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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter VI. John Metcalf, road-maker



Metcalf's birthplace Knaresborough

John Metcalf was born at Knaresborough in 1717, the son of poor working people. When only six years old he was seized with virulent small-pox, which totally destroyed his sight. The blind boy, when sufficiently recovered to go abroad, first learnt to grope from door to door along the walls on either side of his parents' dwelling. In about six months he was able to feel his way to the end of the street and back without a guide, and in three years he could go on a message to any part of the town. He grew strong and healthy, and longed to join in the sports of boys of his age. He went bird-nesting with them, and climbed the trees while the boys below directed him to the nests, receiving his share of eggs and young birds. Thus he shortly became an expert climber, and could mount with ease any tree that he was able to grasp. He rambled into the lanes and fields alone, and soon knew every foot of the ground for miles round Knaresborough. He next learnt to ride, delighting above all things in a gallop. He contrived to keep a dog and coursed hares: indeed, the boy was the marvel of the neighbourhood. His unrestrainable activity, his acuteness of sense, his shrewdness, and his cleverness, astonished everybody.

The boy's confidence in himself was such, that though blind, he was ready to undertake almost any adventure. Among his other arts he learned to swim in the Nidd, and became so expert that on one occasion he saved the lives of three of his companions. Once, when two men were drowned in a deep part of the river, Metcalf was sent for to dive for them, which he did, and brought up one of the bodies at the fourth diving: the other had been carried down the stream. He thus also saved a manufacturer's yarn, a large quantity of which had been carried by a sudden flood into a deep hole under the High Bridge. At home, in the evenings, he learnt to play the fiddle, and became so skilled on the instrument, that he was shortly able to earn money by playing dance music at country parties. At Christmas time he played waits, and during the Harrogate season he played to the assemblies at the Queen's Head and the Green Dragon.

On one occasion, towards dusk, he acted as guide to a belated gentleman along the difficult road from York to Harrogate. The road was then full of windings and turnings, and in many places it was no better than a track across unenclosed moors. Metcalf brought the gentleman safe to his inn, "The Granby," late at night, and was invited to join in a tankard of negus. On Metcalf leaving the room, the gentleman observed to the landlord--"I think, landlord, my guide must have drunk a great deal of spirits since we came here." "Why so, Sir?" "Well, I judge so, from the appearance of his eyes." "Eyes! bless you, Sir," rejoined the landlord, "don't yon know that he is blind?" "Blind! What do you mean by that?" "I mean, Sir, that he cannot see--he is as blind as a stone. "Well, landlord," said the gentleman, "this is really too much: call him in." Enter Metcalf. "My friend, are you really blind?" "Yes, Sir," said he, "I lost my sight when six years old." "Had I known that, I would not have ventured with you on that road from York for a hundred pounds." "And I, Sir," said Metcalf, "would not have lost my way for a thousand."

Metcalf having thriven and saved money, bought and rode a horse of his own. He had a great affection for the animal, and when he called, it would immediately answer him by neighing. The most surprising thing is that he was a good huntsman; and to follow the hounds was one of his greatest pleasures. He was as bold as a rider as ever took the field. He trusted much, no doubt, to the sagacity of his horse; but he himself was apparently regardless of danger. The hunting adventures which are related of him, considering his blindness, seem altogether marvellous. He would also run his horse for the petty prizes or plates given at the "feasts" in the neighbourhood, and he attended the races at York and other places, where he made bets with considerable skill, keeping well in his memory the winning and losing horses. After the races, he would return to Knaresborough late at night, guiding others who but for him could never have made out the way.

On one occasion he rode his horse in a match in Knaresborough Forest. The ground was marked out by posts, including a circle of a mile, and the race was three times round. Great odds were laid against the blind man, because of his supposed inability to keep the course. But his ingenuity was never at fault. He procured a number of dinner-bells from the Harrogate inns and set men to ring them at the several posts. Their sound was enough to direct him during the race, and the blind man came in the winner! After the race was over, a gentleman who owned a notorious runaway horse came up and offered to lay a bet with Metcalf that he could not gallop the horse fifty yards and stop it within two hundred. Metcalf accepted the bet, with the condition that he might choose his ground. This was agreed to, but there was to be neither hedge nor wall in the distance. Metcalf forthwith proceeded to the neighbourhood of the large bog near the Harrogate Old Spa, and having placed a person on the line in which he proposed to ride, who was to sing a song to guide him by its sound, he mounted and rode straight into the bog, where he had the horse effectually stopped within the stipulated two hundred yards, stuck up to his saddle-girths in the mire. Metcalf scrambled out and claimed his wager; but it was with the greatest difficulty that the horse could be extricated.

