John Metcalf: The Blind Road Builder Who Built 180 Miles of Road
John Metcalf, also known as Blind Jack, was born in 1717 in Knaresborough. He was the first professional road builder., and has the most notable story in his life by achieving everything even when he is blind.
Growing up, he has built around 180 miles of road across Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Derbyshire. Some of those roads he built, such as of A59 and A61, still exist today.
Born into a poor family, Metcalf became permanently blind by 6 years old due to a smallpox infection. With this disability, he was taught fiddle lessons so that he could use it to make a living in years to come. He did not only learn to play the fiddle, he was a great player. Because of that, he started earning with it at a very early age. He was only 15 years old when he replaced Morrison at the Queen’s Head in Harrogate who, for 70 years, had played there.
Despite being blind, Metcalf was a very good guide for the visitors. During his youth, he would earn money brandishing the places in Yorkshire to visitors. His disability didn’t restrict him from swimming, diving, fighting cocks, playing cards, riding and even hunting. In later years, he had a career as a carrier of mostly fish between York and Knaresborough.
In 1745, Metcalf unbelievably joined the “Yorkshire Blues” and fought Bonnie Prince Charlie and also the Jacobite rebels. He was there at the Battle of Culloden as well, and apparently, Metcalf was able to escape from a possible capture at the Battle of Falkirk, according to some records.
Back in 1765 when the Parliament authorized the construction of new roads with toll gates, John, who was among the few people with road-building experience, offered useful knowledge based on his experience as a carrier. With his army of workmen, Metcalf got a contract to build a three-mile (5 km) stretch of road extending between Ferrensby and Minskip.
Allegedly, Metcalf mastered the skills of an expert road builder. First off, he was aware that roads are frequently damaged due to rain, so his roads always had a good drainage so rainwater will quickly drain into ditches at the side of the roads.
Another is that, while some engineers believed it to be impossible, Metcalf discovered a way to build a road traversing wetland using a series of rafts from ling (a type of heather) and furze (gorse) tied in bundles as foundations. He was able to build 180 miles (290 km) of roads.
At the age of 77, he retired from his career and lived with one of his daughters and her husband at which point he wrote his memoirs.