Blind Jack Metcalf

Blind Jack Metcalf (1717-1810)

Jack Metcalf, 1801
From The Life of Thomas Telford by Samuel Smiles.


He was therefore under the necessity of again taking up his violin; and he was employed as a musician in the Long Room at Harrogate, at the time of the outbreak of the Rebellion of 1745.

The news of the rout of the Royal army at Prestonpans, and the intended march of the Highlanders southwards, put a stop to business as well as pleasure, and caused a general consternation throughout the northern counties. The great bulk of the people were, however, comparatively indifferent to the measures of defence which were adopted; and but for the energy displayed by the country gentlemen in raising forces in support of the established government, the Stuarts might again have been seated on the throne of Britain. Among the county gentlemen of York who distinguished themselves on the occasion was William Thornton, Esq., of Thornville Royal. The county having voted ninety thousand pounds for raising, clothing, and maintaining a body of four thousand men, Mr. Thornton proposed, at a public meeting held at York, that they should be embodied with the regulars and march with the King's forces to meet the Pretender in the field. This proposal was, however, overruled, the majority of the meeting resolving that the men should be retained at home for purposes merely of local defence. On this decision being come to, Mr. Thornton determined to raise a company of volunteers at his own expense, and to join the Royal army with such force as he could muster. He then went abroad among his tenantry and servants, and endeavoured to induce them to follow him, but without success.

Still determined on raising his company, Mr. Thornton next cast about him for other means; and who should he think of in his emergency but Blind Jack! Metcalf had often played to his family at Christmas time, and the Squire knew him to be one of the most popular men in the neighbourhood. He accordingly proceeded to Knaresborough to confer with Metcalf on the subject. It was then about the beginning of October, only a fortnight after the battle of Prestonpans. Sending for Jack to his inn, Mr. Thornton told him of the state of affairs — that the French were coming to join the rebels — and that if the country were allowed to fall into their hands, no man's wife, daughter, nor sister would be safe. Jack's loyalty was at once kindled. If no one else would join the Squire, he would! Thus enlisted--perhaps carried away by his love of adventure not less than by his feeling of patriotism Metcalf proceeded to enlist others, and in two days a hundred and forty men were obtained, from whom Mr. Thornton drafted sixty-four, the intended number of his company. The men were immediately drilled and brought into a state of as much efficiency as was practicable in the time; and when they marched off to join General Wade's army at Boroughbridge, the Captain said to them on setting out, "My lads! you are going to form part of a ring-fence to the finest estate in the world!" Blind Jack played a march at the head of the company, dressed in blue and buff, and in a gold-laced hat. The Captain said he would willingly give a hundred guineas for only one eye to put in Jack's head: he was such a useful, spirited, handy fellow.

On arriving at Newcastle, Captain Thornton's company was united to Pulteney's regiment, one of the weakest. The army lay for a week in tents on the Moor. Winter had set in, and the snow lay thick on the ground; but intelligence arriving that Prince Charles, with his Highlanders, was proceeding southwards by way of Carlisle, General Wade gave orders for the immediate advance of the army on Hexham, in the hope of intercepting them by that route. They set out on their march amidst hail and snow; and in addition to the obstruction caused by the weather, they had to overcome the difficulties occasioned by the badness of the roads. The men were often three or four-hours in marching a mile, the pioneers having to fill up ditches and clear away many obstructions in making a practicable passage for the artillery and baggage. The army was only able to reach Ovingham, a distance of little more than ten miles, after fifteen hours' marching. The night was bitter cold; the ground was frozen so hard that but few of the tent-pins could be driven; and the men lay down upon the earth amongst their straw. Metcalf, to keep up the spirits of his company for sleep was next to impossible --took out his fiddle and played lively tunes whilst the men danced round the straw, which they set on fire.

Next day the army marched for Hexham; But the rebels having already passed southward, General Wade retraced his steps to Newcastle to gain the high road leading to Yorkshire, whither he marched in all haste; and for a time his army lay before Leeds on fields now covered with streets, some of which still bear the names of Wade-lane, Camp-road, and Camp-field, in consequence of the event.

On the retreat of Prince Charles from Derby, General Wade again proceeded to Newcastle, while the Duke of Cumberland hung upon the rear of the rebels along their line of retreat by Penrith and Carlisle. Wade's army proceeded by forced marches into Scotland, and at length came up with the Highlanders at Falkirk. Metcalf continued with Captain Thornton and his company throughout all these marchings and countermarchings, determined to be of service to his master if he could, and at all events to see the end of the campaign. At the battle of Falkirk he played his company to the field; but it was a grossly mismanaged battle on the part of the Royalist General, and the result was a total defeat. Twenty of Thornton's men were made prisoners, with the lieutenant and ensign. The Captain himself only escaped by taking refuge in a poor woman's house in the town of Falkirk, where he lay hidden for many days, Metcalf returning to Edinburgh with the rest of the defeated army.

