The tale of Joseph Wright: from donkey boy to don

| July 4, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lisa Firth

Beginning work as a lowly donkey boy at the age of six, Joseph Wright was an unlettered Thackley millhand who could barely read a newspaper until he was 15. But life changed for the young man when he started work at Salts Mill in Saltaire. With access to the free schooling Sir Titus Salt provided for his workers, Wright eventually rose to become a world-leading linguist and Oxford don, counting Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf and JRR Tolkien among his friends and admirers.

“The details of Joseph’s Wright’s life read like a romance,” wrote the Yorkshire dialect expert WJ Halliday. “But it is romance which is built on a solid foundation of character and indomitable will.” It was this indomitable will that took Wright from an illiterate bobbin doffer for whom, in his own words, reading and writing were “as remote as any of the sciences” to a world-renowned linguist and Professor of Comparitive Philology at the University of Oxford.

Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright (1855-1930)

Joseph Wright was born into an impoverished Thackley family in 1855, the seventh son of a feckless father who earned his bread – when he was in work at all – as a cloth weaver and quarryman. The Wrights were so poor that they even spent a period in the workhouse at Clayton, and every family member capable of working was expected to start paying into the household pot as early as possible.

Little Joseph was first put to work at age six as a quarry “donkey boy”. Every day he would be expected to lead a donkey-drawn cart laden with tools to the local smithy for sharpening before returning them to the quarry. The ten-hour working day was long and gruelling for the little lad, and there was no time for schooling of any kind.

His fortunes improved at age seven when he was employed by Sir Titus Salt to work in his Saltaire mill as a bobbin doffer, removing the full bobbins from the spindles and replacing them with empty ones. Salt, the great paternalist, provided all his child workers with a free education at his factory school, and it was here that Wright first learned the basics of reading and writing. However, it was not until his early teens that Wright – now working as a woolsorter on what must have seemed a princely sum of £1 a week – began his studies in earnest. According to his biography, it was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 that spurred the young man on, as he wished fervently that he could read a newspaper rather than receiving all the exciting accounts of battles second-hand from a more accomplished colleague.

Having taught himself to read, Wright found himself attracted to the study of languages and began studying the basics of Latin, German and French at Bradford Mechanics Institute’s night school, in addition to maths and shorthand. So successful was he that at 18 he started his own night school in his mother’s cottage, charging tuppence a week to attend. After managing to save £40 from his wages, Wright was able to pay for himself to attend the University of Heidelberg for a term before returning to Yorkshire to make his living as a teacher.

Rather brilliantly, Wright’s hard-working mother Sarah, herself illiterate until the age of 45, also taught herself to read so she could share in the new world opened up to her son through his accomplishments. Years later, when Wright took her to Oxford to show her his new home among the dreamy spires of academia, she is said to have remarked of All Souls College, “Eee, but it ‘ud mek a grand Co-op!”

Attracted especially to the Germanic languages, Wright returned to Germany for six years in 1882 to pursue his studies and improve his knowledge of the language: it was here that he gained his PhD. A poor man still, he didn’t have the luxury of being a full-time student: he earned his keep as a languages tutor teaching Old English and philology, as well as writing books and doing translations. While staying in Leipzig, he gained a reputation as a socialist firebrand, even being placed under arrest after making a speech in sympathy with striking workers.

After returning to England in 1888, Wright moved to Oxford, where he gave lectures at the university and continued to write and publish books on philology. Within just two years, he had so impressed the university’s senior academics that a position was created especially for him – Lecturer in Teutonic Philology. Two years more and he had risen to the rank of deputy professor, eventually becoming a full professor in 1901. Five years before his death from pneumonia in 1930 age 74, he was given the prestigious high-ranking appointment of emeritus professor.

Wright and his wife, a former student of his named Elizabeth Mary Lea whom he married in 1896, were hospitable people and often entertained at the house they had built for themselves, named ‘Thackley’ in deference to Wright’s home town. The professor’s Pavlovian party trick was to get the family pet, a Scottie called Jack, to lick his lips whenever he said the Gothic words for fig tree, smakka bagms.

Among his Oxford acquaintances was JRR Tolkien, who was a student of Wright’s and later stated that studying the grammar of the Gothic language with the Bradford professor was one of the turning points of his life. Wright was also a regular correspondent of the novelist Thomas Hardy and was greatly respected by no less a person than Virginia Woolf, who wrote admiringly of his work in her diary.

But while hobnobbing with his illustrious friends, Dr Wright had not forgotten his roots. With his humble Yorkshire origins and interest in languages, it is no surprise that he developed a fascination with regional dialects, and behind the scenes he was working on his magnum opus, the large and comprehensive English Dialect Dictionary. This was an enormous task, and as editor Wright spent many years collating, cataloguing and cross-referencing material that in its raw form was said to weigh almost a tonne!

The work was eventually published by public subscription, with Wright composing over 3000 letters in a five-month period to secure the necessary funds. Part one of the English Dialect Dictionary finally became a published work on 1 July 1896, with five more volumes following. Dialect words from around the country were painstakingly recorded, with their variants, definitions and etymology, in a groundbreaking feat that may still be unrivalled. Work on the dictionary also led to the formation of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, the world’s oldest dialect society still in existence, in 1897.

“I am accustomed to get the very thing I want,” Joseph Wright told his wife years later. “When I once make up my mind that such a thing is the right thing to take place, I move almost heaven and earth to see that it shall take place.” It was this Bradford boy’s dedication, industry and that great Yorkshire characteristic, sheer stubborn bloody-mindedness, that made him who he was: a brilliant man and academic. The huge influence of his pioneering dialect dictionary in the field of linguistics cannot be understated.

Among other sources, I am indebted to Stephen Wade’s Heroes, Villains and Victims of Bradford, in particular for information provided from a biography of Joseph Wright written by his wife in 1932 which is now out of print.

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