Ready for some role playing, just for a moment? Come back in time. Become
someone else. Become John Metcalf.
It's the late 1760s. Northern England. You've been hired to design and build a highway between Huddersfield and Manchester. The distance is about 25 miles. Between the two towns lies a bog considered to be uncrossable. There are also a number of small lakes, with their feeder and outlet streams. You are to survey the route, hire and supervise the crews, and build the road (including any necessary bridges, culverts, etc.) Sounds like quite an undertaking.
One other obstacle. What if you were also blind?
John Metcalf was born into a poor family in the village of Knaresborough, about 15 miles north of Leeds, on August 15th, 1717. Six years later an attack of smallpox left him permanently sightless. For many men there would be little to look forward to the rest of their lives. At best perhaps the life of an itinerant fiddler, at worst life as a charity case in a world where there was little enough charity to spare. Metcalf, being prepared for the former, was given fiddle lessons. Overcoming his handicap, he grew up leading a otherwise normal life, swimming and diving, fighting cocks, playing cards, riding, and even hunting. He had a special affinity for horses and by the time he was twenty-one, the robust, wild, six-foot-one Yorkshireman had gained a reputation, both for winning races and for being a sharp trader. In 1739 Dorothy Benson, daughter of the local publican, caught his attention. The fact that she was engaged to a Mr. Dickinson didn't strike him as unsurmountable (very little did). The night before she was to become Mrs. Dickinson, they stole away to a nearby town, and the next morning she became Mrs. Metcalf.
It was around this time that Metcalf gained a patron, Colonel Liddell. The colonel decided to take his young protégé to London, some 190 miles to the south. John rode in the coach for awhile, but most of the gentry were used to taking their time when they traveled for pleasure. There most likely were frequent stops along the way for leisurely meals. Whatever the reason, John decided he could make better time on foot. He did, reaching London ahead of Liddell's coach, checking out the capital and returning to Yorkshire before the carriage and the colonel made it back to the Liddell barn.
Shortly afterwards Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland and rallied the Highlanders against Britain. Lack of sight wasn't going to keep John Metcalf out of a good scrap. He recruited 140 of Knaresborough's finest and was given command of a 64-man contingent, setting off with his townsmen to join the King's forces at Newcastle, where they were attached to Colonel Pultney's right. On January 17, 1746, the opposing sides clashed at Falkirk, where 448 years before William Wallace had barely escaped with his life, fleeing Edward I's army. History almost repeated itself, but this time it was the English who fled annihilation, Metcalf among them.
Three months later the tide was reversed at Culloden. Metcalf was there for the English victory, although it's not mentioned what part he took in the action/slaughter. Mustered out, he settled down to a quiet life. For a day or two, perhaps. Moving on to Harrogate and back to the trading fairs, he turned his knowledge of good horseflesh to commercial use. He knew a good horse when he felt one. He soon added trade in brandy and in tea to his repertoire. It may be that some of his trading was not quite legal, but smuggling was an honored pursuit in most small towns of the day. Who likes to pay taxes?
Whatever the ingredients of enterprise are, John Metcalf had an ample supply. By 1754 he had set up a stage line between Knaresborough and York. Not only set it up, but drove a coach himself, making two trips a week during the summer and one a week in the winter months. He personally bought his own fuel. It's claimed he could measure a load of hay with his arms and mentally convert the results into cubic feet and inches. And yet it wasn't enough to control the vehicles, the horsepower and the fuel; Metcalf wanted to reinvent the route. He became an expert bridge and road builder. In 1765 he won a contract to build a three-mile section of a new road between Harrogate and Boroughbridge. Exploring the intervening three miles of countryside between Minskip and Fearnsby, alone, he formulated the most practical path, hired a crew and began his career as a builder of highways. Over the next thirty years he would earn a total of £65,000, a considerable sum then. Through these years he acquired a unequaled mastery of his trade. He had his own method of calculating costs and necessary materials, but which he could never successfully explain to others. But results were what counted. He became an expert in constructing roadway structures that would hold up under all weather and over all terrain.
