Back to Bits & Bobs

Back to Homepage

Blind Jack of Knaresborough

A shortened version of this article appeared in EDS Magazine (English Dance and Song), Spring 2007

Chris Partington, 2007


Woodcut of
        Blind Jack

The story of John Metcalf (1717-1810), otherwise known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough, is quite well known in Yorkshire. He dictated his autobiography to a York publisher in 1795 and it came out as a popular chapbook in his own lifetime. Samuel Smiles took up his story as exemplary, as an engineer comparable with Telford, and a shortened version found its way into a book by Sabine Baring Gould called ‘Yorkshire Oddities’, which has been reprinted occasionally.

The first half of his life reads like an eighteenth century novel, a series of reminiscences of which any young lusty would be envious, all intended to demonstrate that though he may be blind he never considered himself to be less than equal to his fellows. Anything they could do, he could do and better, up to and including joining the fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion in 1745, which forms something of a climax to the book. Indeed the preface is at considerable pains to point out that this is not going to be the story of meek acceptance of a role in the entertainment industry for which blind people were commonly expected to be grateful. Suffice for now to say that after his youthful scrapes and various imaginative attempts to make a better living for himself and his family, he became a major success as a bridge engineer and road surveyor and contractor during the turnpike boom of the late eighteenth century.

To concentrate on the very aspect of his life that both he and his biographers were at pains to have you understand was the very least of him, would seem to be something of a disservice to his memory, and indeed it is somewhat, but at least I can refer you to his original chapbook which is freely available on Google Books. The subsequent versions are but contractions of this.

Nevertheless, we have very few first hand accounts written by musicians themselves from any period of our history, and he does provide us with some interesting details of the everyday life of an eighteenth century musician.

His fiddling career

It has always been the case that disabled people are nonetheless in the same labour market as everyone else, and as being blind puts one at no disadvantage in musicianship, provided the talent is there then a musical career is an eminently sensible choice.  So when Jack became blind at the age of six from the effects of smallpox he was encouraged to take an interest in playing fiddle and hautboy (oboe) for dancing. He of course lets us know in his autobiography that this was, in his youthful opinion, secondary to the main childhood pursuits of apple scrumping, swimming and cock fighting, but he eventually attained a sufficiently high standard, sitting in at the fortnightly assemblies in Knaresborough, to be offered, at the age of only fifteen, the post of principal fiddler at the Green Dragon in nearby Harrogate. This was the top job. Harrogate was a favourite resort town for the whole of the North, and the Green Dragon was one of the centres of the business. The Nobility and Gentry specifically requested him and he kept the job every summer season for the rest of his musical career. He evidently always very much enjoyed music and was proud of his ability, and nowhere does he say that he ever gave up this job, though we may imagine that he did so as he got grander later in life.

The man who Metcalf succeeded at the Green Dragon was a fiddler called Morrison, and he may have been one of Metcalf’s tutors, which would account for him being already known and trusted at the Inn. Morrison was remarkable himself. He was still playing for dancing, though a little slowly, in his one hundred and second year, when Metcalf replaced him. He had been principal fiddler for 70 years, and though we are not told of his previous experience, his birthdate being in 1631, his repertoire must have been largely oral, as Playford’s Dancing Master was not exactly a light read in the notation of the time. Since Metcalf was perforce an ear player the two men between them would therefore have represented an unbroken oral tradition of at least 150 years by the time of Metcalf’s death in 1810. Oh, could we but hear them play and listen to the after-gig de-briefing!

When shortly afterwards the Green Dragon built itself a fashionable Long Room to cater for the growing clientele, the band of two, including the boy whom Metcalf employed as his apprentice, was no longer big enough. He therefore expanded it by taking into partnership one Midgley, a member of Leeds Waits, and his son. The two young boys had to pay a premium of five pounds each to join the new band. This was going to be a serious enterprise. Midgley was regarded as fully competent and had nothing to pay, though Metcalf was the senior partner.

We are unfortunately not told what instruments were played, but four fiddles would be highly unlikely. Two strong melody instruments providing melody and counter melody, a third providing some harmony (which may include fiddle played across the strings) and a fourth running a bass line would be an efficient line-up, then as now. We know that Metcalf and the boy played fiddle and that Metcalf also played the oboe, and that is all. By 1736 Metcalf and his assistant were playing for all the principal balls and assemblies around Harrogate and Ripon as long as his slot at the Green Dragon allowed it.

