James Herriot

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James Alfred Wight
Alf wight.jpg
Born(1916-10-03)3 October 1916
Sunderland, County Durham, England
Died23 February 1995(1995-02-23) (aged 78)
Thirlby, North Yorkshire, England
Pen nameJames Herriot
OccupationVeterinary surgeon, author
Alma materGlasgow Veterinary College
SubjectAutobiographical, memoirs
SpouseJoan Catherine Anderson Danbury (1941–his death)
ChildrenJames Alexander Wight
Rosemary Page
RelativesJames Henry Wight (father)
Hannah Bell Wight (mother)

James Alfred Wight, OBE, FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), known by the pen name James Herriot, was a British veterinary surgeon and writer who used his many years of experience as a veterinary surgeon to write a series of books consisting of stories about animals and their owners.[1] He is best known for these semi-autobiographical works, beginning with If Only They Could Talk in 1970, which spawned a series of films and television series.

Personal life[edit]

James Alfred Wight was born on 3 October 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, England to James (1890–1960) and Hannah Bell (1890–1980) Wight.[1] Shortly after their wedding, the Wights moved from Brandling Street, Sunderland,[2] 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.[2] Hannah returned to Sunderland to give birth to James, bringing him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old. He attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. In October 2018 a Blue plaque was placed at Wight's childhood home in Glasgow.[3]

Wight qualified as a veterinary surgeon at Glasgow Veterinary College in 1939 at age 23. He took a job at a veterinary practice in Sunderland in January 1940, and he moved to work in a rural practice the following July. There he was based at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk, Yorkshire, close to the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors—better known as Skeldale House—where he remained for the rest of his life.

Wight's original practice at 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk

Wight married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury on 5 November 1941 at St Mary's Church, Thirsk; she is named Helen Alderson in his books.[4] They had two children: James Alexander (born 13 February 1943), who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (born 1947), who became a doctor.

Herriot's former surgery
Wight's former surgery at 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk

Wight served in the Royal Air Force in 1942. His wife moved to her parents' house during this time, and he joined her upon being discharged from the RAF as a leading aircraftman. They lived there until 1946, when they moved back to Kirkgate, staying until 1953. They then moved to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk, opposite the secondary school. The original practice is now "The World of James Herriot" museum. The Topcliffe Road house is privately owned and not open to the public. The family later moved to the village of Thirlby, about four miles from Thirsk, where he resided until his death.

The World of James Herriot Museum in Thirsk

Wight wanted to write a book, but most of his time was consumed by veterinary practice and family, and this ambition went nowhere. His wife challenged him in 1966 when he was 50, so he began writing. He began by writing about topics such as football, but his stories were rejected, so he turned to what he knew best. In 1969, he wrote If Only They Could Talk, the first of the series based on his life as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. His first submission brought a phone call from Anthea Joseph, a deputy chairman of a publishing house.[5] Professional etiquette at that time frowned on veterinary surgeons and other professionals advertising their services, so Wight took "James Herriot" as a pen name after seeing Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot play for Birmingham City F.C. in a televised game against Manchester United F.C.. If Only They Could Talk was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd, but sales were slow until Thomas McCormack of St. Martin's Press in New York City received a copy and arranged to have the first two books published as a single volume in the United States. The resulting book, All Creatures Great and Small, was a huge success, spawning numerous sequels and movies and a television adaptation.

Wight received an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1979.[6]

Grand Central Class 180 DMU named after James Herriot

Wight was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991[2] and treated in the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk. He died on 23 February 1995 at home in Thirlby at age 78.[7] His wife died on 14 July 1999.[8] He left an estate valued for probate at £5,425,873 (equivalent to £10,245,274 in 2018).[9][10]

Commemorative plaque at Wight's original practice in Thirsk

Thirsk has become a magnet for fans of Herriot.[11] 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 his honour on 29 July 2009. The ceremony was carried out jointly by Alf Wight's daughter Rosie and son Jim.[12]

Actor Christopher Timothy unveiled a statue of Wight in October 2014 at Thirsk Racecourse. Timothy played Herriot in the television series.[13]

Herriot was a supporter of Sunderland A.F.C.[14][15]


Wight set his stories in the fictional town of Darrowby, which is a composite of Thirsk, Richmond, Leyburn, and Middleham.[16] He also renamed Donald Sinclair and his brother Brian as Siegfried and Tristan Farnon respectively, and used the name "Helen Alderson" for Joan Danbury. He took the title All Creatures Great and Small from the second line of the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful", inspired by a punning suggestion from his daughter who thought that the book should be called Ill Creatures Great and Small.[2]

Wight's books are partially autobiographical, with many of the stories loosely based on real events or people. His son Jim states that a lot of the stories are set in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s in the books, but they were inspired by cases that Wight attended in the 1960s and 1970s.[2] The stories also help document a transitional period in the veterinary profession; agriculture was moving from the traditional use of beasts of burden (primarily the draught horse in Britain) to reliance upon the mechanical tractors, and medical science was on the verge of discovering antibiotics and other drugs that eliminated many of the ancient remedies still in use. These and other sociological factors (such as increased affluence) prompted a large-scale shift in veterinary practice over the course of the 20th century. Virtually all of a vet's time was spent working with large animals at the beginning of the century, such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. By 2000, the majority of vets practised mostly on dogs, cats, and other pets belonging to a population having a larger disposable income. Wight (as Herriot) occasionally steps out of his narrative to comment on the primitive state of veterinary medicine at the time of the story he is relating.[17]

