John Metcalf, or Blind Jack of Knaresborough, as he was commonly known as, was one of the first of his kind of professional road builders to emerge during the Industrial Revolution. Despite being blind, he became famous as the builder of roads and bridges using techniques that in the 18th century were revolutionary.
John was born in a poor family on August 15, 1717, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. An infection of smallpox at the age of six, took away his eyesight and John became blind.
Determined not to feel secluded because of his handicap, he was encouraged to join in all the normal games that the children play. As a matter of fact, John lived a very active and an eventful childhood. He took up swimming and diving. Playing cards and cock fighting were his favourite games. Since his father was a horse breeder, John developed an affinity for horses and learnt to ride. He even made some money by indulging in horse trading. John knew his local area so well he got paid to work as a guide to visitors.
With an idea to make provision to earn his living later in life, John was given lessons to play a fiddle. He soon became an accomplished fiddler and sure enough made this his livelihood in his early adult years. His fiddle playing gave him social connections and a patron, Colonel Liddell. The colonel took John to London, where he performed in various concerts. While playing at the Royal Oak, (later the Granby Hotel) at Harrogate, John met Dorthy, whom he eventually married in 1739. They lived happily and had four children.
John also tried his hand as a carrier before he became a road builder. As John always moved on foot since his childhood days, he was familiar with almost every stone on the path and the area around. So, based on his sense of direction, John gave a smooth ride to his passengers. Making trips between York and Knaresborough, once or even twice a week, John was making good profit.
In 1765, John got to know that the British Parliament had passed an act authorising building of turnpike roads (a link road, for which the driver pays a fee or a toll) in the Knaresborough area. He used his foresight and seized this opportunity. John was quick to shift his focus from a road carrier to a road builder. His practical experience as a carrier won him a contract to build a 5-kilometre section of the road from Harrogate to Boroughbridge. This was where it started for John—the beginning of a new career as a road builder.
John left no stone unturned; he explored the assigned section of the countryside and worked out the most practical path. A well worth it effort, as he soon found himself building roads all over Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Even though John was not qualified as an engineer, he understood the technicalities of building a road. In fact, John’s practical knowledge was far above the others. When other engineers thought it could not be done, John worked out a way to build a road across the bog or the marshy grounds, for which he later specialized. All this further strengthened his reputation as a road builder. While at work, John also acquired his own unique but accurate method of calculating costs and materials.
John built roads not only on the Plains of York but also over the much difficult terrain of the Pennines. In fact, between the years 1765 to 1792, John was responsible for building about 300-kilometre of turnpike road. John never let his work stagnate. He always tried to explore new ideas to improve and expand his work. Even though his road building work was on full swing, John added to his work by opening stone quarries and also building bridges.
John died on 26 April 1810, at the ripe old age of 93. Being one of the pioneer among the road builders of the 18th century, John is remembered as perhaps one of the most remarkable Yorkshiremen who ever lived. John’s life also demonstrates his determination and resourcefulness. And above all, his blindness was never a hindrance in his professional or his personal life.