The blind man also played at bowls very successfully, receiving the odds of a bowl extra for the deficiency of each eye. He had thus three bowls for the other's one; and he took care to place one friend at the jack and another midway, who, keeping up a constant discourse with him, enabled him readily to judge of the distance. In athletic sports, such as wrestling and boxing, he was also a great adept; and being now a full-grown man, of great strength and robustness, about six feet two in height, few durst try upon him the practical jokes which cowardly persons are sometimes disposed to play upon the blind.

Notwithstanding his mischievous tricks and youthful wildness, there must have been something exceedingly winning about the man, possessed, as he was, of a strong, manly, and affectionate nature; and we are not, therefore, surprised to learn that the land lord's daughter of "The Granby" fairly fell in love with Blind Jack and married him, much to the disgust of her relatives. When asked how it was that she could marry such a man, her woman-like reply was, "Because I could not be happy without him: his actions are so singular, and his spirit so manly and enterprising, that I could not help loving him." But, after all, Dolly was not so far wrong in the choice as her parents thought her. As the result proved, Metcalf had in him elements of success in life, which, even according to the world's estimate, made him eventually a very "good match," and the woman's clear sight in this case stood her in good stead.

But before this marriage was consummated, Metcalf had wandered far and "seen" a good deal of the world, as he termed it. He travelled on horseback to Whitby, and from thence he sailed for London, taking with him his fiddle, by the aid of which he continued to earn enough to maintain himself for several weeks in the metropolis. Returning to Whitby, He sailed from thence to Newcastle to "see" some friends there, whom he had known at Harrogate while visiting that watering-place. He was welcomed by many families and spent an agreeable month, afterwards visiting Sunderland, still supporting himself by his violin playing. Then he returned to Whitby for his horse, and rode homeward alone to Knaresborough by Pickering, Malton, and York, over very bad roads, the greater part of which he had never travelled before, yet without once missing his way. When he arrived at York, it was the dead of night, and he found the city gates at Middlethorp shut. They were of strong planks, with iron spikes fixed on the top; but throwing his horse's bridle-rein over one of the spikes, he climbed up, and by the help of a corner of the wall that joined the gates, he got safely over: then opening; them from the inside, he led his horse through.

After another season at Harrogate, he made a second visit to London, in the company of a North countryman who played the small pipes. He was kindly entertained by Colonel Liddell, of Ravensworth Castle, who gave him a general invitation to his house. During this visit which was in 1730-1, Metcalf ranged freely over the metropolis, visiting Maidenhead and Reading, and returning by Windsor and Hampton Court. The Harrogate season being at hand, he prepared to proceed thither,--Colonel Liddell, who was also about setting out for Harrogate, offering him a seat behind his coach. Metcalf thanked him, but declined the offer, observing that he could, with great ease, walk as, far in a day as he, the Colonel, was likely to travel in his carriage; besides, he preferred the walking. That a blind man should undertake to walk a distance of two hundred miles over an unknown road, in the same time that it took a gentleman to perform the same distance in his coach, dragged by post-horses, seems almost incredible; yet Metcalf actually arrived at Harrogate before the Colonel, and that without hurrying by the way. The circumstance is easily accounted for by the deplorable state of the roads, which made travelling by foot on the whole considerably more expeditious than travelling by coach. The story is even extant of a man with a wooden leg being once offered a lift upon a stage-coach; but he declined, with "Thank'ee, I can't wait; I'm in a hurry." And he stumped on, ahead of the coach.

