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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 experiences as a veterinary surgeon to write a series of books each 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 movies and television series.

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 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 in Scotland, where James took work both as a ship plater and as a pianist for a local cinema, while Hannah was a singer, as well as a dressmaker.[2] For Alf's birth, his mother returned to Sunderland, bringing him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old. He attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. From his father he gained a passion for Sunderland Football Club and remained a lifelong fan. In 1992 he was named a Life President of the club.

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

At Alf Wight's original practice, in Thirsk, 23 Kirkgate.

On 5 November 1941, he married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury, known as Helen Alderson in his books, at St Mary's Church, Thirsk.[3] The couple had two children, James Alexander (Jim), born 13 February 1943, who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (Rosie), born 1947, who became a doctor.

Herriot'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, upon being discharged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftman, Wight joined her. They lived there until 1946, when they moved back to Kirkgate, staying until 1953.

The World of James Herriot Museum in Thirsk

Later, he moved with his wife to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk, opposite the secondary school. The original practice is now a museum, "The World of James Herriot". The Topcliffe Road house is in private ownership and not open to the public. He later moved with his family to the village of Thirlby, about four miles from Thirsk, where he resided until his death.

Wight intended for years to write a book, but with most of his time consumed by veterinary practice and family, his writing ambition went nowhere. Challenged by his wife, in 1966 (at the age of 50), he began writing. After several rejected stories on other subjects like football, he turned to what he knew best. In 1969 Wight wrote If Only They Could Talk, the first of the now-famous series based on his life working as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. His first approach brought a phone call from Anthea Joseph who was deputy chair of a publishing house.[4] Owing in part to professional etiquette, which at that time frowned on veterinary surgeons and other professionals advertising their services, he took a pen name, choosing "James Herriot" after seeing the Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot play for Birmingham City in a televised game against Manchester United. 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, titled All Creatures Great and Small, was a huge success, spawning numerous sequels, movies and a successful television adaptation.

Wight received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1979.[5]

Grand Central Class 180 DMU named after James Herriot

Wight was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991,[2] and was treated in the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk. He died on 23 February 1995, aged 78, at home in Thirlby.[6] His wife died four years later, on 14 July 1999.[7]

Commemorative plaque at Wight's original practice in Thirsk.

Thirsk has become a magnet for fans of James Herriot.[8] On 29 July 2009, UK-based open-access rail operator Grand Central, which operates train services from Wight's birthplace of Sunderland to London King's Cross (calling at Thirsk), named Class 180 DMU No. 180112 "James Herriot" in his honour. The ceremony was carried out jointly by Alf Wight's daughter Rosie and son Jim.[9]

In October 2014, a statue of Wight was unveiled by actor Christopher Timothy at Thirsk Racecourse. Timothy played Herriot in the television series.[10]

As a young vet, Peter Wright worked with Alf Wight at Skeldale House;[11] years later, his work was featured in a multi-season television series on Channel 5 (UK), The Yorkshire Vet.[12]


In his books, Wight calls the town in which Herriot lives and works Darrowby, a composite of Thirsk, Richmond, Leyburn and Middleham.[13] He also renamed Donald Sinclair and his brother Brian Sinclair as Siegfried and Tristan Farnon respectively, and used the name "Helen Alderson" for Joan Danbury.

The title All Creatures Great and Small was taken from the second line of the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, and inspired by a punning suggestion from Herriot's daughter, who thought the book should be called Ill Creatures Great and Small.[2]

Contrary to popular belief, Wight's books are only partially autobiographical, with many of the stories being only loosely based on real events or people. Wight's son, Jim, states that a lot of the stories, although set in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s in the books, were actually inspired by cases that Wight attended in the 1960s and 1970s.[2]

