The Blind Roadmaker

John Metcalf, the famous blind roadmaker, was born in 1717, and lost his eyesight at six years of age.  A native of Knaresborough, he filled in his time many parts; being fiddler, huckster, soldier, carrier, proprietor of the first stage-wagon between York and Knaresborough, and road and bridge maker and contractor by turns.  The marvellous instinct which served him instead of sight is scarce credible, but is well authenticated.  He joined Thornton’s company of Yorkshire volunteers raised at Boroughbridge to meet the Scots rebels in the ’45, and marched with them and played them into action at Falkirk.  His marvellous adventures have no place here, but his solitary walk from London to Harrogate in 1741 concerns the Great North Road.  Being in London, and returning at the same time, Colonel Liddell of Harrogate offered Blind Jack a seat behind his carriage, which Metcalf declined, saying that he could easily walk as far in a day as the colonel could go in his carriage with post-horses.  This incidentally shows us how utterly vile the roads were at the time.  Metcalf, although blind and unused to the road, having travelled up to London by sea, walked back, and easily reached Harrogate before the colonel, who posted all the way.

Liddell, who had an escort of sixteen mounted servants, started an hour later than Metcalf.  It had been arranged that they should meet that night at Welwyn, but, a little beyond Barnet, on Hadley Green, where the roads divide, Metcalf took the left hand, or Holyhead, road by mistake and went a long distance before he discovered his mistake.  Still he arrived at Welwyn first.  The next day he was balked at Biggleswade by the river, which was in flood, and with no bridge to cross by.  Fortunately, after wandering some distance along the banks, he met a stranger who led the way across a plank bridge.  When they had crossed, Metcalf offered him some pence for a glass of beer, which his guide declined, saying he was welcome.  Metcalf, however, pressed it upon him.

“Pray, can you see very well?” asked the stranger.

“Not very well,” replied Blind Jack.

“God forbid I should tithe you,” said his guide.  “I am the rector of this parish; so God bless you, and I wish you a good journey.”

In the end, Metcalf reached Harrogate two days before the colonel.

Next: McAdam and Telford

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