The account of Metcalf's journey on foot from London to Harrogate is not without a special bearing on our subject, as illustrative of the state of the roads at the time. He started on a Monday morning, about an hour before the Colonel in his carriage, with his suite, which consisted of sixteen servants on horseback. It was arranged that they should sleep that night at Welwyn, in Hertfordshire. Metcalf made his way to Barnet; but a little north of that town, where the road branches off to St. Albans, he took the wrong way, and thus made a considerable detour. Nevertheless he arrived at Welwyn first, to the surprise of the Colonel. Next morning he set off as before, and reached Biggleswade; but there he found the river swollen and no bridge provided to enable travellers to cross to the further side. He made a considerable circuit, in the hope of finding some method of crossing the stream, and was so fortunate as to fall in with a fellow wayfarer, who led the way across some planks, Metcalf following the sound of his feet. Arrived at the other side, Metcalf, taking some pence from his pocket, said, "Here, my good fellow, take that and get a pint of beer." The stranger declined, saying he was welcome to his services. Metcalf, however, pressed upon his guide the small reward, when the other asked, "Pray, can you see very well?" "Not remarkably well," said Metcalf. "My friend," said the stranger, "I do not mean to tithe you: I am the rector of this parish; so God bless you, and I wish you a good journey. " Metcalf set forward again with the blessing, and reached his journey's end safely, again before the Colonel. On the Saturday after their setting out from London, the travellers reached Wetherby, where Colonel Liddell desired to rest until the Monday; but Metcalf proceeded on to Harrogate, thus completing the journey in six days,--the Colonel arriving two days later.

He now renewed his musical performances at Harrogate, and was also in considerable request at the Ripon assemblies, which were attended by most of the families of distinction in that neighbourhood. When the season at Harrogate was over, he retired to Knaresborough with his young wife, and having purchased an old house, he had it pulled down and another built on its site,--he himself getting the requisite stones for the masonry out of the bed of the adjoining river. The uncertainty of the income derived from musical performances led him to think of following some more settled pursuit, now that he had a wife to maintain as well as himself. He accordingly set up a four-wheeled and a one-horse chaise for the public accommodation,--Harrogate up to that time being without any vehicle for hire. The innkeepers of the town having followed his example, and abstracted most of his business, Metcalf next took to fish-dealing. He bought fish at the coast, which he conveyed on horseback to Leeds and other towns for sale. He continued indefatigable at this trade for some time, being on the road often for nights together; but he was at length forced to abandon it in consequence of the inadequacy of the returns. 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 suspicions 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.

After this, Metcalf began a new line of business, that of common carrier between York and Knaresborough, plying the first stage-waggon on that road. He made the journey twice a week in summer and once a week in winter. He also undertook the conveyance of army baggage, most other owners of carts at that time being afraid of soldiers, regarding them as a wild rough set, with whom it was dangerous to have any dealings. But the blind man knew them better, and while he drove a profitable trade in carrying their baggage from town to town, they never did him any harm. By these means, he very shortly succeeded in realising a considerable store of savings, besides being able to maintain his family in respectability and comfort.

Metcalf, however, had not yet entered upon the main business of his life. The reader will already have observed how strong of heart and resolute of purpose he was. During his adventurous career he had acquired a more than ordinary share of experience of the world. Stone blind as he was from his childhood, he had not been able to study books, but he had carefully studied men. He could read characters with wonderful quickness, rapidly taking stock, as he called it, of those with whom he came in contact. In his youth, as we have seen, he could follow the hounds on horse or on foot, and managed to be in at the death with the most expert riders. His travels about the country as a guide to those who could see, as a musician, soldier, chapman, fish-dealer, horse-dealer, and waggoner, had given him a perfectly familiar acquaintance with the northern roads. He could measure timber or hay in the stack, and rapidly reduce their contents to feet and inches after a mental process of his own. Withal he was endowed with an extraordinary activity and spirit of enterprise, which, had his sight been spared him, would probably have rendered him one of the most extraordinary men of his age. As it was, Metcalf now became one of the greatest of its road-makers and bridge-builders.


John Metcalf, the blind road-maker.

About the year 1765 an Act was passed empowering a turnpike-road to be constructed between Harrogate and Boroughbridge. The business of contractor had not yet come into existence, nor was the art of road-making much understood; and in a remote country place such as Knaresborough the surveyor had some difficulty in finding persons capable of executing the necessary work. The shrewd Metcalf discerned in the proposed enterprise the first of a series of public roads of a similar kind throughout the northern counties, for none knew better than he did how great was the need of them. He determined, therefore, to enter upon this new line of business, and offered to Mr. Ostler, the master surveyor, to construct three miles of the proposed road between Minskip and Fearnsby. Ostler knew the man well, and having the greatest confidence in his abilities, he let him the contract. Metcalf sold his stage-waggons and his interest in the carrying business between York and Knaresborough, and at once proceeded with his new undertaking. The materials for metaling the road were to be obtained from one gravel-pit for the whole length, and he made his arrangements on a large scale accordingly, hauling out the ballast with unusual expedition and economy, at the same time proceeding with the formation of the road at all points; by which means he was enabled the first to complete his contract, to the entire satisfaction of the surveyor and trustees.