From a historical standpoint, the stories help document a transitional period in the veterinary profession; agriculture was moving from the traditional use of beasts of burden (in Britain, primarily the draught horse) to reliance upon the mechanical tractors, and medical science was just on the cusp of discovering antibiotics and other drugs that eliminated many of the ancient remedies still in use. These and other sociological factors, like increased affluence, prompted a large-scale shift in veterinary practice over the course of the 20th century: at its start, virtually all of a vet's time was spent working with large animals: horses (motive power in both town and country), cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. By the year 2000, the majority of vets practised mostly on dogs, cats and other pets belonging to a population having a larger disposable income – people who could afford, and had the leisure time, to keep animals merely for pleasure. Wight (as Herriot) occasionally steps out of his narrative to comment, with the benefit of hindsight, on the primitive state of veterinary medicine at the time of the story he is relating; for example, he describes his first hysterectomy on a cat and his first (almost disastrous) Caesarean section on a cow.[14]

The Herriot books are often described as "animal stories" (Wight himself was known to refer to them as his "little cat-and-dog stories")[15], and given that the stories are about the life of a country veterinarian, animals certainly play a significant role in most of them. Yet animals play a lesser, sometimes even a negligible, role in many of Wight's tales: the overall theme of his stories is Yorkshire country life, with its people and their animals as primary elements, which provide their distinct character. Furthermore, it is Wight's shrewd observations of persons, animals and their close inter-relationship which give his writing much of its flavour. Wight was just as interested in their owners as he was in his patients and his writing is, at root, an amiable but keen comment on the human condition. The Yorkshire animals provide the elements of pain and drama; the role of their owners is to feel and express joy, sadness, and, sometimes, triumph.

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 a 1975 film titled All Creatures Great and Small, followed by 1976 It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, and a long-running BBC television programme of the same title.

At the time of his death, the Reader's Digest Condensed Book volume containing All Creatures Great And Small (Volume 96, 1973 No. 5) was the most popular book in that series' history.[16] 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.[16]

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, including the living room and the dispensary (see picture, right), are on display at the James Herriot museum in Thirsk, which is open to the public. The real-life veterinary practice still exists, but has moved to other premises.

In 2010 the BBC commissioned a three-part drama called Young James Herriot, inspired by the true story of James Herriot/James Wight and how he learnt his trade in Scotland. This series drew on archives and exclusive access to the diaries and case notes he kept during his student days in Glasgow, as well as the biography written by his son.[17] 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. [18]

Published worksEdit

The original UK seriesEdit

  • 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 seriesEdit

  • 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 childrenEdit

Other booksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • 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

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "James Herriot Biography". 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. ^ Herriot, James (1973). All Things Bright and Beautiful. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. ^ Jim Wight (26 October 2000). The Real James Herriot: The Authorized Biography. Penguin Books Limited. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-14-191653-8.
  5. ^ "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  6. ^ [1] Archived 26 April 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Honan, William H. (19 July 1999). "Joan Wight, Wife and Model for Author Herriot". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  8. ^ "It shouldn't happen to a vet". The Economist. 7 March 2019.
  9. ^ Douglas, Andrew (29 July 2009). "Grand Central Railways honour James Herriot". The Northern Echo. Newsquest Media Group. Retrieved 16 September 2009.
  10. ^ "Actor Christopher Timothy unveils statue to James Herriot vet Alf Wight"The Northern Echo, 5 October 2014
  11. ^ "Julian Norton and Peter Wright – TV's Yorkshire Vets". Yorkshire Life. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  12. ^ Utton, Dominic (24 April 2018). "The Yorkshire Vet: How a TV show revived a town's tourist trade". The Express. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  13. ^ James Herriot's Yorkshire (1979), James Herriot, St. Martin's
  14. ^ Herriot, James. The Lord God Made Them All. New York: St Martin's Press. pp. 62–76.
  15. ^ Martyn, Elizabeth (2007). "It shouldn't happen to a vet". Why do cats love fish but hate getting wet? : and other intriguing things you didn't know about your cat. London: New Holland. pp. 14–15. ISBN 9781845379537.
  16. ^ a b Margolis, Jonathan (12 December 2002 Time Magazine[not in citation given]
  17. ^ "BBC One and drama announce two exciting new commissions for Scotland", BBC Press Office, 26 July 2010. Retrieved 7 January 2012
  18. ^ "Theatre review: All Creatures Great and Small at Gala Theatre, Durham". 16 October 2010. Retrieved 5 December 2015.

External linksEdit