While at York for six months during one off season, visiting the houses of the gentry, (which was a regular employment for many musicians at that time, in this country as much as anywhere) he was favoured enough to receive instruction in music from a Mr Hebdin, an eminent musician, ‘Gratis, any service or instruction in his power’.

Part of Jack’s duties at Harrogate included playing for half an hour while the guests enjoyed their breakfasts, so his repertoire and tone obviously went beyond mere squeaking and scraping rhythmically at the local bumpkin tunes whatever they may have been. Can we get a peek at the sort of tunes that he played? Could his experiences in life give us any clues?

Experience of life

We know he liked cards and betting, horse racing, hare coursing, cock fighting, and all the other normal sporting activities of the day. His sweetheart and later wife was Dorothy Benson, respectable daughter of one of the innkeepers at Harrogate, but before he could elope with her and settle down to matrimony he was “enticed” by another girl and got her pregnant (Rev. Sabine BaringGould omits this bit!). Dorothy begged him not to marry her; accordingly he made himself scarce rather than coming to an honourable settlement of the affair. It presumably being the winter off-season again, and therefore not being needed for assemblies, he made for the coast and had adventures at Scarborough, York, London, Whitby, Newcastle, and among the sailors at Sunderland. He seems to have sojourned in York for three weeks in the company of a household of women whom he had surprised at their washing early one morning!

Things presumably having calmed down by now, we find him in Knaresborough again, this time making the acquaintance of a visiting North-Country Bagpiper who was doing the rounds of the local gentlemen’s houses. Together, and on foot, they visited London for the next winter, where they were able to make themselves acquainted on favourable terms with several very respectable Gentlemen who were in the habit of visiting Harrogate in the season. In other words he got around a lot in his spare time and was no provincial.

By the time of Bonny Prince Charlie’s uprising in 1745 Jack was still only 28 years old and as excited as everyone else at the prospect of a bit of war, so he joined with one Captain Thornton, as assistant to the Sergeant, and they raised a company of 64, equipped themselves in Blue and Buff uniforms and marched away to join General Wade’s army, Metcalf entertaining them on the way. After Metcalf and Thornton had various military adventures worthy of Barry Lyndon, the Duke of Cumberland arrived to take charge of the army, and proceeded to chase the Pretender all the way to Aberdeen, passing the time agreeably with Captain Thornton and Metcalf on the way.

One evening at Aberdeen, while the Bonnie Prince was encamped a mere 20 miles away in Strathbogie, the Duke gave a ball ‘for the ladies’. Metcalf played standing on a chair for 25 couples for eight hours, encouraged by occasional cries of ‘Play up, Thornton’ from the Duke. For this he was rewarded with 2 guineas, which Metcalf regarded as a satisfactory amount for several remarkable occasions.

A few days later the Duke marched against the Prince and ended the rebellion at Culloden Moor. The Duke ended the campaign with the epithet ‘the butcher’. By this time Metcalf was married with a family and his remarkable story continues to great success, alas without further mention of his music.

His music

Metcalf was no bystander in the musical history of Yorkshire. He lets us know that he was a principal actor, and this is no idle boast. He is the best player in the best band (his own), in the best Hotel, and all the ones round about, in the best holiday resort in the North of England in the middle of the best century for English Country Dancing. We should look at tune books from that era in that light.

Socially he tells us that he was at his ease at all levels, from the Sunderland sailor, households of ladies in York, the sporting minor gentry, the Nobility and Gentry of Yorkshire, the Member of Parliament for Berwick upon Tweed, all the way up to the Duke of Cumberland, brother of the King. And of interest to us, he played dances and airs sufficient to please them all. He learned off the aged Morrison, other assembly players, Hebdin the Eminent, Sunderland sailors, North Country bagpipers, all by ear. They were all part of the same musical landscape, lowly dance music and assembly dance music part of the same spectrum, popular airs at the breakfast table, ‘Briton’s Strike Home’ and hunting songs, something for everyone.

It is difficult to see how any of the tune books of the time would ignore any sizeable elements of his repertoire, given the essentially public nature of his music making, his local and regional importance and respect, and given that his repertoire was probably not untypical anyway. So when we look at the eighteenth century instrumental repertoire as it is written down, and we wonder how it compares with the oral repertoire at the vernacular level, perhaps Blind Jack of Knaresborough could be the link. As to how it all sounded, compare recordings of William Kimber’s or John Locke’s playing, to standard notation of any of their tunes, and the gap can take your breath away.

Back to Bits & Bobs

Back to Homepage