All Creatures Great and Small
All Creatures Great and Small
by James Herriot
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in England’s Yorkshire Mountains between 1937 and 1939; published in 1972.
A newly graduated veterinarian learns the trade in the northern English mountains and valleys of Yorkshire.
James Alfred Wight worked as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire for almost thirty years before his wife convinced him to record his experiences in a book. Written under the pen name James Herriot, the result was a wealth of tales that reveal the author’s love for the country, animals, and extraordinary people who inhabit rural England. Emotional as well as informational, All Creatures Great and Small illustrates the love and respect a man feels for his livelihood.
The life of a country veterinarian
In rural England a veterinarian has the responsibility of caring for all the animals in an entire agricultural community. The community can range from a section of one large town to many small towns miles apart, and always includes the out-of-the-way farms off the main roads. Not only do country veterinarians tend the large livestock on farms, they also care for smaller animals like dogs and cats. As depicted in All Creatures Great and Small, many veterinarians keep small animal surgeries at their offices. Here they perform some operations; however, farm calls comprise most of their duties.
The job can be extremely taxing because of the unlimited hours a country veterinarian must maintain, but there are benefits, too. Herriot recalls an old teacher discussing the career. “If you become a veterinary surgeon you will never grow rich but you will have a life of endless interest and variety” (Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small, p. 134).
The Dales are the highlands of Yorkshire. Hilly country dotted with farms and small towns, the area is one of the last remaining areas of natural splendor in industrialized England. These northern highlands sit in uncrowded countryside filled with pastures, fields, and clean air permeated by the scents of innumerable flowers. Herriot found such surroundings quite pleasing, and shared his love of Yorkshire with his readers.
Yorkshire is a diverse blend of lands and lifestyles. The “north riding,” an area of highlands and valleys, features many small communities, a few large ones, and miles of open country. Between the great expanses of farmland lie a sprinkling of towns. It is in one of the smaller towns, Thirsk, that the author made his start in the country veterinary business, and he bases many of his stories on this town. A characteristic feature of Thirsk is its bustling marketplace, set on cobblestone streets that were laid down generations ago. Other towns of the Dales include Richmond, Leeds, Leyburn, Middleham, and Sowerby. The whole region is the site of many historic churches.
Dating back to the Norse settlers of the ninth century, traditional Yorkshire farms changed little over the years. The house was generally connected to the barn, allowing the farmer a chance to tend to his stock without facing the sometimes harsh elements. There was usually a dairy, a cooling room for cheeses, and a loft for beef, ham, and pickled meats within the house to allow easy access to provisions at all times. A farmer’s life was very isolated, and almost every activity revolved directly around his livestock and crops. Farms had to be self-sufficient in maintaining their supply of food since deliveries were infrequent and centers of commerce far.
The farms of the 1930s were not highly specialized in one agricultural area as are modern ones. Instead farmers of the region raised a blend of livestock and crops to ensure that their enterprise would yield a steady profit throughout every year. Hence it was common to find a variety of livestock—sheep, dairy and beef cattle, pigs, hens, geese, and goats—within the yard of a typical farm.
THE MILK LORRY
In the 1920s and 1930s, a truck called a “milk lorry” collected full chums (large jugs) of milk from farms. The lorries then transported the milk to butter and cheese factories, and to market places for immediate sale, Today, the lorries have been replaced by tanker trucks that use pipelines to move the milk from the farms into the trucks.
Cows and the dairy
Farmers of the Dales often felt sentimental about their cows: feeding them well, allowing them free range on nice days and warm shelter on cool nights, and sometimes even naming them were common practices. Mentioned in All Creatures Great and Small are a few such names—Daisy, Mabel, and even Kipperlugs. This habit of naming the livestock shows the respect some farmers had for their livelihood, and the genuine love they felt for the animals, whom they viewed almost as partners in business.
Types of cows found in the Dales vary in breed. The Hereford, which fattens easily on a regular grass diet, is the most numerous beef breed. A red-bodied cow, the Hereford has a white belly and head. The black-and-white Friesian, weighing nearly half a ton or more, is the most commonly found dairy cow. Other cows in Yorkshire include the Dairy Shorthorn, used both for milking and beef, the gentle Jersey cow, and the Guernsey. The amount of milk produced varies with the type of cow. Friesians average about three gallons daily but may yield as much as six gallons. The cow’s milking cycle is not continuous. “A cow may be expected to milk for nine months after the birth of her calf. She is then dry for three months until the next calf is born—that at least is the ideal sequence” (Mossman, p. 117).
