Joseph Wright: Childhood

This article appeared in the Bradford Antiquary, 81, 2020. Although copyright belongs to Dr C Alvin, the original printed source should also be acknowledged by anyone using the material reproduced here.

FROM DONKEY-BOY TO OXFORD DON: the childhood of Dr Joseph Wright of Thackley.

Dr Joseph Wright, 1855 – 1930, M.A., PhD, D.C.L, LL.D, Litt.D, Fellow of the British Academy, and Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford University, is now little remembered except for his editorship of the definitive six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, but he was also the author of many books on the science of languages, and of dialects of various areas and countries.  He began life in extreme poverty, but principally through his own efforts became a distinguished Professor at Oxford University.


                The title of this article was selected deliberately as being typical of the titles given to items that have been written about Joseph Wright over the years, most of which emphasise, and sometimes romanticise, his poverty-stricken childhood.  Often these earlier short biographical accounts were produced in response to an anniversary of an event in his life such as the publication of his great English Dialect Dictionary.  Generally, the facts and anecdotes were taken from the biography written by Joseph Wright’s wife Elizabeth, which was first published in 1932 in two volumes, and later in a single condensed volume.  Her book was largely based on Joseph’s own recollections as noted down by her over many years, as well as reminiscences from people who had known him from his earliest years in Thackley and Windhill.  Unsurprisingly these memories from long ago were not always accurate.

                Now, with easy internet access to various official records such as censuses, a fuller picture can be obtained.  Thus it became evident to me that Joseph Wright’s early life was even bleaker and more unsettled than previously depicted, and included significant family events that he was possibly never aware of.  But Joseph’s mother resolved that he, when only a child, should be chiefly responsible for working to raise the family from the depths of poverty to which it had fallen.  This decision must have had far-reaching effects on both his character and his approach to life and work.  It has always been acknowledged that Joseph Wright was extraordinarily gifted.  Fortuitously,  he also had a sturdy constitution. The family’s slow rise from dire poverty was due not only to these two factors but also to his own (and his mother’s) determination and resilience.  But records from the period of his early life suggest that he must have had harder struggles than hitherto appreciated.  The records also suggest that life in a pre-industrialised semi-rural community could be as harsh and squalid as in an overcrowded urban centre, and far from the pastoral scene that we might envisage.


                Joseph Wright was born in Thackley in 1855, at a time when it was still a semi-rural community on the outskirts of the expanding industrial town of Bradford.  In the 1840s Joseph’s grandparents moved from a cottage in Towngate, Idle, to become tenants at Park Hill House, Thackley, where they combined small-scale farming with domestic cloth-making, most of their ten offspring helped with the farm work and the spinning and weaving.  They were hard-working, and made a success of their activities, but Joseph’s grandfather was very much the patriarch, strict and tight-fisted with his money even when it had been earned by his adult sons and daughters.  Park Hill House was an attractive plainly built large house, overlooking the farmland attached to it, and with outbuildings for animals and stores in the yard at the back, alongside several single-roomed cottages opening directly on to the road bordering the farm.  The house still stands, without the adjacent detritus.

Joseph Wright’s birthplace

                Joseph Wright spent part of his early years in one of these insanitary hovels, with one or both parents and his brothers. They were exceptionally poor.  His father, Dufton Wright, seventh of the ten offspring mentioned above, was too fond of drinking and of going out poaching with his dog rather than earning a living.  He was well known in Thackley as a ‘ne’er do well’ and a ‘wastrel’. Although most of the Wrights lived to a healthy old age, Joseph’s father died at the age of forty-eight, much younger than his brothers and sisters, probably because of his lifelong drinking.

                Joseph’s mother, Sarah Ann Atkinson,  came from a small neighbouring Thackley farm, and a respectable and hard-working family.  She worked as a woollen burler, mending defects in woven cloth.  However, records show that in 1845, when Sarah was about 20, she gave birth to an illegitimate son, named George.  There was no father’s name on his birth certificate, and Sarah was described as a Spinster.  In March 1850 she married Dufton Wright in Bradford Parish Church, signing her name with a cross.  The certificate states that they both lived in Eccleshill at the time. About three months later her first legitimate child, James, was born.  In the census returns of 1851 the family were listed as sharing one of the Park Hill cottages adjacent to Park Hill House with Sarah’s widowed mother and six-year-old son George.  No further records of George Atkinson have been found, but in December 1859 a boy with his name and of the same age, 14 years, died in North Bierley Workhouse, Clayton  This was where a child from Thackley could have been sent if there was no-one willing or able to look after him.

