Blind Jack, whose real name was John Metcalf, lost his sight at the age of 6 from smallpox but went on to develop some of the region’s most important transport links, including his first section of road, when he was 35, built in 1752/53 between Minskip and Ferrensby a three mile route between the towns of Knaresborough and Boroughbridge.
He was born in Knaresborough on 15th August 1717 and built 180 miles of road in five counties including his native Yorkshire. He died in 1810 and was laid to rest in All Saints churchyard, Spofforth, where he lived out the last years of his life with his youngest daughter Ellen and her family.
Jack’s parents made sure he had lessons to learn to play the fiddle so that as he grew up he could earn an income from playing at local events. In 1732, aged 15, Jack succeeded Morrison as Resident Fiddler at the Queen’s Head, a Tavern in Harrogate, where the Cedar Court hotel now stands. Morrison had played there for decades so it was a great honour for Jack to succeed him at such a young age. Jack Metcalf through his accomplished fiddle playing entertained folk at country dances at Harrogate Assemblies and also at the Royal Oak, where the Granby Hotel, now the Granby Care home stands. It was here in 1739 that Jack would meet and fall in love with Dorothy Benson, (Dolly) the daughter of the Landlord, Christopher Benson.
Apart from being mainly famous for his road building skills between 1752/91 Jack Metcalf’s CV is remarkable. What did he do before 1752 before road building? He was an accomplished musician, horse dealer, military adventurer, smuggler and general wheeler and dealer.
Now the community of Knaresborough is preparing to celebrate his life and the impact he has had on the town with a series of special events, timed to coincide with FEVA in August.
Knaresborough resident Bernard Higgins said the commemorations would bring the community together to remember one of the town’s most influential figures and raise money for local charities that support the visually impaired.
The charities that will benefit from fundraising associated with the tri-centenary celebrations will include Henshaws College, where Bernard used to teach after moving to Harrogate 22 years ago with his wife Emma, RNIB Tate House, Wetherby Road and Harrogate & District Vision Support Centre, East Parade, Harrogate.
Many thousands of people travel on local roads daily which were originally built by John Metcalf such as the stretch of road between Knaresborough and Starbeck (1753-54), Harrogate-Harewood Bridge (1754) and Chapeltown-Leeds (1754-55).
Bearing in mind that both Thomas Telford and John McAdam came long after John Metcalf, there names are ingrained in history and yet they were not even born when Jack Metcalf’s road building exploits began. Both Telford and McAdam have many roadways named after them throughout the towns and cities of our country. Telford is buried in Westminster Abbey and even has a town named after him. At present, John Metcalf has neither.
John Metcalf after having his sight cruelly taken from him when he was a young boy aged six more than deserves this accolade because his legacy has helped shape how we move around from a to b fitting in our busy lifes. We travel on his legacy every day. The road network. He was a pioneer of this network and on any one day over 400 men were working on his road building projects.
In this Tri-Centenary year where we celebrate one of Yorkshire’s finest we have a unique opportunity to right a wrong. Will North Yorkshire, Harrogate and Knaresborough Councils do the right thing and name these stretches of road after our local hero?
“He had so much energy and purpose, was a highly astute businessman and an avid explorer who covered much of Britain on foot or horseback.”
Arnold Kellett’s book ‘Blind Jack of Knaresborough’ (2008) is a detailed account of his life and times. Arnold sums up John Metcalf’s legacy in the last paragraph where he writes,
“He may not have anything like the global recognition of such towering figures as Louis Braille or Helen Keller, but Blind Jack – with all his faults and eccentricities – is one of the great men of Yorkshire, of England – and, I would even say, of the whole of humanity.
The organising committee now have the hard work of fundraising to pay for events and the publicity surrounding them and are looking for sponsors and volunteers. If you are able to offer help or sponsorship contact Rachel Porter or Bernard Higgins on firstname.lastname@example.org