneer road-maker and bridge-builder, and between 1765 and 1792, he constructed about 190 miles of turnpike roads – including the Halifax-Huddersfield road, and Halifax Old Road – before retiring to a small farm in 1792.

He did all the surveying work himself, tapping his way across the moors with a stick.

His Viameter was a wooden wheel with an iron tyre and a wooden handle which he used to determine the nature of the road surface. The Viameter also had a dial to record the distance travelled.

He introduced cambered road surfaces and drains alongside the roads, and the high camber is a distinctive feature of his roads.

His method of construction was to beat the earth hard, add a layer of large stone blocks, and then cover this with chippings and small jagged stones which were crushed and consolidated by the wheels of the wagons and coaches.

He retired at the age of 75, and died at the age of 92.

He was buried at Spofforth, near Harrogate.

An epitaph by Lord Dundas reads:

Here lies John Metcalfe, 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 spirit unconfin'd,
That, long ere yet life's bolder years began
The sightless efforts Mark'd the aspiring man;
Not marked in vain – high deeds his manhood dar'd
And commerce, travel, both his ardour shar'd.

'Twas his a guide's unerring aid to lend;
O'er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
And when Rebellion rear'd her giant size,
'Twas his to burn with patriotic enterprize;
For parting wife and babes one pang to feel,
The welcome danger of his country's weal.

Reader! Like him, exert thy utmost talent giv'n.

Reader! Like him, adore the bounteous hand of Heav'n

© Malcolm Bull 2022
Revised 13:13 / 19th January 2022 / 5090

Page Ref: X319

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