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James Herriot
Alf wight.jpg
Born James Alfred Wight
(1916-10-03)3 October 1916
Sunderland, County Durham, England
Died 23 February 1995(1995-02-23) (aged 78)
Thirlby, North Yorkshire, England
Pen name James Herriot
Occupation Veterinary surgeon, author
Language English
Nationality British
Education RCVS
Alma mater Glasgow Veterinary College
Period 1940–1992
Subject Autobiographical, memoirs

James Alfred Wight OBE FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), better known by his pen name James Herriot, was a British veterinary surgeon and novelist.

Born in Sunderland, Wight graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College in 1939, returning to England to become a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, where he practised for almost 50 years. He is best known for writing a series of eight books set in the 1930s–1950s Yorkshire Dales about veterinary practice, animals, and their owners, which began with If Only They Could Talk, first published in 1970. Over the decades, the series of books sold some 60 million copies.

The All Creatures Great and Small (franchise) was very successful over the decades. In addition to the books, there have been several television and film adaptations of Wight's books, including the 1975 film All Creatures Great and Small, BBC television series of the same name, which ran for a total of 90 episodes and the 2020 series of the same name.

Life

Alf Wight was born on 3 October 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, England to James Wight (1890–1960) and Hannah née Bell (1890–1980). Shortly after their wedding in 1915, the Wights had moved from Brandling Street, Sunderland, to Glasgow, Scotland where James took work as a ship plater and as a pianist for a local cinema, while Hannah was a singer and a dressmaker. Hannah returned to Sunderland to give birth to Alf, bringing him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old.

Wight attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. When he was a boy in Glasgow, one of Wight's favourite pastimes was walking with his dog, an Irish Setter, in the Scottish countryside and watching it play with his friends' dogs. He later wrote that 'I was intrigued by the character and behaviour of these animals... [I wanted to] spend my life working with them if possible.' At age 12, he read an article in Meccano Magazine about veterinary surgeons, and was captivated with the idea of a career treating sick animals. Two years later, in 1930, he decided to become a vet after the principal of Glasgow Veterinary College gave a lecture at his high school. Wight studied for six years at Glasgow Veterinary College, and qualified as a veterinary surgeon in December 1939 at age 23.

Herriot Museum
The veterinary surgery (office) of Alf Wight (James Herriot) and his partners, Donald and Brian Sinclair (now a museum)
Sinclair vet brass plate GCR 7921
Original name plates for Donald Sinclair (Siegfried Farnon) and Alf Wight (James Herriot) at the World of James Herriot museum
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Sign at 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk (2018)

Wight married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury on 5 November 1941 at St Mary's Church, Thirsk. The Best Man was Donald Sinclair and the couple spent their honeymoon in the Dales, "staying at the Wheatsheaf Inn, Carperby". The inn is still in business, now as the Wheatsheaf Hotel.

After they returned to Thirsk, Alf "carried on TB testing cows in Wensleydale and the top floor of 23 Kirkgate became Joan and Alf’s first home". The couple had two children: James Alexander (born 13 February 1943), who also became a veterinarian and eventually his father's successor in the practice, and Rosemary (born 9 May 1947), who became a general practitioner.

Although Wight was born in England, the family moved to Glasgow when Alf was a child and he lived there happily until leaving for Sunderland, and then to Thirsk in 1940. He had a "soft, lilting Scottish accent," according to actor Christopher Timothy and "always considered himself a Glaswegian at heart".

Veterinary practice

Wight took six years to complete the five year programme at Glasgow Veterinary College, because of health issues. According to the New York Times, there was another reason: he "failed many of his classes on the first try: surgery, pathology, physiology, histology, even animal husbandry (which he failed twice)". He graduated on 14 December 1939.

The new vet's first position, which he accepted in January 1940, was at a veterinary practice in Sunderland, working for J.J. McDowall. He decided that he would prefer a rural practice and accepted a position in July, based at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk, Yorkshire, near the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. The practice owner, Donald Sinclair, had enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and was soon to leave for training; he gave Wight all the practice's income in return for looking after it during his absence. (His brother, Brian Sinclair (veterinary surgeon), was not yet a vet.) After Sinclair was discharged from the RAF four months later, he asked Wight to stay permanently with the practice, offering a salaried partnership which Wight accepted.

Wight enlisted in the RAF in November 1942. He did well in his training, and was one of the first in his regiment to fly solo. After undergoing surgery in July 1943, he was deemed unfit to fly combat aircraft and was discharged as a leading aircraftman the following November. He joined his wife at her parents' house, where she had lived since he left Thirsk. They lived there until the summer of 1945, when they moved back to 23 Kirkgate after Sinclair and his wife moved to a house of their own. In 1953, the family moved to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk. Wishing for more privacy as the popularity of All Creatures Great and Small increased, in 1977 Wight and his wife moved again, to the smaller village of Thirlby, about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Thirsk. Wight lived here until his death in 1995.

Wight became a full partner in the Thirsk practice in 1949 and did not fully retire until 1989; by then, he had worked in this field for roughly 50 years.

