by John Metcalf
Portrait of John Metcalf aged 79
JOHN METCALF was born at Knaresborough, on the 15th of August, 1717. When four
years old, he was put to school by his parents, who were working people, and
continued at school two years: He was then seized with the small-pox, which
rendered him totally blind, though all possible means were used to preserve his
About six months after recovering from the small-pox, he was able to go from his
father's house to the end of the street, and return, without a guide; which gave
him much spirit and satisfaction.—In the space of three years he was able to find
his way to any part of the town of Knaresborough; and had begun to associate
with boys of his own age, going with them to seek birds' nests, and for his
share of the eggs and young birds he was to climb the trees, whilst his
comrades waited at the bottom, to direct him to the nests, and to receive what
he should throw down; and from this he was soon able to climb any tree he was
able to grasp. He would now ramble into the lanes and fields alone, to the
distance of two or three miles, and return. His father keeping horses, he
learned to ride, and in time became an able horseman, a gallop being his
favourite pace. His parents having other children, at the age of thirteen had
John taught music, at which he proved very expert; though he had conceived more
taste for the cry of a hound or a harrier, than the sound of any instrument.
A gentleman at Knaresborough, of the name of Woodburn, was master of a pack of
hounds: — This gentleman encouraged Metcalf very much, by taking him to hunt with him, and was always very desirous
of his company. Metcalf kept a couple of very good hounds of his own.
Mr. Woodburn's hounds being seldom kennelled, Metcalf used to take several of
them out secretly along with his own, about ten or eleven o'clock at night, (the
hares being then feeding); but one of the young hounds happening to worry a
couple of lambs, it caused him to discontinue that practice.
When about fourteen years old, his activity of limbs, and the good success with
which his exploits were usually attended, consoled him so greatly for the
deprivation of sight, that he was lead to imagine it was in his power to
undertake any thing, without danger: the following adventure, however, caused
him to alter his opinion of its value.
There happened to be a plumb-tree a little way from Knaresborough, where there
had been a house formerly.—One Sunday, Metcalf and his companions (who were
skilled in matters of this sort) would go there, to get some of the fruit; in these cases,
Metcalf was always appointed to ascend, for the purpose of shaking the trees.
He was accordingly sent up to his post; but in the height of the business, his
companions gathering below were suddenly alarmed by the appearance of the owner
of the tree, and prepared to quit the ground with all expedition:—Metcalf thus
left to himself, soon understood how matters were going, though the wind was
high, which prevented him from hearing distinctly; and being inclined to follow
his comrades, in making his retreat he fell headlong into a gravel-pit
belonging to Sir Harry Slingsby, and cut a large gash in his face, without,
however, receiving any other injury than a stun which for some time hindered his
breathing, and kept him motionless on the ground.—His father being rather
severe, Metcalf was afraid to go home, lest his wound should lead to a discovery
of the prank he had been engaged in.
Soon after this, (though not easily dismayed) he and some other boys were
completely alarmed:—The church-porch at Knaresborough being the usual place of
their meeting, they one night between eleven and twelve o'clock assembled there;
Metcalf being generally the chief projector of their plans: They determined to
rob an orchard; which having done, they returned to the church-porch to divide
their booty. Before their return, a circumstance had happened to which they were
strangers, but to the discovery of which the following little incident led,
though not immediately: There being a large ring to the church-door, which
turned for the purpose of lifting the latch, one of the party took hold of it,
and, by way of bravado, gave a loud rap; calling out,
"A tankard of ale here!"
A voice from within answered, very loudly, "You are at the wrong house."
This so stupified the whole covey, that none of them could move for some time.
At length, Metcalf said, "Did you not hear something speak in the church?"
