This is one of the most inspirational stories of all time, this man's achievements would be outstanding for a sighted man, for a blind man they beggar belief. John (or Jack, as he was known) Metcalf was born in a small thatched cottage opposite Knaresborough Castle, Yorkshire on 25 August 1717. His family was poor, his father bred horses. At the age of six Jack contracted smallpox and, as a result, became blind. He refused to let this restrict him and played all the games with the other local boys, he took up swimming and diving, fighting cocks, playing cards, riding and even hunting. He knew his local area so well he was paid to work as a guide to visitors. Seemingly fearless, he jumped in a river where two men were drowning and saved one, pulling him to safety. He was given fiddle lessons as a way of making provision for him to earn a living later in life. He became an accomplished fiddler and made this his livelihood in his early adult years. In 1732, aged 15, Metcalf succeeded the aged resident fiddler at the Queen's Head, a tavern in Harrogate.
Jack befriended Dorothy Benson, the daughter of the landlord of the Granby Inn in Harrogate. When aged 21 he made another woman pregnant, Dorothy begged him not to marry the woman and Jack fled. He spent some time living along the North Sea Coast between Newcastle and London, and lodged with his aunt in Whitby. He continued to work as a fiddler. When he heard Dorothy was to be married to a shoemaker, he returned and they eloped. They married and had four children. His fiddle playing gave him social connections and a patron, Colonel Liddell. In one much-repeated story the colonel decided to take him to London, 190 miles (310 km) to the south. John found the colonel’s leisurely progress slow and went ahead on foot. He reached London first and returned to Yorkshire before the colonel. He managed this on foot despite his blindness demonstrating his determination and resourcefulness. During the Jacobite rising of 1745 his connections got him the job of assistant to the royal recruiting sergeant in the Knaresborough area. Jack went with the army to Scotland. He did not experience action but was employed moving guns over boggy ground. He was captured but released. He used his Scottish experience to begin importing Aberdeen stockings to England. Before his army service Metcalf worked as a carrier using a four-wheeled chaise and a one-horse chair on local trips. When competition cut into the business he switched to carrying fish from the coast to Leeds and Manchester. After 1745 he bought a stone wagon and worked it between York and Knaresborough. By 1754 his business had grown to a stagecoach line. He drove a coach himself, making two trips a week during the summer and one in the winter months.
In 1765 the creation of turnpike trusts was begun, to build new toll funded roads in the Knaresborough area. There were few people with road-building experience and John seized the opportunity, building on his practical experience as a carrier. He won a contract to build a three-mile (5 km) section of road between Minskip and Ferrensby on a new road from Harrogate to Boroughbridge. He explored the section of countryside alone and worked out the most practical route, comprehensively surveying it despite his blindness. He went on to build over 180 miles of roads in Lancashire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. Metcalf believed a good road should have good foundations, be well drained and have a smooth convex surface to allow rainwater to drain quickly into ditches at the side. He understood the importance of good drainage, knowing it was rain that caused most problems on the roads. He worked out a way to build a road across a bog using a series of rafts made from ling (a type of heather) and furze (gorse) tied in bundles as foundations. This established his reputation as a road builder since other engineers had believed it could not be done. He acquired a mastery of his trade with his own method of calculating costs and materials, which he could never successfully explain to others. Competition from canals eventually cut into his profits and he retired in 1792 to live with a daughter and her husband at Spofforth in Yorkshire. At 77 he walked to York, where he related a detailed account of his life to a publisher. Blind Jack of Knaresborough died in his 93rd year on 26 April 1810, at his home in Spofforth. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints' Church, Spofforth with a beautiful epitaph. A statue of John Metcalf has been placed in the market square in Knaresborough, across from Blind Jack's pub.