The Alf Wight / James Herriot Story

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 up.

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 in Thirsk.

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.


The 'real' Tristan

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 Advisory.

From 1950 until his retirement he worked at the Veterinary Investigation Centre at Leeds, eventually becoming head of the Centre.

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.


Putting down roots . . .

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 man.

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 congenial circumstances!

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

Top Row
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
Bottom Row
1. Jim with Mother Joan
2. Rosie Wight
3. Alf with two visitors

Top Row
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
Bottom Row
1. Jim Wight with Donald Sinclair's son - Alan
2. Alf's mother Hannah and Jim & Rosie