Upon this, they all took to their heels, and ran till they got out of the
churchyard, Metcalf running as fast as any of them. They now held a
consultation on the subject of their fright, all equally wondering at the voice,
and none able to account satisfactorily for it—One supposed that it might have
been some brother wag, who had put his mouth to the key-hole of the North door;
but to this it was objected, that the reply was too distinct and too ready to
have come in that way. At length, however, their spirits being a little raised,
they ventured again down the flagged pavement into the church-yard; but when
they came opposite to the church, they perceived a light, so great as inclined
them to believe that the church was on fire. They now re-entered the
church-porch, and were nearly determined to call the parson; when somebody
within lifting the latch and making a great noise, they again dispersed,
terrified and speechless. One of the party, (whose name was Clemishaw) a son of
the sexton, ran home, and in a desperate fright got into bed with his mother; all the rest, at the same time, making the best of their
The cause of this panic was as follows: —An old lady, wife of Dr. Talbot, (who
had for many years enjoyed the living of Spofforth) dying, and her relations,
who lived at a great distance, being desirous to arrive before her interment,
ordered the body to be kept; this being too long the case, and the neighbours
perceiving a disagreeable smell, a request was sent to the Rev. Mr. Collins, who
ordered the sexton to be called up to dig the grave in the church immediately:
the sexton had lighted a great number of candles: so much for the supposition
of the church being on fire; and the grave-digger was the person whose voice had
so terrified the apple-merchants, when they knocked. Such, however, was the
impression, that pranks of this nature were not repeated.
About the year 1731, Metcalf being then fourteen years of age, a number of men
and boys made a practice of swimming in the river Nidd, where there are many deeps convenient for that purpose.—Metcalf
resolving to learn that art, joined the party, and became so very expert, that
his companions did not chuse to come near him in the water, it being his custom
to seize them, send them to the bottom, and swim over them by way of diversion.
About this time, a soldier and another man were drowned in the above deeps: the
former, it was supposed, was taken with the cramp; the latter could not swim.
Metcalf was sent for to get up the bodies, and at the fourth time of diving
succeeded in bringing up that of the soldier, which, when raised to the surface,
other swimmers carried on shore; but life had quite left it. The other body
could not then be found.
There are very frequent floods in the river Nidd; and it is a remarkable fact,
that in the deep places, there are eddies, or some other causes of attraction,
which will draw to the bottom any substance, however light, which comes within
their sphere of action. Large pieces of timber were often seen to be carried down by the floods; these, on
coming over the deep places, were stopped for the space of a moment, and then
sunk. Upon these occasions, Metcalf would go down and with the greatest ease fix
ropes to the wood, which was drawn up by some persons purposely stationed on
In the year 1732, one John Barker kept an inn at the West end of the High
Bridge, Knaresborough. This man was a manufacturer of linen cloth, and used to
bleach his own yarn. At one time, having brought two packs of yarn to the river
to wash, he thought he observed a number of wool-packs rolling towards him; but
on a nearer view it proved to be a swelling of the current, occasioned by a
sudden and very violent rain in the neighbourhood. He had not time to remove his
yarn, so that it was swept away, and carried through the arches of the bridge,
which stands on a rock. A little below there is a piece of still water, supposed
to be about twenty-one feet in depth: as soon as the yarn got to this, it sunk, except a little which caught the skirts of the rock
in going down. Metcalf being intimate with Barker, and calling at his house a
few days after the accident, found him lamenting his loss. Metcalf told him
that he hoped to recover his yarn for him, but Barker smiled at the supposed
absurdity of the proposal: finding, however, that his friend was resolved on a
trial, he consented. Metcalf then ordered some long cart-ropes to be procured,
and fixing a hook at one end, and leaving the other to be held by some persons
on the High Bridge, he descended, and hooking as much of the yarn as he could at
one time, he gave orders for drawing up. In this way the whole was recovered,
with very little damage.
Some time after this, Metcalf happened to be at Scriven, at the house of one
Green, an innkeeper.—Two persons then present had a dispute concerning some
sheep which one of them had put into the penfold. The owner of the sheep, (one
Robert Scaif, a Knaresborough man, and a friend of Metcalf's) appeared to be ill treated by the other party, who wished to take an unfair
advantage. Metcalf perceiving that they were not likely to agree about the
damages, bade them good night, saying he was going to Knaresborough, but it
being about the dead time of night, he was firmly resolved to do a little
friendly business before he should get home. The penfold being walled round,
he climbed over, and getting hold of the sheep one by one, he fairly tossed them
over the wall: the difficulty of the service increased as the number got less,
not being so ready to catch;—he was not, however, thereby deterred, but fully
completed the exploit.