This was only the first of a vast number of similar projects on which Metcalf was afterwards engaged, extending over a period of more than thirty years. By the time that he had finished the road, the building of a bridge at Boroughbridge was advertised, and Metcalf sent in his tender with many others. At the same time he frankly stated that, though he wished to undertake the work, he had not before executed anything of the kind. His tender being on the whole the most favourable, the trustees sent for Metcalf, and on his appearing before them, they asked him what he knew of a bridge. He replied that he could readily describe his plan of the one they proposed to build, if they would be good enough to write down his figures. The span of the arch, 18 feet," said he, "being a semicircle, makes 27: the arch-stones must be a foot deep, which, if multiplied by 27, will be 486; and the basis will be 72 feet more. This for the arch; but it will require good backing, for which purpose there are proper stones in the old Roman wall at Aldborough, which may be used for the purpose, if you please to give directions to that effect." It is doubtful whether the trustees were able to follow his rapid calculations; but they were so much struck by his readiness and apparently complete knowledge of the work he proposed to execute, that they gave him the contract to build the bridge; and he completed it within the stipulated time in a satisfactory and workmanlike manner.

He next agreed to make the mile and a half of turnpike-road between his native town of Knaresborough and Harrogate--ground with which he was more than ordinarily familiar. Walking one day over a portion of the ground on which the road was to be made, while still covered with grass, he told the workmen that he thought it differed from the ground adjoining it, and he directed them to try for stone or gravel underneath; and, strange to say, not many feet down, the men came upon the stones of an old Roman causeway, from which he obtained much valuable material for the making of his new road. At another part of the contract there was a bog to be crossed, and the surveyor thought it impossible to make a road over it. Metcalf assured him that he could readily accomplish it; on which the other offered, if he succeeded, to pay him for the straight road the price which he would have to pay if the road were constructed round the bog. Metcalf set to work accordingly, and had a large quantity of furze and ling laid upon the bog, over which he spread layers of gravel. The plan answered effectually, and when the materials had become consolidated, it proved one of the best parts of the road.

It would be tedious to describe in detail the construction of the various roads and bridges which Metcalf subsequently executed, but a brief summary of the more important will suffice. In Yorkshire, he made the roads between Harrogate and Harewood Bridge; between Chapeltown and Leeds; between Broughton and Addingham; between Mill Bridge and Halifax; between Wakefield and Dewsbury; between Wakefield and Doncaster; between Wakefield, Huddersfield, and Saddleworth (the Manchester road); between Standish and Thurston Clough; between Huddersfield and Highmoor; between Huddersfield and Halifax, and between Knaresborough and Wetherby.

In Lancashire also, Metcalf made a large extent of roads, which were of the greatest importance in opening up the resources of that county. Previous to their construction, almost the only means of communication between districts was by horse-tracks and mill-roads, of sufficient width to enable a laden horse to pass along them with a pack of goods or a sack of corn slung across its back. Metcalf's principal roads in Lancashire were those constructed by him between Bury and Blackburn, with a branch to Accrington; between Bury and Haslingden; and between Haslingden and Accrington, with a branch to Blackburn. He also made some highly important main roads connecting Yorkshire and Lancashire with each other at many parts: as, for instance, those between Skipton, Colne, and Burnley; and between Docklane Head and Ashton-under-Lyne. The roads from Ashton to Stockport and from Stockport to Mottram Langdale were also his work.

Our road-maker was also extensively employed in the same way in the counties of Cheshire and Derby; constructing the roads between Macclesfield and Chapel-le-Frith, between Whaley and Buxton, between Congleton and the Red Bull (entering Staffordshire), and in various other directions. The total mileage of the turnpike-roads thus constructed was about one hundred and eighty miles, for which Metcalf received in all about sixty-five thousand pounds. The making of these roads also involved the building of many bridges, retaining-walls, and culverts. We believe it was generally admitted of the works constructed by Metcalf that they well stood the test of time and use; and, with a degree of justifiable pride, he was afterwards accustomed to point to his bridges, when others were tumbling during floods, and boast that none of his had fallen.

