“Blind Jack” Metcalf Born, 1717

They said that Blind Jack knew a good horse when he felt one.

It was a skill that would come in handy, but an uncanny knowledge of good horseflesh was not the only ability that John Metcalf possessed. He was born in 1717, on August 15th, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, England. His father was a horse breeder, but the family was not well off. When John was six he fell ill of smallpox, and lost his vision as a result. For many, that could have been the end of all hopes for a productive life in 18th century England, but not for Jack. For him, it was only the beginning.

His parents made sure that he received fiddling lessons, so that at least he would be able to earn a living. He became a fiddler at the Queen’s Head and other taverns. He had other interests: swimming, cockfighting, playing cards, riding, and hunting. He had an astute knowledge of horses, and made a good income through horse trading. He also had an excellent knowledge of the area, and supplemented his income through work as a guide.

At the Granby Inn in Harrowgate, he made the acquaintance of Dorothy Benson, the landlord’s daughter. He was much taken with her, and she with him, but that didn’t stop him from getting another woman pregnant. When it appeared that the other woman expected to marry him, Dorothy urged him to leave town. He stayed away until he learned that Dorothy was engaged to marry another man, and then he came flying back. He and Dorothy eloped on the night before she was scheduled to marry Mr. Dickinson, the shoemaker that her parents had selected for their daughter.

All this time Jack was still playing his fiddle, and playing it well enough to attract a patron, a Colonel Liddell. On one occasion, Liddell made a trip to London, and decided to take Jack along with him. The trip was 190 miles, with frequent stops for rest and meals, and Jack got impatient. He got out of the coach and walked the rest of the way to London on his own.

Blind Jack even joined the military in 1745, as part of the force repelling the Second Jacobite Rebellion. He served as an assistant to a recruiting sergeant, and also spent some time moving cannons over boggy terrain. After the war, Jack capitalized on his Scottish experience by going into business importing Aberdeen stockings to England.

In his post-military life, he also set up a coach line between Knaresborough and York. And why not? He certainly had all the skills to manage such a business. He was already an expert on horses, and it was said he could measure a load of hay with his arms and convert it in his head into more conventional measurements. He even drove a stage himself, making two trips a week in the summer, and one during the winter.

His experience driving a coach taught him just how bad the roads were, so when Parliament began contracting engineers to build new toll roads in the Knaresborough area, Jack was one of the first to get his bid in. He had no practical experience, but that never stopped Jack. He won a number of contracts, and was able to put into effect his guiding principles of road-building: good foundations, good drainage, and a convex surface to allow the rain to run off into ditches. He became one of the leading road engineers of the country, and built over 180 miles of roads. Over a period of 30 years he earned more than â¤65,000, a considerable income for the time.

Over Jack’s road-building career, costs kept increasing and profits shrinking. In 1792, he took on a â¤3,000 contract and made a profit of â¤40, and decided that it was time to retire. He had been a widower since 1778, so he moved in with his daughter and his husband. As late as 1794 (when he was 77 years old) he walked to York to tell his life story to a publisher.

At the age of 93 Blind Jack Metcalf died peacefully in his home in Spofforth. He was survived by four children, 20 grandchildren, and 90 great-grandchildren.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; www.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_15; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Jack; http://home.eznet.net/~dminor/O&E9612.html; http://www.tameside.gov.uk/tmbc/histgp.htm’ http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~bentleygt/pannal/personalities/blind_jack.html.

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