John Metcalf was born into a poor family at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire in 1717 and at the age of six he lost his sight as a result of smallpox. Never daunted, young Jack lived life to the full, he could climb trees, run, box, wrestle, ride and swim with the best and he married the prettiest girl in the area. He became a fish merchant, learned to play the fiddle and he even fought at the Battle of Culloden. He also ran a horse drawn taxi service and a pack horse service before his big break came. Following the passing of an Act of Parliament which authorised the building of turnpike roads, Jack somehow managed to obtain the contract for such a road between Harrogate and Boroughbridge, which he completed successfully to be followed by several others and eventually he employed some 400 men. It seemed that Jack had a nack, determined by instinct for his task, despite the obstacles, and the fame of Blind Jack spread.
He died a rich man with some 180 miles of northern roads behind him, at Spofforth when he was 93 years old and the epitaph on his gravestone in Spofforth churchyard tells his story :
‘ Here lies John Metcalf; 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
His sightless efforts marked th’aspiring man.
Nor mark’d in vain. High deed his manhood dar’d
And commerce, travel, both his ardour shard’d.
‘Twas his, a guide’s unerring aid to lend,
O’er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend,
And when rebellion reared her giant size
‘Twas his to burn with patriot enterprise,
For parting wife and babes one pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country’s weal.’
Reader! Like him exert thy utmost talent giv’n,
Reader! Like him adore the bounteous Hand of Heav’n!
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Photo taken in Spofforth with Stockeld, North Yorkshire, UK
Misplaced? Suggest new location