Some of the Dragoon officers, hearing of Jack's escape, sent for him to head-quarters at Holyrood, to question him about his Captain. One of them took occasion to speak ironically of Thornton's men, and asked Metcalf how he had contrived to escape. "Oh!" said Jack, "I found it easy to follow the sound of the Dragoons' horses— they made such a clatter over the stones when flying from the Highlandmen. Another asked him how he, a blind man, durst venture upon such a service; to which Metcalf replied, that had he possessed a pair of good eyes, perhaps he would not have come there to risk the loss of them by gunpowder. No more questions were asked, and Jack withdrew; but he was not satisfied about the disappearance of Captain Thornton, and determined on going back to Falkirk, within the enemy's lines, to get news of him, and perhaps to rescue him, if that were still possible.

The rest of the company were very much disheartened at the loss of their officers and so many of their comrades, and wished Metcalf to furnish them with the means of returning home. But he would not hear of such a thing, and strongly encouraged them to remain until, at all events, he had got news of the Captain. He then set out for Prince Charles's camp. On reaching the outposts of the English army, he was urged by the officer in command to lay aside his project, which would certainly cost him his life. But Metcalf was not to be dissuaded, and he was permitted to proceed, which he did in the company of one of the rebel spies, pretending that he wished to be engaged as a musician in the Prince's army. A woman whom they met returning to Edinburgh from the field of Falkirk, laden with plunder, gave Metcalf a token to her husband, who was Lord George Murray's cook, and this secured him an access to the Prince's quarters; but, notwithstanding a most diligent search, he could hear nothing of his master. Unfortunately for him, a person who had seen him at Harrogate, pointed him out as a suspicious character, and he was seized and put in confinement for three days, after which he was tried by court martial; but as nothing could be alleged against him, he was acquitted, and shortly after made his escape from the rebel camp. On reaching Edinburgh, very much to his delight he found Captain Thornton had arrived there before him.

On the 30th of January, 1746, the Duke of Cumberland reached Edinburgh, and put himself at the head of the Royal army, which proceeded northward in pursuit of the Highlanders. At Aberdeen, where the Duke gave a ball, Metcalf was found to be the only musician in camp who could play country dances, and he played to the company, standing on a chair, for eight hours,--the Duke several times, as he passed him, shouting out "Thornton, play up!" Next morning the Duke sent him a present of two guineas; but as the Captain would not allow him to receive such gifts while in his pay, Metcalf spent the money, with his permission, in giving a treat to the Duke's two body servants. The battle of Culloden, so disastrous to the poor Highlanders, shortly followed, after which Captain Thornton, Metcalf, and the Yorkshire Volunteer Company, proceeded homewards. Metcalf's young wife had been in great fears for the safety of her blind, fearless, and almost reckless partner; but she received him with open arms, and his spirit of adventure being now considerably allayed, he determined to settle quietly down to the steady pursuit of business.

During his stay in Aberdeen, Metcalf had made himself familiar with the articles of clothing manufactured at that place, and he came to the conclusion that a profitable trade might be carried on by buying them on the spot, and selling them by retail to customers in Yorkshire. He accordingly proceeded to Aberdeen in the following spring, and bought a considerable stock of cotton and worsted stockings, which he found he could readily dispose of on his return home. His knowledge of horseflesh — in which he was, of course, mainly guided by his acute sense of feeling — also proved highly serviceable to him, and he bought considerable numbers of horses in Yorkshire for sale in Scotland, bringing back galloways in return. It is supposed that at the same time he carried on a profitable contraband trade in tea and such like articles.

From Blind Net Home Page:

The number of blind persons who have mastered these skills of travel is countless, but no one has ever proved the point or shown the way with more flair than a stalwart Englishman of the eighteenth century named John Metcalf. Indeed, this brash fellow not only defied convention, but the world. Totally blind from childhood, he was (among other things) a successful builder of roads and bridges; racehorse rider; bare-knuckle fighter; card shark; stagecoach driver; and, on occasion, guide to sighted tourists through the local countryside. Here is an account of some of his many enterprises:
In 1751 he commenced a new employment; he set up a stage wagon betwixt York and Knaresborough, being the first on the road, and drove it himself, twice a week in summer, and once in winter. This business, with the occasional conveyance of army baggage, employed his attention till the period of his first contracting for the making of roads, which engagement suiting him better, he relinquished every other pursuit. The first piece of road he made was about three miles, and the materials for the whole were to be produced from one gravel pit; he therefore provided deal boards, and erected a temporary house at the pit; took a dozen horses to the place; fixed racks and mangers, and hired a house for his men, at Minskip. He often walked to Knaresborough in the morning, with four or five stones of meal on his shoulders, and joined his men by six o'clock. He completed the road much sooner than was expected, to the entire satisfaction of the surveyor and trustees.
Mason & Dixon Alpha Guide
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