Safety was always a major concern in the consumption of milk. Bacteria could easily multiply during the transition between farm and home, and diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid were commonly transferred by milk at one time. The eradication of bovine tuberculosis began in 1922, when herds were subjected to a tuberculin test. A premium was paid on milk certified to be free of the disease. The Ministry of Agriculture regulated the inspections using local veterinarians. Any cows testing positive had to be slaughtered.
Before tractors and other mechanical advancements were introduced to Yorkshire, horses provided most of the power for the execution of heavy tasks. The time of the novel marks a transition period in British agriculture, an era when the horse was beginning to be replaced. Horses would nevertheless remain a sentimental favorite for many farmers. Even today they can be found throughout Yorkshire’s Dales.
The largest of England’s horses, the Shire, can weigh more than a ton and can stand six feet high at the shoulder. In 1066 it was introduced to England by William the Conqueror as transport for knights. The Cleveland Bay is considered the native horse of Yorkshire. Not as heavy as the Shire or another type, the Clydesdale, it is been able to perform the same amount of work without as much exertion, making it cheaper to keep.
The deep affection some farmers feel for their animals is reflected in the actions of an old horseman named John Skipton in All Creatures Great and Small. After receiving over fifteen years of work from two favorite horses, he allows them a beautiful private pasture in a remote section of woods in which they are to live out their lives. For the next twelve years, he travels over the hills every day to visit them, bringing along treats to brighten their lives. What some in the Dales see as the eccentricity of an old farmer, Herriot portrays as a sign of respect and love.
Horse trading was a common activity in the area during the 1930s. Specializing in the horse trade, gypsy families made frequent appearances in north Yorkshire on their way to horse shows. The families would arrive in horse-drawn carriages and set up camp in wooded clearings for short periods of time, usually no longer than a week.
Dalesfolk relied upon their own creativity for entertainment, though because maintaining the farms involved so much work there was little time for indulging in leisure activities. Making Crafts, playing card games, and reading were some of the home-centered pursuits that people did enjoy.
In the 1930s, however, life changed forever in Yorkshire as the phenomenon of radio reached the small towns. Many farms purchased radios, whose programs kept them informed of news outside of their immediate pastures. In fact, the radio, called a “wireless,” became the main source of outside information to reach the farms. The early wireless was a bulky object requiring heavy glass-encased batteries that could only be recharged at the local hardware or grocery store. The radio’s popularity would grow considerably after electricity reached the area in the 1940s and 1950s. Farmers’ awareness of life outside of rural Yorkshire dramatically increased with the arrival of motion pictures as well. Movie theaters in towns brought people out from their farms to enjoy a bit of spectator entertainment.
Not simply a place providing an evening’s entertainment, the English pub served food as well as drinks and provided rooms in which patrons could spend the night on occasion. The countryside pub was much more similar to a customer’s home than to a common bar today. In fact, there were no bars at all in the traditional English country pub. Instead, big rooms resembling expansive kitchens decked with tables, chairs, and tall stools provided a warm atmosphere. Patrons generally relaxed around a large stove or fireplace and discussed regional events.
Patronized by a mostly male clientele, many of the original pubs brewed their own ales and stouts and offered them to customers along with some of the better bottled beers in the country. After brewing beers in the cellars of the establishments, landlords would invite favored drinkers to the basement to enjoy private tasting sessions.
The story begins with an anecdote describing a difficult calf-birthing and the snide suggestions of a disagreeable farmer. The anecdote is a typical incident from All Creatures Great and Small, a memoir that recaps the early years in the life of country veterinarian James Herriot.
After the first chapter, the novel unfolds chronologically following Herriot’s graduation from Glasgow University as an M.R.C.V.S (Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) and his subsequent search for a job in a saturated market. Faced with the prospect of working for no pay or taking a job in an unrelated field, Herriot responds to the advertisement for a veterinarian’s assistant in Darrowby, a small town in the Yorkshire Dales. There he meets Siegfried Farnon, a brilliant and devoted veterinarian who has a special talent for forgetting things.
Quickly befriending his charming but absent-minded employer, Herriot is immediately faced with solving the maladies typical of English farm animals. Using fields and barns as his operating rooms, he meets the farmers who help form the foundation of British society. It is from the lives of these characters that the stories are mainly spun, as the young vet travels among the farms in a car without brakes—because his boss repeatedly forgets to fix them. He meets People and animals of all shapes and sizes throughout his travels. One of the people is his employer’s carefree brother, Tristan, a romantic and directionless young man who proves to be a grand drinking partner and matchmaker for Herriot. One of the animals is Tricki Woo, a spoiled Pekingese dog whose taste for sweets leaves him looking like “a bloated sausage with a leg at each corner” (All Creatures Great and Small, p. 205).
