James Alfred Wight
|Born||3 October 1916|
Sunderland, County Durham, England
|Died||23 February 1995 (aged 78)|
Thirlby, North Yorkshire, England
|Pen name||James Herriot|
|Occupation||Veterinary surgeon, author|
|Alma mater||Glasgow Veterinary College|
|Spouse||Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury (1941–his death)|
|Children||James Alexander Wight|
|Relatives||James Henry Wight (father)|
Hannah Bell Wight (mother)
James Alfred Wight, Sunderland, England, Wight lived in Glasgow during his childhood and teenage years. After graduating from Glasgow Veterinary College in 1939, Wight moved back to England and was a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales for almost fifty years. He is best known for writing a series of eight books set in the 1930s–1950s Yorkshire Dales about animals and their owners, which began with If Only They Could Talk, first published in 1970.(3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), known by the pen name James Herriot, was a British veterinary surgeon and writer. Born in
There have been multiple television and film adaptations of Wight's books, including the 1975 film All Creatures Great and Small and the BBC television series of the same name, which ran for a total of 90 episodes.
James Alfred Wight was born on 3 October 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, England to James (1890–1960) and Hannah Bell (1890–1980) Wight. Shortly after their wedding in 1915, the Wights 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.:19–20 Hannah returned to Sunderland to give birth to James, bringing him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old.
Wight attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. As 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 twelve, he read an article in Meccano Magazine about veterinarians, and was captivated with the idea of treating sick animals as a career. Two years later, in 1930, he decided to become a veterinarian 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.
Wight's first position, which he accepted in January 1940, was at a veterinary practice in Sunderland. He moved to work in a rural practice the following July, based at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk, Yorkshire, near the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. The practice owner, Donald Sinclair, had enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and would leave soon for training; he gave Wight all the practice's income in return for looking after it during his absence. After Sinclair was discharged from the RAF four months later, he asked Wight to stay permanently with the practice, offering him a salaried partnership. Wight accepted the position and married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury on 5 November 1941 at St Mary's Church, Thirsk. They had two children: James Alexander (born 13 February 1943), who also became a veterinarian and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (born 9 May 1947), who became a general practitioner.:148, 169, 292
Wight enlisted in the RAF in November 1942. He did well in his training, and was one of the first men in his regiment to fly solo. After undergoing surgery on an anal fistula 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. Desirous of 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 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) from Thirsk. Wight lived here until his death in 1995.
Wight retired in 1989, passing his share of the practice down to his son. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991 and was treated in the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton.:345, 352 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 £10,507,224 in 2019). His remains were cremated and scattered on Sutton Bank. His wife's health declined after his death, and she died on 14 July 1999.
Although Wight claimed in the preface of James Herriot's Yorkshire that he only began to write 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.:97, 163 In the early 1960s he began writing more seriously, composing numerous short stories and, in his own words, 'bombarding' publishers with them.:233, 238 He also analysed the books of successful authors that he enjoyed reading, such as P. G. Wodehouse and Conan Doyle, to understand different writing styles.:244 Still, Wight told Paul Vallely in a 1981 interview for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine that 'my style was improving but I realised that my subjects were wrong. [...] So I returned to the vet subjects.':238–239
In 1969, Wight 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, 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. Wight named the volume All Creatures Great and Small from the second line of the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'.:271 The resulting book was a huge 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 and 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 in the The New York Times Best Seller list for eight months.:433
Wight's books are partially autobiographical, with many of the stories 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. At the time of the series's publication, veterinary surgeons were heavily discouraged from writing books under their own names (as doing so could be seen as advertisement), so Wight took 'James Herriot' as his pen name after seeing Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot play for Birmingham City F.C. in a televised game against Manchester United F.C.:251 Many of the stories which are set in the 1930s–1950s were inspired by cases that Wight attended in the 1960s and 1970s.
The BBC produced a television series based on Wight's books titled All Creatures Great and Small, which ran from 1978–1980 and 1988–1990; ninety episodes were broadcast altogether. Another television series of the same name, produced by PBS and Playground Entertainment, is planned to be released in 2020.
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.
Thirsk has become a magnet for fans of Wight's books. Local businesses include the World of James Herriot museum at 23 Kirkgate, where the original practice surgery was located, and a pub, later renamed, which was called the "Darrowby Inn". Parts of the BBC TV series set are on display at the World of James Herriot museum, including the living room and the dispensary. Many 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 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 the same year. 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.':351–352 He was a lifelong supporter of Sunderland A.F.C., and was made an honorary president of the club in 1991.:342
In the United States, Wight's books were considered too short to publish independently, so several pairs were collected into three omnibus volumes.
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Categories: 1916 births | 1995 deaths | People from Sunderland, Tyne and Wear | People educated at Hillhead High School | Alumni of the University of Glasgow | Deaths from cancer in England | Deaths from prostate cancer | British autobiographers | British children's writers | British humorists | British veterinarians | Officers of the Order of the British Empire | Pseudonymous writers | Royal Air Force personnel of World War II | 20th-century British novelists | British male novelists | People from Thirsk | People from Glasgow | Writers about Yorkshire