On the way home from a long weekend at Scarborough I called at Spofforth in Harrogate to find the grave of John “Blind Jack” Metcalf. I found the church but couldn’t find a convenient parking spot. I left the car on a private road that lead up to two large houses (leaving enough room for their Rolls Royces to pass.) I crossed the road and entered the churchyard. Bad news: I only had a grainy photo showing the shape of the headstone. Good news: the graveyard measured only a couple of acres.
After twenty minutes I found the grave of Blind Jack. He was born into a poor family in Knaresborough but became the first professional road builder to emerge during the Industrial Revolution. Between 1765 and 1792 he built about 180 miles (290 km) of turnpike road, mainly in the north of England. This is some feat especially as he contracted smallpox at six years old and went blind.
What can you do with a blind boy in the days before welfare? His parents paid for fiddle lessons in the hope he could play well enough to make a living. With one main sense gone he made use of touch and sound and became an accomplished fiddler; that wood with strings gave him a living He had a way with horses, too, and made a good wage trading them. Though blind he also took up swimming, diving, playing cards, riding and hunting.
Being blind didn’t stop him chasing women and at 21 his girlfriend was Dorothy Benson. Also being blind didn’t stop him aiming his manservant at women and he made another woman pregnant. Dorothy begged him not to marry the woman. He panicked and ran away. He moved around Newcastle, London and stayed with his aunt in Whitby, all the time making money from playing his fiddle. However he returned home when he heard Dorothy was engaged to a shoemaker. They eloped, got married and had four children.
He knew how to make money and worked transporting fish from the coast to Leeds and Manchester. His business grew and he drove a horse and coach twice a week himself (how did he steer when he was blind?)
It seems being blind wasn’t much of a hindrance. During the Jacobite rising of 1745 he went with the army to Scotland and was employed to move guns over boggy ground. In 1765 Parliament passed an act authorising the creation of toll roads in the Knaresborough area. With virtually no experience he won a contract to build a three-mile (5 km) section of road. After this he built roads through Lancashire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. These roads had rigid foundations, drains and a smooth surface to rid rainwater quickly.
He retired in 1792 to live with a daughter and her husband (assume Dorothy died) having built 180 miles (290 km) of road. He died at 92 at his home Spofforth near the church. Though Blind Jack is buried here his hometown of Knaresborough celebrates him with a statue (the device is a surveyor’s wheel.) He did okay for a blind dude.
While searching for the grave I looked across the road and saw two men by the side of my car. They looked well-dressed and were chatting away so I did not think much about it. On returning to the car I offered them a hearty nod and subjugated myself with an apology for parking there. The seemed quite neutral but perked up when I showed them a photo of the headstone I had been looking for and started talking dead dudes. This spurred a volley of questions appended by “why would anyone look for graves on holiday?” and, “So is your Mrs in the graveyard? Where is she?” I said, “Geeks like me don’t have a Mrs.”
Blind Jack is buried here…
I also found these two war graves…