This week saw the welcome return of John Gilleghan to fill us in with facts and anecdotes on the life and times of Alfred James Wight Jnr answering to Alf, better known as James Herriot.
Alfred James Wight Snr worked as a plater in the Sunderland shipyards and also had a second job as a pianist in a sextet playing for the silent movies in the Star Cinema. In 1916, during the first World War, Sunderland came under a bombing attack from a German Zeppelin and suffered heavy damage to the shipyards and also the Star Cinema. As a result, James Wight lost all sources of income at a time when his wife Marion was pregnant. In search of employment, he visited Glasgow and managed to secure a job as a plater in the John Brown Shipyard. So they relocated together to Glasgow.
As the time of birth approached, they were determined that the baby be born, not in Scotland, but in their hometown of Sunderland. So they temporarily returned and the baby was born at 111 Brandling Street, Roker and given the same Christian names, Alfred James, as his father.
Returning to Glasgow, the family settled into Dumbarton Road where Alf attended the local primary school and, at 11 years old, transferred to a fee-paying school called Hillhead High. Finally, he went to the Glasgow Veterinary School and, after failing 3 parts of his finals, did an extra year and eventually passed in late 1939.
His working life began in an urban practice on the outskirts of Darlington but after 3 months his mother noticed an advert for a vet’s job in Thirsk and filled in an application form for James to sign. A reply came back within days inviting Alf for an interview and he duly caught the train to attend. On arrival at the surgery, he was surprised that nobody was expecting him but eventually a little Austin 10 rolled up with the vet Donald Sinclair at the wheel. Too busy to sit down, Donald took him off to a farm in Leyburn and conducted the interview whilst delivering a calf. On returning to the Surgery, Alf asked to be excused to catch a train back home and was brusquely told that it wouldn’t be necessary because he had the job – starting tomorrow.
Six months later Donald was called up to join the war effort and Alf was on his own. Realising his lack of experience, he got in touch with an old friend from Glasgow Vet School called Eddie Straiton who was working in Lincoln and persuaded him to join him for a spell in Thirsk. On 5 November 1941, he married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury. The couple had two children, James Alexander (Jim), born 1943, who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (Rosie), born 1947, who became a physician in general practice.
In his working life as a vet, it was necessary to keep records and Alf kept meticulous diaries of his daily life and exploits. His writing career benefited greatly from these when Alf began to write of his impressions of Dales life in a series of stories that were hinged on his autobiography. The first book began with a young vet arriving in Darrowby, which he portrayed as a composite town, “ a bit of Thirsk, something of Richmond, Leyburn and Middleham and a fair chunk of my imagination”
His early publishing efforts started in late 1970 with “If only they could talk” This traced the experiences of a vet with pen-name James Walsh who, as the publishers soon discovered, had the same name as a currently registered vet. He was asked to change the name and, whilst watching a match between Man City and Birmingham City, chose the name of the Birmingham City goalie – James Herriot.
His follow-up book “ It shouldn’t happen to a Vet” was published in 1972 but sales were still slow until it gained traction in America with publication in the Readers Digest’s short stories. Buoyed by the success of the Readers Digest series, he arranged to have these two books published as a single volume in the United States and named the book “All Creatures Great and Small” – and adopted the pen-name James Herriot.
This book was a huge success and led to the creation of the All Creatures Great and Small franchise which utilised the series of 9 books written by James Herriot. Today, they have sold more than 60 million copies and have been adapted for film and television, including in 1975 a film entitled “All Creatures Great and Small” followed in 1976 by “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet”, which also spawned a long-running BBC Television programme of the same title.
In 2020, a new television production of All Creatures Great and Small was aired. This programme, produced for Channel 5 in the UK and PBS in America, has been scheduled for a second series currently being filmed around Grassington.
John Gilleghan concluded his presentation with a collection of slides that brought to life the many personalities, events and locations mentioned in his engrossing talk.
In his vote of thanks Godfrey Alderson commented on the wholesome quality of the film productions associated with these stories and thanked John for his amiable presentation of the real facts.
Next week, we are on a trip to explore the North-West Highlands of Scotland with John Alred.