Death

In Wight's will, his share of the practice passed to his son. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991 and was treated in the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton. He died on 23 February 1995 at home in Thirlby at age 78, leaving an estate valued for probate at £5,425,873 (equivalent to £7,516,276 in 2018).2018 His remains were cremated and scattered on Sutton Bank. His wife's health declined after his death, and she died on 14 July 1999.

Remembering Alf Wight

In 2001, a book by Alf Wight's son, Jim Wight, was published. The review of "The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father" (Publishers Weekly) included this summary: "Wight portrays his father as a modest, down-to-earth and generous man, utterly unchanged by fame, a private individual who bottled up his emotions, which led to a nervous breakdown and electroshock therapy in 1960".

Alf Wight's obituary confirmed his modesty and preference to stay away from the public eye. "It doesn't give me any kick at all," he once said. "It's not my world. I wouldn't be happy there. I wouldn't give up being a vet if I had a million pounds. I'm too fond of animals." By 1995, some 50 million of the James Herriot books had been sold. Wight was well aware that clients were unimpressed with the fame that accompanied a best-selling author. "If a farmer calls me with a sick animal, he couldn't care less if I were George Bernard Shaw," Wight once said.

Career as an author

Although Wight claimed in the preface of James Herriot's Yorkshire that he had begun to write only after his wife encouraged him at age 50, he in fact kept copious diaries as a child, as a teenager wrote for his school's magazine, and wrote at least one short story during his college years. In the early 1960s he began analysing the books of successful authors that he enjoyed reading, such as P. G. Wodehouse and Conan Doyle, to understand different writing styles. During this time he also began writing more seriously, composing numerous short stories and, in his own words, 'bombarding' publishers with them.

Based on the year when he started work in Thirsk, the stories in the first two books would have taken place early during the Second World War. Wight preferred to have them take place in a quieter era so he set them in pre-war years.

The author required a pseudonym because the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' regulations prevented vets from any type of advertising. A reliable source states that he "chose the name after attending a football match in which the Scotland internationalist Jim Herriot played in goal for Birmingham City".

Wight's early efforts at having his writing published were unsuccessful, which he later explained by telling Paul Vallely in a 1981 interview for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine that "my style was improving but [...] my subjects were wrong." Choosing a subject where he was more experienced, in 1969 he wrote If Only They Could Talk, a collection of stories centred around his experiences as a young veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales. The book was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd. Wight followed it up with It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet in 1972. Sales were slow until Thomas McCormack of St. Martin's Press in New York City received a copy and arranged to have both books published as a single volume in the United States that same year. Wight named this volume All Creatures Great and Small from the second line of the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful". The resulting book was a huge success.

Achieving success

Wight wrote seven more books in the series started by If Only They Could Talk. In the United States, the first six books of the original series were thought too short to publish independently. Most of the stories were collected into three omnibus volumes; the final two books were published separately. The last book of the series, Every Living Thing, sold 650,000 copies in six weeks in the United States and stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for eight months.

Recent research indicates that the first two books sold only a few thousand copies in the UK, initially. "It was a New York publisher who changed the childish-looking cover art and combined the works under the title “All Creatures Great and Small,” becoming a best-seller in the US.

Contrary to widespread belief, Wight's books are only partially autobiographical, with many of the stories only loosely based on real events or people. Most of the stories are set in the fictional town of Darrowby, which Wight described as a composite of Thirsk, its nearby market towns Richmond, Leyburn, and Middleham, and 'a fair chunk of my own imagination'. Wight anonymised the majority of his characters by renaming them: notably, he called Donald Sinclair and his brother Brian Siegfried and Tristan Farnon respectively, and used the name Helen Alderson for his wife Joan.

When Wight's first book was published, Brian Sinclair "was delighted to be captured as Tristan and remained enthusiastic about all Wight’s books". Donald Sinclair was offended by his portrayal and said, "Alfred, this book is a real test of our friendship." (He never called Wight "Alf", mirrored in the books by Siegfried always referring to Herriot as "James" rather than "Jim".) Things calmed down, however, and the pair continued to work together until they retired. Wight's son stated in The Real James Herriot that Sinclair's character in the novels was considerably toned down, and that Sinclair was even more eccentric than the Herriot books portrayed.

According to New York Times, Donald Sinclair actually had more rough edges than the Siegfried character. "Sinclair’s real-life behaviour was much more eccentric. (He once discharged a shotgun during a dinner party to let his guests know it was time to leave.)" When asked whether Donald Sinclair was eccentric, actor Samuel West (who researched the vet for his role in the Channel 5 TV series) replied, "Oh, no ... he was mad".

The books are novels, and most sources agree that about 50 percent of the content was pure fiction.

In an BBC interview taped in 1976, Wight recalled his life in Yorkshire, his career and the success of his books.

