Blind Jack Metcalf, a renowned 18th century road-builder, was an extraordinary, larger-than-life Yorkshireman whose achievements were accomplished despite being blind from the age of six, as a result of smallpox.

Misfortune did not deter him from leading an independent and active life. In his youth he was a competent angler, wrestler and tree climber. He became a powerful swimmer and a fine horseman who enjoyed hunting and racing, often for wagers. By the age of 12 he was guiding travellers around the Knaresborough area.

Despite his independence, his mother was concerned about his future and thought he should learn to play the fiddle which would at least give him the possibility of earning a living.

He was a popular regular at the Royal Oak in Harrogate (now the Granby Hotel), where he fell in love with the landlord’s daughter, Dolly Benson. Eventually they eloped, married and had four daughters.

They settled down in Knaresborough where Jack made a living as a guide, merchant and the hirer of a four-horse chaise.

He transported fish from Whitby for sale in York and Leeds. His experience of atrocious roads left an impression on him and influenced his future career. When business was slack he always turned to fiddle playing.

In 1745 the Jacobite Rebellion broke out, Squire Thornton , who lived near Knaresborough, asked Jack, because of his reputation, if he would help recruit men for the Yorkshire Blues.

When the regiment was ready to leave for Scotland, Jack insisted that he went with them, playing his fiddle at the head of the column. He was almost taken prisoner at the Battle of Falkirk, and was present at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness (1746), where the Duke of Cumberland routed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s outnumbered army.

After the Rebellion he resumed business hiring out coaches and carrying goods. He was even engaged in smuggling along the Yorkshire coast. These activities impressed on him the need to improve the neglected roads which were having a detrimental effect on trade and commerce.

During the Rebellion he had been inspired by the work of General Wade, who had built around 250 miles of Scottish roads.

Man-made hazards added to the problems. In Otley in the mid-18th century, there were complaints that the Leeds-Otley road was being ripped up by dragging stone from the quarries on the Chevin across it.

The repair of parish roads relied on forced labour under the Statute of Labour Act (1555). Local inhabitants detested having to work for six days each year, unpaid, so the job was badly done. In Yeadon , labourers had been bribed with jugs of ale, but this made no difference. The answer seemed to lie in the development of turnpike roads, the first of which had been the Great North Road in 1663.

Blind Jack’s road-building career began in 1754 when he won the contract for the Ferrensby-to-Minskip stretch of the Harrogate-to-Boroughbridge turnpike. Even the sceptics claimed it was excellent. Other contracts soon followed.

In 1756 he was working on the Halifax-to-Wakefield road. His other roads included Harrogate to Harewood Bridge, Wakefield to Doncaster, Skipton to Colne, Chapletown to Leeds, and Bury to Blackburn.

His most famous, and most difficult, was from Huddersfield to Manchester, over the Pennines. He employed about 400 men, all of whom had the greatest respect for their hard taskmaster.

He arrived on the site every morning at 6 o’clock, and walked every section of the road, tapping it with a hollow stick until he was confident it was up to standard.

Altogether he constructed about 180 miles of turnpikes, and bridges, chiefly in Yorkshire, but also in Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. Apart from a halt to his work when his wife died in 1778 in Stockport, his road engineering career lasted until he was turned 70.

At the age of 78 he walked all the way from Spofforth, near Knaresborough, to York to dictate his life story to a publisher, which was published in 1795.

This most extraordinary character died in Spofforth on April 26, 1810, aged 92. He left four children, 20 grandchildren, and 90 great-grandchildren.