THE GREAT YORKSHIRE SHOW
Since 1838 the Great Yorkshire Show has been the annual grand event showcasing Yorkshire’s best livestock. Originally hosted by a range of towns around the area, its home is now Harrowgate, where the festival takes place for three days every July. Along with contests for the animals, the event high-lights farming and rural life in Yorkshire. Herriot gives the following description: “In avenue after avenue, the latest machines and equipment are displayed. Sheep are sheared, horses shod and goats milked in demonstrations of farm work. In the main show ring, the heavy horses parade, glittering and jangling in their finery, packs of hounds are shown, and one of the biggest draws is the show-jumping competition” (Herriot, The Best of James Herriot, P. 470). The Show is Yorkshire’s largest annual event.
Life’s adventures unfold both at the office and throughout the countryside. Efforts at bringing order to the business lead to the hiring of Miss Harbottle, a secretary specializing in organization. Her testy relationship with the forgetful Siegfried soon proves comical as she strives for order and he for freedom.
The element of humor is highlighted by Siegfried’s scheme to provide fresh food. He proposes the purchase of chickens and swine to cultivate in the backyard. The plan is soon foiled by the escape of the livestock, which run amok through the marketplace despite the efforts of his outnumbered and overmatched brother.
In the field treating the countryside’s sick animals, Herriot encounters both tragedy and miracles. He treats pigs named Queenie and dogs named Mr. Heinz and makes the necessary visits to keep healthy the cows and horses that form the backbone of the thriving agricultural economy in Britain. It is on these rounds that James meets a young woman named Helen. After a series of dates that prove remarkably inauspicious, the two find themselves falling in love. The story of the fledgling country vet culminates with his marriage to Helen in the Dales and their subsequent honeymoon. He and his new wife prove their devotion to their country and their work by spending the days after their marriage on a farm giving tuberculin tests. Herriot’s newly established life seems complete.
Over time, Herriot comes to regard Yorkshire as his home and refers back to what might have been with no regrets. He describes the “high clean-blown land where the scent of grass or trees is never far away” with an obvious love, and leaves readers with no doubt that he truly believes his life has made him a “privileged person” (All Creatures Great and Small, p. 247).
Out of the pages of All Creatures Great and Small comes a mix of dialects. Placed directly between England and Scotland, Yorkshire possesses a wide range of accents throughout its many valleys and mountains. The language is not simply muddled by the mixture of the two countries; it is inherently different because of its peculiar mix of Norse and Celtic roots. The area therefore features a great number of English variations for which translations are often required.
The countryside inspires unique dialects because of the isolation of the farms. Otherwise unheard accents were sometimes retained by farmers whose most frequent contact with the world at large could be the country vet. The voices of the region are as varied as the characters who speak them in a land that has been farmed for over a thousand years. “Just a young pig, isn’t she?” Herriot asks an observing farmer in the pages of his novel. The farmer affirms this with “Aye, nobbut a gilt,” the term gilt standing for a female pig who is grown but has not yet given birth (All Creatures Great and Small, p. 131).
A specialized vocabulary was developed by the farmers of the area, from which a few examples follow: Hills are generally referred to as “dales” by people in reference to the highlands. The valleys below are known as “vales.” Barns are called “field-houses” or “cow-houses” in Swaledale, but residents of Wharfedale and Craven prefer “laithes.” As shown in All Creatures Great and Small, nearly everything in Yorkshire possesses a variety of names, depending on who is describing it. Even towns possess multiple names. The author’s home town is called Tresche, Tresch, Treusig, Thrysk, and Uisge, aside from simply Thirsk. Each area has further-more developed a personalized form of speech so that some of the various towns, and even some farms, may have their own distinctive accent and some unique phrases to describe common occurrences of the area. In Yorkshire, for example, people speak of a light-milking cow as “operating on three-cylinders.”
The author of All Creatures Great and Small, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, was a country veterinarian by profession, but he had a penchant for storytelling and a hidden desire to write. After twenty-eight years of hearing stories about daily veterinary adventures, Joan Danbury Wight told her husband that fifty-year-old vets never became authors. Taking it as a challenge, he bought some paper and retold the events of his younger life. The author took on the pen name James Herriot out of respect for the anonymity of the country veterinarian’s profession. Soon afterward, All Creatures Great and Small became an instant classic.
It is an autobiographical work, focused in Yorkshire’s invented little town of Darrowby, which is, according to Herriot, “a bit of Thirsk, something of Richmond, Leyburn and Middleham and a fair chunk of my own imagination” (Herriot, James Herriot’s Yorkshire, p. 22). The book follows the author’s own story, from his Glasgow University graduation with an M.R.C.V.S. membership to his marriage a few years later. The character Siegfried Farnon was based on the author’s real-life elder partner. Any characters mentioned, animal or human, were based upon memories of the author’s early career.