Film and television adaptations

AllCreaturesGreatAndSmallSet-1-GCR 7908
Part of the BBC TV set for All Creatures Great and Small on permanent display at the World of James Herriot museum in Thirsk, North Yorkshire

Wight's books have been adapted for film and television, including the 1975 film All Creatures Great and Small followed by It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet in 1976.

The BBC produced a television series based on Wight's books titled All Creatures Great and Small, which ran from 1978 to 1980 and 1988–1990; ninety episodes were broadcast altogether.

In September 2010, the Gala Theatre in Durham presented the world premier professional stage adaptation of All Creatures Great & Small.

In 2010, the BBC commissioned the three-part drama Young James Herriot inspired by Wight's early life and studies in Scotland. The series drew on archives and the diaries and case notes which Wight kept during his student days in Glasgow, as well as the biography written by his son. The first episode was shown on BBC One on 18 December 2011, and drew six million viewers. The BBC announced in April 2012 that the series would not return. A book titled Young James Herriot was written to accompany the series by historian and author John Lewis-Stempel.

A new production of All Creatures Great and Small was produced by Playground Entertainment for Channel 5 in the United Kingdom, and PBS in the United States. The production received some funding from Screen Yorkshire. Most of the filming was completed in the Yorkshire Dales, including many exteriors in Grassington as the setting for the fictional town of Darrowby.

The first series, of six episodes and a special Christmas episode premiered in the UK on Channel 5 on 1 September 2020 and in the US on PBS as part of Masterpiece on 10 January 2021. All Creatures Great and Small was renewed for a second series, also of six episodes plus a Christmas special.

Recognition and tourist industry

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The World of James Herriot Museum in Thirsk, June 2018
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Grand Central Class 180 DMU train named after James Herriot
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Commemorative plaque at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk

Thirsk has become a magnet for fans of Wight's books. Following his death, the practice at 23 Kirkgate was restored and converted into a museum, The World of James Herriot, which focuses on his life and writings. A local pub renamed itself the "Darrowby Inn," after the village name that Wight created to represent the locale in which he practiced. (By 2020, the pub had been renamed The Red Bear.)

Portions of the surgery sets used in the All Creatures Great and Small BBC series are on display at the museum, including the living room and dispensary. Some of the original contents of the surgery can be found at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming in Murton, York.

Grand Central train company operates train services from Sunderland to London King's Cross, stopping at Thirsk. Class 180 DMU No. 180112 was named 'James Herriot' in Wight's honour, and was dedicated on 29 July 2009 by his daughter Rosemary and son James. Actor Christopher Timothy, who played Herriot in the BBC television series, unveiled a statue of Wight in October 2014 at Thirsk Racecourse.

Wight received an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1979, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1979 New Year Honours. In 1994, the library at Glasgow Veterinary College was named the 'James Herriot Library' in honour of Wight's achievements. Wight was deeply gratified by this recognition, replying in his acceptance letter, 'I regard this as the greatest honour that has ever been bestowed upon me.' He was a lifelong supporter of Sunderland A.F.C., and was made an honorary president of the club in 1991.

A blue plaque was placed at Wight's childhood home in Glasgow in October 2018. There is also a blue plaque at 23 Kirkgate, Wight's former surgery.

Minor planet 4124 Herriot is named in his honour.

Published works

The original UK series

  • If Only They Could Talk (1970)
  • It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1972)
  • Let Sleeping Vets Lie (1973) (including a few chapters that were not included in the omnibus editions All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful)
  • Vet in Harness (1974)
  • Vets Might Fly (1976)
  • Vet in a Spin (1977)
  • The Lord God Made Them All (1981)
  • Every Living Thing (1992)

Collected works from the original UK series

In the United States, Wight's first six books were considered too short to publish independently, so they were combined in pairs to form three omnibus volumes.

  • All Creatures Great and Small (1972) (incorporating If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, and three chapters from Let Sleeping Vets Lie)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974) (incorporating the majority of the chapters from Let Sleeping Vets Lie and Vet in Harness)
  • All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977) (incorporating Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin)
  • The Lord God Made Them All (1981)
  • The Best of James Herriot (First Edition: 1982) ; (Complete Edition: 1998)
  • James Herriot's Dog Stories (1986)
  • James Herriot's Cat Stories (1994)
  • James Herriot's Yorkshire Stories (1998)
  • James Herriot's Animal Stories (2015)

Books for children

  • Blossom Comes Home (1969)
  • Moses the Kitten (1984)
  • Only One Woof (1985)
  • The Christmas Day Kitten (1986)
  • Bonny's Big Day (1987)
  • The Market Square Dog (1989)
  • Oscar, Cat-About-Town (1990)
  • Smudge, the Little Lost Lamb (1991)
  • James Herriot's Treasury for Children (1992)

Other books

  • James Herriot's Yorkshire (1979)
  • James Herriot's Yorkshire Revisited (1999)
  • Lord, Graham. James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet (1997)
  • Wight, Jim. The Real James Herriot: The Authorized Biography (1999)
  • Lewis-Stempel, John. Young Herriot: The Early Life and Times of James Herriot (2011)
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