                Wright Watson, author of Idlethorp, quotes at length a flattering description of Sarah, from the biography of Joseph Wright written by his wife.  It includes phrases such as “her elemental purity and goodness” and describes her as following “the path of duty and service to God and man”, but Wright Watson comments that “it seems strange that a woman worthy of such a eulogy should marry a man worthy of none”.  Perhaps the existence of an illegitimate child and another on the way explains her marriage to Dufton; neither of them had a perfect reputation.  And Sarah was already in her mid-twenties, and must have realised her chances of marriage were diminishing.

                Joseph was Sarah and Dufton’s second son, born in 1855.  He spent some of his earliest years in one of the single roomed cottages at Park Hill, Thackley, crammed in with at least one brother as well as his parents.  Dufton, his father, is said to have worked as a navvy when he was younger; he was described later as being a big, tall strong man, renowned for fist-fighting for prize money.  However, above all, most people recalled him as being a wastrel who spent any money he had on gambling and drinking.  One writer says that Dufton left “his wife and children to the care of the parish” when he went seeking work at the ironstone mines at Eston, near Middlesborough, and Joseph Wright said later that “My first experiences of life were of the Workhouse”.  He may have been referring to a very early initial period when his father disappeared to North Yorkshire.  Certainly by 1858 Dufton had abandoned his family to try to earn a living as an ironstone miner.  Sarah, with the boys, followed him when she found he was drinking and gambling his wages away, instead of sending money to provide for his family.  Their third son, Thomas, was born at nearby Marske in 1858.  Thomas was later described as being “lame from malnutrition” although rickets seems the most likely diagnosis.  His legs were malformed and he was never able to maintain himself financially as a result, although he was clearly an enterprising, bright and popular adult.  But an illness of this nature suggests that the family had been in serious straits for a lengthy period. “So bare was the home,” Sarah Wright is recorded as saying, that she “had nowt to sit on but empty gunpowder barrels,” used by the miners for blasting.  It’s unclear how long the family stayed in the north-east, or whether they ever managed to visit Thackley during that time.

                Eventually, in 1861 and pregnant again, Sarah came back to Bradford, penniless and homeless.  She applied to stay in the Workhouse in Clayton, which served all the communities on the outskirts of Bradford.  There she gave birth to her fourth son, named Dufton after her feckless and irresponsible husband. Joseph later recalled the meagre rations of food that were doled out to them.  Courageously, like Oliver Twist, he asked for more, and was luckier than Dickens’ hungry child, being given extra bread by the more sympathetic woman serving the meal.

                After several months in the Workhouse, Sarah left, and with the new-born baby and her three small sons she walked all the way to Thackley, where an acquaintance offered her a single-roomed cottage to rent.  They had no furniture or household goods, and, as Joseph later remembered,

My father was still away at Eston, and had got into debt, and the bailiff came to sell up the home, and found it was only a hovel.  He gave my mother half-a-crown, and went away.

                The rest of the Wright family still lived and farmed at Park Hill, in the one-roomed cottages and the main house, as did some of the Atkinson family.  The 1861 Census lists four dwellings housing members of the Wright family, and one with the family of Sarah’s elder brother.   But there are no records that show Sarah and the four boys living there again.  It is hard to envisage them actually being turned away by their relatives; however, their lengthy stay in the Workhouse, and their reliance on acquaintances for basic necessities when they arrived back in the area, suggest that this might have been the case.  Elizabeth Wright asserted that Sarah found “no other door was open to her”.


                Surprisingly perhaps, Joseph Wright survived those dangerous first five years when Victorian children were at such high risk of death.  In fact he grew into a sturdy well-sized boy, well able to deal with the conditions of what would nowadays be considered child exploitation.