This extraordinary man not only made the highways which were designed for him by other surveyors, but himself personally surveyed and laid out many of the most important roads which he constructed, in difficult and mountainous parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire. One who personally knew Metcalf thus wrote of him during his life-time:. "With the assistance only of a long staff, I have several times met this man traversing the roads, ascending steep and rugged heights, exploring valleys and investigating their several extents, forms, and situations, so as to answer his designs in the best manner. The plans which he makes, and the estimates he prepares, are done in a method peculiar to himself, and of which he cannot well convey the meaning to others. His abilities in this respect are, nevertheless, so great that he finds constant employment. Most of the roads over the Peak in Derbyshire have been altered by his directions, particularly those in the vicinity of Buxton; and he is at this time constructing a new one betwixt Wilmslow and Congleton, to open a communication with the great London road, without being obliged to pass over the mountains. I have met this blind projector while engaged in making his survey. He was alone as usual, and, amongst other conversation, I made some inquiries respecting this new road. It was really astonishing to hear with what accuracy he described its course and the nature of the different soils through which it was conducted. Having mentioned to him a boggy piece of ground it passed through, he observed that 'that was the only place he had doubts concerning, and that he was apprehensive they had, contrary to his directions, been too sparing of their materials.'"*[1]

Metcalf's skill in constructing his roads over boggy ground was very great; and the following may be cited as an instance. When the high-road from Huddersfield to Manchester was determined on, he agreed to make it at so much a rood, though at that time the line had not been marked out. When this was done, Metcalf, to his dismay, found that the surveyor had laid it out across some deep marshy ground on Pule and Standish Commons. On this he expostulated with the trustees, alleging the much greater expense that he must necessarily incur in carrying out the work after their surveyor's plan. They told him, however, that if he succeeded in making a complete road to their satisfaction, he should not be a loser; but they pointed out that, according to their surveyor's views, it would be requisite for him to dig out the bog until he came to a solid bottom. Metcalf, on making his calculations, found that in that case he would have to dig a trench some nine feet deep and fourteen yards broad on the average, making about two hundred and ninety-four solid yards of bog in every rood, to be excavated and carried away. This, he naturally conceived, would have proved both tedious as well as costly, and, after all, the road would in wet weather have been no better than a broad ditch, and in winter liable to be blocked up with snow. He strongly represented this view to the trustees as well as the surveyor, but they were immovable. It was, therefore, necessary for him to surmount the difficulty in some other way, though he remained firm in his resolution not to adopt the plan proposed by the surveyor. After much cogitation he appeared again before the trustees, and made this proposal to them: that he should make the road across the marshes after his own plan, and then, if it should be found not to answer, he would be at the expense of making it over again after the surveyor's proposed method. This was agreed to; and as he had undertaken to make nine miles of the road within ten months, he immediately set to work with all despatch.

Nearly four hundred men were employed upon the work at six different points, and their first operation was to cut a deep ditch along either side of the intended road, and throw the excavated stuff inwards so as to raise it to a circular form. His greatest difficulty was in getting the stones laid to make the drains, there being no firm footing for a horse in the more boggy places. The Yorkshire clothiers, who passed that way to Huddersfield market --by no means a soft-spoken race--ridiculed Metcalf's proceedings, and declared that he and his men would some day have to be dragged out of the bog by the hair of their heads! Undeterred, however, by sarcasm, he persistently pursued his plan of making the road practicable for laden vehicles; but he strictly enjoined his men for the present to keep his manner of proceeding; a secret.

His plan was this. He ordered heather and ling to be pulled from the adjacent ground, and after binding it together in little round bundles, which could be grasped with the hand, these bundles were placed close together in rows in the direction of the line of road, after which other similar bundles were placed transversely over them; and when all had been pressed well down, stone and gravel were led on in broad-wheeled waggons, and spread over the bundles, so as to make a firm and level way. When the first load was brought and laid on, and the horses reached the firm ground again in safety, loud cheers were set up by the persons who had assembled in the expectation of seeing both horses and waggons disappear in the bog. The whole length was finished in like manner, and it proved one of the best, and even the driest, parts of the road, standing in very little need of repair for nearly twelve years after its construction. The plan adopted by Metcalf, we need scarcely point out, was precisely similar to that afterwards adopted by George Stephenson, under like circumstances, when constructing the railway across Chat Moss. It consisted simply in a large extension of the bearing surface, by which, in fact, the road was made to float upon the surface of the bog; and the ingenuity of the expedient proved the practical shrewdness and mother-wit of the blind Metcalf, as it afterwards illustrated the promptitude as well as skill of the clear-sighted George Stephenson.

