A PHOTO TOUR OF
THE WORLD OF JAMES HERRIOT
JAMES HERRIOT V
The Alf Wight / James Herriot
Early Days . . .
You may not be ready for this!
The man who would become the world's most famous
vet and synonymous with Yorkshire, would not have been able to play cricket,
a game he loved, for his adopted county. He was not born in Yorkshire.
The real James Herriot was in fact a Scotsman
by way of County Durham, born James Alfred Wight in Sunderland on 3rd October
1916, the only child of Hanna (Bell) and James Henry Wight. Although he
shared with his his father and his own son a lifelong passion for Sunderland
Football Club, eventually becoming Life President - the new Sunderland
Stadium of Light has a suite named in his honour - the young Alfred was
raised in Glasgow, where his parents James Henry and Hannah were making
a fresh start to their own lives.
The baby's father had built ships on the Wear
and work was not in short supply, but cultural interests were beginning
to prompt reflection on life in the north east well before the arrival
of their son. Both mother and father-to-be were passionately interested
in music and they had decided that the environment of one of the greatest
cities in the land would be ideal for pursuing this love of life to the
full while providing them with the security of regular work.
Growing up in Glasgow
Alf has described his childhood as idyllic. Growing
up on Glasgow allowed him to enjoy the best of both worlds - the hustle
and bustle of life in a great city and the natural playground provided
by the surrounding hills and nearby Loch Lomond.
Domestic life ws a cocoon of music and books,
and Alf developed a voracious appetite for the printed word. As with most
boys comics quickly gave way to more adventurous fare, and the popular
favourites of the likes of Sir Walter Scott were eagerly swallowed
Outside of the home Alf was cultivating his future
life. We might picture him now on a sunny day, hiking through the hills
outside the city before taking a well-earned rest; half an hour with Conan
Doyle perhaps, a bottled drink and Don by his side.
The young man was clearly to have little need
for careers advice, deciding upon his future direction at the tender age
of thirteen after reading an article in Meccano magazine describing the
life of a vet. He would attend Hillhead High School before being accepted
at Glasgow Veterinary School.
A new vet for Thirsk . . .
Alf graduated from Glasgow at the height of the
depression on 14th December 1939 and the young man might have had visions
of a life caring for small animals in a nice, squeaky clean environment.
This was not exactly how things were to turn out! Instead, at a time when
there were eighty applicants for every post, Alf first worked for a few
months at a practice in Sunderland - half of the time unpaid - before accepting
a position in June 1940 as assistant to Donald Sinclair at his practice
Alf quickly learned tha thtis was over-whelmingly
a large animal practice, and the daily working environment of a North Riding
vet consisted mostly of tending to pigs, sheep, cattle and horses in the
wind and the rain.
At a time when few people had telephones or cars,
the young vet became accustomed to an early morning alarm call from a farmer
who had cycled in atrocious weather to Kirkgate. After half-freezing on
the doorstep on more than one occasion during these pre-dawn consultations,
Alf quickly learned to poke his head out of the bedroom window at
the sound of an urgent knock on the door!
The 'real' Siegfried
Donald Sinclair could never have imagined as he
left this building to stroll down the street into Thirsk Market Place that
late Spring morning in 1940 that he was embarking upon a landmark journey.
Little did he know that the brief advertisement which he had carefully
prepared the night previously for the Veterinary Record and which he was
now about to slip into the red Victorian post box would have such extraordinary
implications for his own life and to touch those of millions of people
across the globe.
Donald had been in practice at Thirsk only two
years himself when he took his famous walk. He had arrived with his belongings
stowed where he had worked as an adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Previously there had been a spell working in Edinburgh,
in which city Donald had qualified as a new vet in 1913 at the Royal (Dick)
Veterinary College. An ambitious as well as a glamorously handsome and
charming young man, Donald was attracted to Thirsk by the promise of leading
his own practice. Such was the workload at Kirkgate, however, that even
the occasional help of brother Brian left the practice unattended. Consequently
an assistant was enlisted.
When Alf Wight arrived at Thirsk, Donald's younger
brother Brian was a student vet and Alf was to base his character, the
young and mischievous Tristan Farnon on Brian. After a few mishaps (very
Tristanif) Brian also went on to graduate from the Royal (Dick) Veterinary
College in Edinburgh, in 1943, before joining the Army Veterinary Corps
in India. On demobilisation he joined the Ministry of Agriculture's Sterillty
The 'real' Tristan
From 1950 until his retirement he worked at the
Veterinary Investigation Centre at Leeds, eventually becoming head of the
Brian Sinclair was especially close to Alf Wight
and is remembered for his wonderful sense of fun. Whilst Alf and Donald
were in their own ways very private men, Brian revelled in the public eye
and became a regular and popular visitor to the United States appearing
on television and lecturing at veterinary schools all over the country.
He died in 1988.
The young Mr. Wight found more than just his true
vocation in Thirsk. He also met and fell in love with the future Mrs. Wight,
who was working as a secretary. James Alfred Wight and Joan Catherine Danbury
were married in Thirsk Parish Church on 5th November 1941; the groom was
25, the bride just 22. Because of wartime travel restrictions the wedding
was attended by just five people including Donald Sinclair, who was best
Putting down roots . . .
The honeymoon was not something today's newlyweds
would regard as conventional. Whilst the week following the wedding was
spent "away" at the Wheatsheaf in Carperby, much of it was taken up with
the tuberculin testing of cattle, the new Mrs. Wight writing down the records
as her husband shouted commands.
The flying vet!
Although the veterinary professon was a reserved
occupation, both Alf and Donald volunteered for the RAF early in the second
world war and were placed on deferred service. Donald was soon enlisted,
but Alf did not receive his papers until his 26th birthday in October 1942,
entering service a month later on 16th November - "I waited a long, long
time before they called me up" he recalled. He was ordered to report to
Lords cricket ground in London and appreciated the irony of sharing meals
with other new recruits at . . . London Zoo!
By a stroke of luck there was an early posting
to Scarborough during which time the first of his two children, Jim was
born (a daughter, Rosie arrived some years after the end of hostilities).
Whilst stationed at Scarborough Alf had the "pleasure" of sleeping on the
uncarpeted floors of the Grand Hotel below windows held open with nails!
It should come as no surprise tha the shoulud
enjoy returning to the hotel years later with Joan to dine in rather more
Alf later spent a period at flying school near
Windsor where he excelled at piloting Tiger Moth aircraft, before being
posted to Manchester.
Top Row from the left
1. Rosie and Jim Wight
2. Alf with Christopher Timothy
3. Alf with his father and Rosie & Jim
Bottom Row from the left
1. Rosie Wight
2. Jim Wight
3. Rosie Wight
1. Jim Wight and Josie Danbury
2. Alf Wight - The Real James Herriot
3. Alf with Laura Danbury, Alice, Joe Danbury
Seated: Joan holding Jim, Lilly Danbury & Josie
1. Jim with Mother Joan
2. Rosie Wight
3. Alf with two visitors
1. Nan Arrowsmith (Alf's Cousin), her father - George Wilkins,
Tony Arrowsmith and Alf's father with Jim & Rosie
2. Alf Wight
3. Jim Wight
1. Jim Wight with Donald Sinclair's son - Alan
2. Alf's mother Hannah and Jim & Rosie
TO HERRIOT CONTENTS
EDUTECH RESEARCH PROJECT
Photos, Web page layout, formatting,
and research by
William Hillman ~ Faculty of
Education ~ Brandon University ~ Brandon, Manitoba ~ Canada