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

The books have been adapted for film and television, including the 1975 film All Creatures Great and Small followed by 1976 It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, and the long-running BBC television series All Creatures Great and Small. His last book Every Living Thing immediately went into the top 10 best-seller list in Britain and had an 865,000 copy first edition printing in the United States.[18]

Herriot's fame has generated a thriving tourist economy in Thirsk. Local businesses include the "World of James Herriot" museum at 23 Kirkgate, the original practice surgery, and a pub at one time called the "Darrowby Inn" (which was later renamed). Many of the original contents of his surgery can be found at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming in Murton, York. Parts of the BBC TV series set are on display at the Herriot museum, including the living room and the dispensary. The real-life veterinary practice still exists, but has moved to other premises.

In 2010, the BBC commissioned the three-part drama Young James Herriot inspired by the life of Wight and how he learned his trade in Scotland. This series drew on archives and exclusive access to the diaries and case notes which he kept during his student days in Glasgow, as well as the biography written by his son.[19] The book to accompany the BBC series, Young Herriot, was written by the historian and author John Lewis-Stempel. The first episode was shown on BBC1 on 18 December 2011. In September 2010, the Gala Theatre in Durham presented the world premier professional stage adaptation of All Creatures Great & Small.[20]

Published works[edit]

The original UK series[edit]

  • If Only They Could Talk (1970) ISBN 0-330-23783-7
  • It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1972) ISBN 0-330-23782-9
  • Let Sleeping Vets Lie (1973) ISBN 978-0-7181-1115-1
  • Vet in Harness (1974) ISBN 0-330-24663-1
  • Vets Might Fly (1976) ISBN 0-330-25221-6
  • Vet in a Spin (1977) ISBN 0-330-25532-0
  • The Lord God Made Them All (1981) ISBN 0-7181-2026-4
  • Every Living Thing (1992) ISBN 0-7181-3637-3

Collected works from the original UK series[edit]

  • 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) ISBN 0-330-25049-3
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974) (incorporating the majority of the chapters from Let Sleeping Vets Lie and Vet in Harness) ISBN 0-330-25580-0
  • All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977) (incorporating Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin) ISBN 0-7181-1685-2

In the United States, Herriot's books were considered too short to publish independently, and so several pairs were collected into omnibus volumes.

Books for children[edit]

Other books[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Lord, Graham. James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet (1997) ISBN 0-7472-1975-3
  • Wight, Jim. The Real James Herriot: The Authorized Biography (1999) ISBN 0-7181-4290-X
  • Lewis-Stempel, John. "Young Herriot: The Early Life and Times of James Herriot" (2011) ISBN 1-84990-271-2


  1. ^ a b "James Herriot Biography". Biography.com. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e Wight, Jim. 2000. The real James Herriot: A memoir of my father. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-42151-7
  3. ^ "Plaque unveiled for famous vet and author at Yoker flat". Clydebank Post. Retrieved 5 August 2019.
  4. ^ Herriot, James (1973). All Things Bright and Beautiful. New York: Bantam Books.
  5. ^ Jim Wight (26 October 2000). The Real James Herriot: The Authorized Biography. Penguin Books Limited. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-14-191653-8.
  6. ^ "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". www1.hw.ac.uk. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  7. ^ [1] Archived 26 April 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Honan, William H. (19 July 1999). "Joan Wight, Wife and Model for Author Herriot". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  9. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
  10. ^ "WIGHT, JAMES ALFRED of Mire Beck, Thirlby, Thirsk, North Yorkshire" in Probate Index for 1995 at probatesearch.service.gov.uk, accessed 5 August 2019
  11. ^ "It shouldn't happen to a vet". The Economist. 7 March 2019.
  12. ^ Douglas, Andrew (29 July 2009). "Grand Central Railways honour James Herriot". The Northern Echo. Newsquest Media Group. Retrieved 16 September 2009.
  13. ^ "Actor Christopher Timothy unveils statue to James Herriot vet Alf Wight"The Northern Echo, 5 October 2014
  14. ^ https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8913071/James-Herriot-the-wild-years.html
  15. ^ http://www.jamesherriot.org/life-and-times/
  16. ^ James Herriot's Yorkshire (1979), James Herriot, St. Martin's
  17. ^ Herriot, James. The Lord God Made Them All. New York: St Martin's Press. pp. 62–76.
  18. ^ Margolis, Jonathan (12 December 2002 Time Magazine[failed verification]
  19. ^ "BBC One and drama announce two exciting new commissions for Scotland", BBC Press Office, 26 July 2010. Retrieved 7 January 2012
  20. ^ "Theatre review: All Creatures Great and Small at Gala Theatre, Durham". Britishtheatreguide.info. 16 October 2010. Retrieved 5 December 2015.

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