Metcalf was upwards of seventy years old before he left off road-making. He was still hale and hearty, wonderfully active for so old a man, and always full of enterprise. Occupation was absolutely necessary for his comfort, and even to the last day of his life he could not bear to be idle. While engaged on road-making in Cheshire, he brought his wife to Stockport for a time, and there she died, after thirty-nine years of happy married life. One of Metcalf's daughters became married to a person engaged in the cotton business at Stockport, and, as that trade was then very brisk, Metcalf himself commenced it in a small way. He began with six spinning-jennies and a carding-engine, to which he afterwards added looms for weaving calicoes, jeans, and velveteens. But trade was fickle, and finding that he could not sell his yarns except at a loss, he made over his jennies to his son-in-law, and again went on with his road-making. The last line which he constructed was one of the most difficult he had everundertaken,-- that between Haslingden and Accrington, with a branch road to Bury. Numerous canals being under construction at the same time, employment was abundant and wages rose, so that though he honourably fulfilled his contract, and was paid for it the sum of 3500L., he found himself a loser of exactly 40L. after two years' labour and anxiety. He completed the road in 1792, when he was seventy-five years of age, after which he retired to his farm at Spofforth, near Wetherby, where for some years longer he continued to do a little business in his old line, buying and selling hay and standing wood, and superintending the operations of his little farm, During the later years of his career he occupied himself in dictating to an amanuensis an account of the incidents in his remarkable life, and finally, in the year 1810, this strong-hearted and resolute man --his life's work over--laid down his staff and peacefully departed in the ninety-third year of his age; leaving behind him four children, twenty grand-children, and ninety great grand-children.


Metcalf's house at Spofforth.

The roads constructed by Metcalf and others had the effect of greatly improving the communications of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and opening up those counties to the trade then flowing into them from all directions. But the administration of the highways and turnpikes being entirely local, their good or bad management depending upon the public spirit and enterprise of the gentlemen of the locality, it frequently happened that while the roads of one county were exceedingly good, those of the adjoining county were altogether execrable.

Even in the immediate vicinity of the metropolis the Surrey roads remained comparatively unimproved. Those through the interior of Kent were wretched. When Mr. Rennie, the engineer, was engaged in surveying the Weald with a view to the cutting of a canal through it in 1802, he found the country almost destitute of practicable roads, though so near to the metropolis on the one hand and to the sea-coast on the other. The interior of the county was then comparatively untraversed, except by bands of smugglers, who kept the inhabitants in a state of constant terror. In an agricultural report on the county of Northampton as late as the year 1813, it was stated that the only way of getting along some of the main lines of road in rainy weather, was by swimming!

In the neighbourhood of the city of Lincoln the communications were little better, and there still stands upon what is called Lincoln Heath--though a heath no longer--a curious memorial of the past in the shape of Dunstan Pillar, a column seventy feet high, erected about the middle of last century in the midst of the then dreary, barren waste, for the purpose of serving as a mark to wayfarers by day and a beacon to them by night.*[2]


Land Lighthouse on Lincoln Heath.

At that time the Heath was not only uncultivated, but it was also unprovided with a road across it. When the late Lady Robert Manners visited Lincoln from her residence at Bloxholm, she was accustomed to send forward a groom to examine some track, that on his return he might be able to report one that was practicable. Travellers frequently lost themselves upon this heath. Thus a family, returning from a ball at Lincoln, strayed from the track twice in one night, and they were obliged to remain there until morning. All this is now changed, and Lincoln Heath has become covered with excellent roads and thriving farmsteads. "This Dunstan Pillar," says Mr. Pusey, in his review of the agriculture of Lincolnshire, in 1843, "lighted up no longer time ago for so singular a purpose, did appear to me a striking witness of the spirit of industry which, in our own days, has reared the thriving homesteads around it, and spread a mantle of teeming vegetation to its very base. And it was certainly surprising to discover at once the finest farming I had ever seen and the only land lighthouse ever raised.*[3] Now that the pillar has ceased to cheer the wayfarer, it may serve as a beacon to encourage other landowners in converting their dreary moors into similar scenes of thriving industry."*[4] When the improvement of the high roads of the country fairly set in, the progress made was very rapid. This was greatly stimulated by the important inventions of tools, machines, and engines, made towards the close of last century, the products of which--more especially of the steam-engine and spinning-machine--so largely increased the wealth of the nation. Manufactures, commerce, and shipping, made unprecedented strides; life became more active; persons and commodities circulated more rapidly; every improvement in the internal communications being followed by an increase of ease, rapidity, and economy in locomotion. Turnpike and post roads were speedily extended all over the country, and even the rugged mountain districts of North Wales and the Scotch Highlands became as accessible as any English county. The riding postman was superseded by the smartly appointed mail-coach, performing its journeys with remarkable regularity at the average speed of ten miles an hour. Slow stagecoaches gave place to fast ones, splendidly horsed and "tooled," until travelling by road in England was pronounced almost perfect.

