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The Life of John Metcalf

by John Metcalf


Portrait of John Metcalf aged 79
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 sight.

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 way.

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 the banks.

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 dances.

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.

portrait of John Metcalf -  JOHN METCALF AGED 79.


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.



excerpt of
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.

fonte: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/




Maria José Alegre