Usually known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough, John Metcalf was the first professional road builder to emerge during the Industrial Revolution. Born on 15th August 1717, the son of a horse breeder, he lost his sight at the age of six after contracting smallpox.
He learned to play the fiddle at an early age, and by the age of fifteen he was already making a living by playing at local inns. By the 1740s he was working as a carrier, gradually expanding his business to owning a stagecoach line by 1754. He was appointed assistant to the Royal recruiting sergeant in Knaresborough during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and is even reputed to have played his fiddle at the Battle of Culloden. Using his practical experience as a carrier, wagoner and stagecoach owner, he won a contract in 1765 to build a section of a new road between Harrogate and Boroughbridge; thus his roadbuilding career began.
Jack went on to build roads in Lancashire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire, gaining an unequalled reputation for accurate costings. He was also known for the quality and effectiveness of his construction techniques, especially over boggy ground, where he employed a variation of the “corduroy” technique used by the Romans, although he used bundles of furze and heather to form a raft rather than the small branches and timbers used by Roman engineers.
He retired at the age of 75 and died in Spofforth in 1810 at the age of 93.
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