The name of the book was derived from a hymn by Mrs. Cecil Alexander, which ran: “All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All.” Herriot also named three other books written about his younger days after the hymn.
The most striking difference between the Yorkshire farmland of the 1930s and that of the 1970s was the disappearance of the small farm. The advent of large business and the increasingly mechanized techniques applied in farming to stimulate productivity created a vastly different world. Horses were replaced by tractors, hand-milking was replaced by machines, and in Herriot’s view, a bit of the personality of the people was lost:
I think [the farmers] have altered most of all; the hard-bitten old characters with their idiosyncrasies and their black-magic cures who formed such a fertile source for my writing are very hard to find now. They have been largely replaced by the new breed of highly knowledgeable young men whose skill has made British agriculture so efficient, but who are not as interesting as their fore-fathers.
(Herriot, The Best of James Herriot, p. 22)
Technological advances have largely changed the farming industry, decreasing the amount of labor needed and increasing the yield of crops and livestock.
THE UNSTEADY MARRIAGE OF BUSINESS AND FARMING
Because agriculture must obey the laws of nature, and business often only follows the laws of productivity, the match of the two has not always been ideal and has sometimes been humorous. This anecdote about lambing, or the birth of baby sheep, demonstrates the lack of understanding business sometimes had about agriculture. “There is a story of a London-based company which acquired an Australian sheep station. The price of wool rose sharply and a cable was sent from [the] head office saying ‘Start Shearing.’ The reply was immediate, ‘Cannot shear. Lambing.’ Management, in an attempt to adjust the birthing process to their own convenience, cabled again, ‘Stop Lambing. Start Shearing’” (Mossman, p. 70).
A mechanical milker was introduced to northern England in 1939 at the Great Yorkshire Show, held at the time in Halifax. The original contraption was powered by an oil-fueled engine. Though electricity did not reach the Dales until the 1940s and 1950s, and despite the relative slowness of the first machine (which took about eight minutes to milk a cow, the same time as a person) it was the first step toward mechanizing the dairy farmer’s tasks. Quickly improved upon, the machine became popular.
The most visible, and audible, development in farming, however, was the tractor. Though the tractor had been invented earlier, it took quite a while before it became a fixture in York-shire. Economic slumps in the 1930s and 1940s, along with an abundance of cheap labor, made their use superfluous. There were about 55,000 tractors on English farms in 1939. A subsequent need to produce a large quantity of food during World War II, coupled with the shortage of labor, caused a quadrupling in the number of tractors in use by 1945. The advent of the tractor brought an enormous increase in the productivity of British agriculture and helped spark the replacement of much manual labor by machines.
“When I first started to write at the advanced age of fifty,” wrote Herriot, “I thought it would stop at one book and nobody would ever discover the identity of the obscure veterinary surgeon who had scribbled his experiences in snatched moments of spare time” (Herriot, James Herriot’s Yorkshire, p. 22). Despite his modest expectations, Herriot’s first book went on to sell 50 million copies in twenty countries.
The reception of All Creatures Great and Small was almost universally positive. A main reason for the book’s popularity was its tenderheartedness and the simple honesty of the stories told. “What the world needs now, and does every so often, is a warm, G-rated, down-home, and unadrenalized prize of a book that sneaks onto the bestseller lists for no apparent reason other than a certain floppy-eared puppy appeal” (Doerner, p. 88). This gentleness in Herriot’s writing allowed readers an easy familiarity with his book’s stories. Each new story, explained one critic, was like meeting an old friend again and feeling as if no time had been spent apart (Gillebaard, p. 4).
Negative reviews mentioned the moralistic quality of Herriot’s tales, the repetitiveness of some of his stories, and his use of abrupt plot shifts. Perhaps reflecting an urban reaction to rural life, some reviewers faulted the monotony of farm life and the veterinarian’s tendency toward “Disneyization, i.e., rule by lovable animals” (Lingeman, p. 13).
By and large, however, the public loved the stories of the country vet, and All Creatures Great and Small was an immediate bestseller. The author himself felt like it was almost too much of a success. Though he was grateful to fans who wanted his autograph, he said on at least one occasion that he much preferred his privacy.
Doerner, William R. “How Now, Brown Cow?” Time (February 19, 1973): 88.
Gillebaard, Lola D. Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 7, 1981): 4.
Herriot, James. All Creatures Great and Small. New York: St. Martin’s, 1972.
Herriot, James. The Best of James Herriot: Favourite Memories of a Country Vet. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.
Herriot, James. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979.
Lingeman, Richard R. “Animal Doctor.” New York Times Book Review (September 18, 1977): 13.
Mossman, Keith. The Shell Book of Rural Britain. Oxford: Alden, 1978.
Whiteman, Robin. In the North of England: The Yorkshire Moors and Dales. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.