The uncrossable bog proved to be quite crossable, once a series of rafts made from ling (a variety of rush or marsh grass) and furze (heather) tied in bundles was laid across the unstable terrain. Pontoon bridges were centuries old, but Metcalf was able to use the abundant natural materials at hand to pioneer the bridges' use in road building.
It was toward the end of the 18th century that growing labor costs and a rapidly expanding use of canals eclipsed road building. When a contract for £3,000 yielded only a £40 profit in 1792, Metcalf retired. Dorothy had died in 1778. John lived another 18 years after retirement, dying on April 26th, 1810, in his home in Spofforth. Although his name may be best known today for a Knaresborough pub, Blind Jack's, he also left behind four children, 20 grandchildren, 90 great-grandchildren and over 180 miles of roadway.
If history hadn't given us John Metcalf, novelist Henry Fielding might have had to invent him - Blind Jack, a Tom Jones with fewer senses but more sense. Fielding would have been writing from personal knowledge, through the sightless eyes of his own half-brother.
Henry himself was born in 1707, in Glastonbury, England, to Edmund Fielding, one of John Churchill's generals. When Edmund's first wife died, he remarried and it was this union that produced John Fielding, born in London in 1721. Henry's career path was varied. Best known today as a novelist, he also followed careers as a playwright, theater owner, and a political commentator. If that were not enough to occupy him, in 1740 he was called to the bar. It was about this time that John, now 19, was blinded in an accident. In December of 1748, Henry was appointed justice of the peace at London's Bow Street Police-Office. Casting about for a career a sightless young man could pursue, John decided to follow in some of Henry's footsteps and go into the law, becoming a magistrate himself in 1750.
He joined Henry at the Bow Street Office in 1753. Henry would die in Lisbon the following year while traveling and John would replace him as chief magistrate. But in the short time they worked together they made a formidable team. Both were concerned not only with bringing London's criminals to justice but also sought ways to analyze and change the causes of crime, especially among the capital's juveniles. Reforms were also instituted under the Fieldings at Bow Street. Descriptions of known criminals were distributed to police and civilians alike. But perhaps the most far-reaching reform was the formation of the Bow Street Runners, an informal, unofficial network of law officers empowered to roam the street of London attempting to solve crimes, partially through the use of paid informers. Soon they were even allowed to range into the countryside. They were not salaried, but were paid for their work through a series of fees and rewards. Sometimes not much better then the criminals they pursued, they often laid themselves open to charges of bribery and corruption. They were eventually disbanded but not before the idea of a police detective squad had been planted in the minds of the populace. It would take Robert Peel a few more decades to create an actual police force (bobbies, in his honor) but the groundwork had been laid.
Now chief magistrate in his own right, John Fielding built himself a solid reputation. Some of his people may have been less than honest, but he himself gained a reputation for toughness and competency, combined with fairness and compassion, little encumbered by his handicap. Myth claimed he could recognize nearly 3,000 thieves by their voices alone. In a well-publicized 1760 case he convicted the murderous landlady Sarah Metyard and her daughter/accomplice, and sentenced them to the gallows. In his efforts to uphold the letter as well as the spirit of the law, he often stepped on a few toes that didn't belong to the criminal classes. In 1771, now Sir John Fielding, he convicted the society hostess Mrs. Cornelys for presenting an illegal performance at one of her masquerades. And in September of 1773 he complained to theater manager David Garrick about the presentation of John Gay's popular Beggar's Opera, feeling it encouraged crime. In his latter years he turned to the pen, as Henry had done before him. But he kept to his field, publishing Extracts From Such of the Penal Laws as Relate to the Peace and Good Order of This Metropolis (1768) and A Plan for Preventing Robberies Within 20 Miles of London (1775). It was in a mostly safer London that Sir John Fielding died on September 4th, 1790.
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