Blind Jack of Knaresborough helped to transform the north’s road infrastructure. Now his life could be documented on screen. Laura Drysdale reports.
He may have been blind, but undoubtedly John Metcalf was a man of vision. As a musician, trader, horseman and military adventurer, there was little to which he did not turn his hand. But perhaps his greatest legacy lies in the form of some of Britain’s earliest modern roads, stretching across Yorkshire and beyond.
A pioneering 18th century road-builder, Blind Jack of Knaresborough, as he came to be known, was responsible for the construction of around 180 miles of road in the north of England, supporting the movement of people, goods and services at a time when the Industrial Revolution was taking off.
He was honoured, in the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2017, with the naming of a road in his memory. But not content to stop there, Knaresborough resident Bernard Higgins, the driving force behind Blind Jack tricentennial anniversary celebrations now wants the influential Yorkshireman’s story to be shared on screen - as a film or television series.
“If a TV series like Poldark can be a success, surely a real life figure such as John Metcalf should have his life and achievements brought to the screen?” says Bernard, 63. “It could become a vintage masterpiece about our real life hero, who lost his eyesight to smallpox at the tender age of six and went on to experience and achieve so much. The television series or film would be packed with action, adventure and romance. But unlike Poldark, John Metcalf was a real, not fictional, character.”
Born in August 1717 in a cottage next to Knaresborough’s St John the Baptist Church, Blind Jack was not deterred by the impairment he acquired in his childhood. He learned to get about the area both on foot and horseback and developed too into a strong swimmer, frequenting the town’s River Nidd. In fact, he came to know the locality so well that he was able to earn money by working as a guide.
Blind Jack was also a professional musician for much of his life. “His parents encouraged him to learn to play the fiddle and the oboe so that he would have some income to fall back on as he grew up,” Bernard explains. Aged just 15, he became an entertainer at local pubs, where he met Dorothy “Dolly” Benson, an inn-keeper’s daughter. Six years later, the pair eloped the night before she was due to marry another and they went on to have four children.
Adult life for Blind Jack, a gambling man who liked a drink, was no less incredible, not least in that he lived to the ripe old age of 92 in a time when smallpox killed thousands. He ran a horse-drawn taxi service, transported fish from coastal ports to inland markets in Leeds and Manchester, dealt in horses and was involved in smuggling contraband - as well as continuing to play his fiddle as part of his livelihood.
In 1745, he was asked to help recruit a group of Knaresborough men for the Yorkshire Blues militia. They joined the Duke of Cumberland’s army, travelling to Scotland to confront the Jacobite rebellion and Blind Jack accompanied them, providing entertainment with his fiddle. On one memorable night in Aberdeen, ahead of the Battle of Culloden, he even played for the King’s son and his entourage.
Several years after his return, in the mid 1700s, Blind Jack bid for contracts for the creation of roads across the north. His first, in 1752, stretched for three miles between Minskip and Ferrensby and his last, completed in 1791, joined Bury, Accrington and Blackburn. Others linked Halifax and Huddersfield, Knaresborough and Wetherby, Halifax and Wakefield and Chapeltown and Leeds and for each, he used a team of more than 400 men.
As former Sheffield MP David Blunkett says in the foreword to a Blind Jack book: “We can imagine that he knew all too well the pitfalls of the most appalling roads imaginable. When he had the opportunity to act as a contractor and overseer, he did something about it, taking up the challenge from the Turnpike Acts and creating mile after mile of durable and usable road, opening up not only the social life but the commerce of each area.”
In the 2008 book, by Knaresborough historian Arnold Kellett, Blunkett, who himself is blind, says he can rejoice in Blind Jack’s example and inspiration. “He seemed to find a way to fit in and take on every obstacle as though it were just another stride along one of the once-impassable roads,” he says.
In the North Yorkshire market town that Blind Jack called home, several landmarks point to his existence and achievements - in Market Place, he is depicted in statue form, clutching a viameter, which he used to measure distances, whilst his fiddle, returned to the area by his direct descendants, is currently on display in the Courthouse Museum. Elsewhere, a blue plaque sits near to the Church where he was born and his gravestone is situated in nearby Spofforth, where he died in 1810.
But it took 207 years before a road was named in his memory and in Bernard’s view, unlike road builders Thomas Telford and John Macadam, Blind Jack still does not receive widespread recognition for his achievements. He hopes taking the story to the screen could change that - and put Knaresborough on the map.
It has been an idea of his, he says, since he learned about the strapping 6ft2 Yorkshireman in an economics lesson on the industrial revolution at school in Scotland, where he grew up.
The now-retired teacher, who moved to the area in 1994, when he began work at Henshaws Specialist College in Harrogate, could not foresee that decades later, he would live just a short walk from where Blind Jack was born. Nor could he foresee that a chance meeting with a television producer during a visit to London last year could now transform his vision into a reality.
Bernard and his wife Emma were in the capital for a Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, which he was nominated to attend as a result of fundraising for local charities through the Blind Jack tricentennial celebrations. In a quiet pub on Kensington High Street they began chatting to Laurence Jones, who runs production company Dandelion and Burdock Media Ltd. “Bernard mentioned his passion for John Metcalf and I was engaged with the story,” says Laurence, who grew up in Doncaster.
He jumped on board with Bernard’s plan and in the months since, has been in talks with directors at Brickworks Media in Elland and has been working with Brighton-based scriptwriter John Paul Chapple. An approach has also been made to the agent of Sheffield actor Sean Bean. “I think there will be genuine surprise about how somebody who lived life to the full and lived it brilliantly despite a handicap happened to disappear from the consciousness of the majority of the British public,” says Laurence.
“Blind Jack was an exciting, interesting and larger than life character and I hope people will enjoy the tale and be inspired by it.”
Bernard says he would like to see any film or television series raise money for the three charities supported by the tricentennial celebrations - the Vision Support Centre in Harrogate, RNIB Tate House, Harrogate and Henshaws Arts and Crafts Centre in Knaresborough. He also hopes that it will honour the late Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire Barry Dodd, whose office notified Bernard about his garden party nomination and who tragically died in a helicopter crash the day before the royal event.
Laurence and Bernard need to secure tens of thousands of pounds for the film or television show’s production. Anyone who wants to get involved or support it is asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org