On the return of day, the penfold door being found fast locked, great was the
surprise on finding it untenanted, and various the conjectures as to the rogue
or rogues who had liberated the sheep; but Metcalf past unsuspected, and enjoyed
the joke in silence.
He continued to practice on the violin, until he became able to play country
At Knaresborough, during the winter season, there was an assembly every
fortnight, at which he always attended, and went besides to many other places
where there was public dancing; yet, though much employed in this way, he still
retained his fondness for hunting, and likewise began to keep game cocks.
Whenever he went to a cock-pit, it was his custom to place himself on the lowest
seat, and always close to some friend who was a good judge, and who, by certain
motions, enabled him to bet, hedge, &c. If at any time he heard of a better game
cock than his own, he was sure to get him by some means or other, though at a
hundred miles distance.
A little way from home he had a cock-walk, and at the next house there chanced
to be another. The owner of the cock at the latter house supposing that
Metcalf's and his would meet, armed his own cock with a steel spur; which
greatly displeasing Metcalf, he formed a plan of revenge; and getting one of his
comrades to assist, they procured a quantity of cabbage-leaves, and fastening
them together with skewers, they fixed them against the outside of the windows,
that the family might not perceive the return of daylight; and that they should
also be prisoners, these associates in roguery walled up the door with stones,
and mud-mortar, which they were assisted in making by the convenience of a pump
which stood near. They then brought water, in tubs, and continued pouring it in
great quantities over the new wall, (which did not reach quite up to the top of
the door-frame) until the house was flooded to a great depth. This done, they
made the best of their way home.
In the morning, the people of the house finding their situation, and being at no
loss to suppose who had been the projector, and in all probability the leading
performer, of the business, were no sooner set at liberty, than they went to a
Justice, and got a warrant for Metcalf; but not being able to prove the fact,
he was, of course, dismissed.
His fame now began to spread; and when
any arch trick was done, inquiry was sure to be made where Metcalf had been at the time.
Blinded by smallpox at the age of six, John Metcalf (1717-1810) led a life that might have featured in an eighteenth-century novel. Popularly known as 'Blind Jack of Knaresborough', Metcalf had many and varied careers, including musician, horse trader, fish supplier, textile merchant and stage-wagon operator. Developing a method for building roads on marshy ground, using heather and gorse as a foundation, he eventually became one of the eighteenth century's great road builders, laying over 120 miles of high-quality roads in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Cheshire. Published in 1795 and based on conversations with Metcalf, this book recounts his life in a series of anecdotes. Metcalf starts with his boyhood escapades, and his becoming an accomplished swimmer, climber and gambler. Among the later episodes recounted are his services in raising troops to fight Jacobite rebels, during which he was present at the battles of Falkirk Muir and Culloden.
THE LIFE OF JOHN METCALF, COMMONLY CALLED Blind Jack of Knaresborough. WITH Many
Entertaining ANECDOTES of his EXPLOITS in Hunting, Card-Playing, &c. Some
PARTICULARS relative to the Expedition against the REBELS in 1745, IN WHICH HE
BORE A PERSONAL SHARE; AND ALSO A Succinct Account of his various CONTRACTS for
Making ROADS, Erecting BRIDGES, AND OTHER UNDERTAKINGS, IN Yorkshire,
Lancashire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire; Which, for a Series of Years, have brought
him into PUBLIC NOTICE, as a most EXTRAORDINARY CHARACTER.
EMBELLISHED WITH A STRIKING HALF-LENGTH PORTRAIT.
YORK: PRINTED BY E. AND R. PECK, LOW-OUSEGATE. 1795.
Maria José Alegre