But all this was not enough. The roads and canals, numerous and perfect though they might be, were found altogether inadequate to the accommodation of the traffic of the country, which had increased, at a constantly accelerating ratio, with the increased application of steam power to the purposes of productive industry. At length steam itself was applied to remedy the inconveniences which it had caused; the locomotive engine was invented, and travelling by railway became generally adopted. The effect of these several improvements in the means of locomotion, has been to greatly increase the public activity, and to promote the general comfort and well-being. They have tended to bring the country and the town much closer together; and, by annihilating distance as measured by time, to make the whole kingdom as one great city. What the personal blessings of improved communication have been, no one has described so well as the witty and sensible Sydney Smith:--

"It is of some importance," he wrote, "at what period a man is born. A young man alive at this period hardly knows to what improvement of human life he has been introduced; and I would bring before his notice the changes which have taken place in England since I began to breathe the breath of life, a period amounting to over eighty years. Gas was unknown; I groped about the streets of London in the all but utter darkness of a twinkling oil lamp, under the protection of watchmen in their grand climacteric, and exposed to every species of degradation and insult. I have been nine hours in sailing from Dover to Calais, before the invention of steam. It took me nine hours to go from Taunton to Bath, before the invention of railroads; and I now go in six hours from Taunton to London! In going from Taunton to Bath, I suffered between l0,000 and 12,000 severe contusions, before stone-breaking Macadam was born.... As the basket of stage-coaches in which luggage was then carried had no springs, your clothes were rubbed all to pieces; and, even in the best society, one-third of the gentlemen at least were always drunk..... I paid 15L. in a single year for repairs of carriage-springs on the pavement of London; and I now glide without noise or fracture on wooden pavement. I can walk, by the assistance of the police, from one end of London to the other without molestation; or, if tired, get into a cheap and active cab, instead of those cottages on wheels which the hackney coaches were at the beginning of my life..... Whatever miseries I suffered, there was no post to whisk my complaints for a single penny to the remotest comer of the empire; and yet, in spite of all these privations, I lived on quietly, and am now ashamed that I was not more discontented, and utterly surprised that all these changes and inventions did not occur two centuries ago.

With the history of these great improvements is also mixed up the story of human labour and genius, and of the patience and perseverance displayed in carrying them out. Probably one of the best illustrations of character in connection with the development of the inventions of the last century, is to be found in the life of Thomas Telford, the greatest and most scientific road-maker of his day, to which we proceed to direct the attention of the reader.

Footnotes for Chapter VI.

*[1] 'Observations on Blindness and on the Employment of the other Senses to supply the Loss of Sight.' By Mr. Bew.--'Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester,' vol.i., pp. 172-174. Paper read 17th April, 1782.

*[2] The pillar was erected by Squire Dashwood in 1751; the lantern on its summit was regularly lighted till 1788, and occasionally till 1808,, when it was thrown down and never replaced. The Earl of Buckingham afterwards mounted a statue of George III. on the top.

*[3] Since the appearance of the first edition of this book, a correspondent has informed us that there is another lighthouse within 24 miles of London, not unlike that on Lincoln Heath. It is situated a little to the south-east of the Woking station of the South-western Railway, and is popularly known as "Woking Monument." It stands on the verge of Woking Heath, which is a continuation of the vast tract of heath land which extends in one direction as far as Bagshot. The tradition among the inhabitants is, that one of the kings of England was wont to hunt in the neighbourhood, when a fire was lighted up in the beacon to guide him in case he should be belated; but the probability is, that it was erected like that on Lincoln Heath, for the guidance of ordinary wayfarers at night.

*[4] 'Journal of the Agricultural Society of England, 1843.'


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