                Joseph’s elder brother, James, took after their father, and had, it was said, “a rooted distaste for work, especially for any confined, indoor occupation.  He hated life in a mill, and ran away to sea”.  James would have been the main breadwinner had he not disappeared from their lives so decisively.  Elizabeth Wright, when describing the start of her late husband’s working life, said his mother was, “an ambitious woman, and unsparing in her efforts to better her children’s lot in life”.  Joseph described her as “a great force of nature” in the way she took his search for jobs in hand. However daunting her problems, Sarah Wright was determined to survive, and to overcome the family’s difficulties. 

                They moved into a cottage in the Woodend area of Windhill, and Sarah began cleaning for people, and taking in washing, often working all night to earn the pittance which stopped the family starving, although Joseph believed that if the people for whom she washed hadn’t given them scraps and crusts, they wouldn’t have survived.  Shortly afterwards the family moved to ‘Spite and Malice House’ also in Woodend.  This was another single-roomed cottage, so-called because it had been built to deliberately block a public right of way.  To do so it had to be built and occupied within forty-eight hours.  The Wrights were not the first occupiers of this particular house, but they lived there for several years. At the age of six Joseph began working from seven a.m. until five p.m. every day, as a donkey-boy at a quarry at Woodend.  All day long he drove a donkey-cart back and forth, carrying the quarrymen’s tools to the nearest blacksmith to be sharpened.  The smith paid him eighteen pence per week, and each quarryman paid him one penny a week.  Joseph later said that “People will hardly believe all the different things I used to do to make an honest penny, and I always gave it to my mother”.  He mentioned collecting buckets of horse-muck for a local gardener in his spare time, and selling vegetables for a neighbour with a market garden.

                Joseph was a donkey-boy for about a year, but it was a job without any prospects.  When he was seven years old, his mother took him to the textile mill at Saltaire, two miles walk from home, to seek better employment.  Although still under-age according to the laws regulating the employment of children, he was accepted because he was big and strong for his years.  Joseph became a ‘doffer’, who removed the full bobbins from the spindles of a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones.  He never wasted his time whilst at the mill; he earned a few extra halfpence by sweeping the floors around the spinning machines before or after his half-day shifts, despite having to leave home as early as five o’clock in the morning to walk to work.  This was a half-time job, so for part of the day he could attend a part-time school provided by Titus Salt, where he said he learnt elementary arithmetic but little else; he added that “Reading and writing to me were as remote as any of the sciences”.    In these early days the school was overwhelmed with the number of pupils, and not using dedicated buildings; had Joseph stayed longer at Salt’s he would have seen great improvements. But he could truly say that he never in his life attended a formal full-time school.

                Meanwhile, Joseph’s father had returned from Eston, but was unable to work, having become ill through his heavy drinking.  When he died in 1866, aged 48, he was no longer living with his family, but long before that Joseph had become the family’s bread-winner.  He later said:

I went through many hardships as a lad, but I didn’t feel they were hardships at the time, I always felt I was getting on.

                During 1868, aged about thirteen, Joseph moved to another mill at Baildon Bridge, to earn better wages, so that he could support his mother and younger brothers, both of whom were thus able to attend school, and learnt to read and write before Joseph.  However, Joseph was still working as a “doffer”, and his mother was dissatisfied with her son still being in a dead end job, despite having better pay.  Joseph also wanted to improve himself, so he became apprenticed, to learn the skills of wool-sorting.  Remarkably, within two years he was so skilful and reliable that he was put on piece work, earning as much as a fully trained wool-sorter, between 20 and 30 shillings a week.

                Joseph had saved enough money, and the family was now earning enough to move into a bigger house, and furnish it properly.  Both Joseph’s brothers were old enough to begin working; Dufton, the youngest, is said to have started mill-work at eight years old, although later he decided he preferred outdoor work and became a quarryman.  So the family moved to Wellington Street in Windhill, which had “a parlour, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a cellar. The toilets were at the end of the street.  The rent was two shillings and nine pence a week”.

                By the age of fifteen Joseph was still illiterate, despite having one of the best-paid jobs in the textile industry.  Then came what he called “the hour of my intellectual awakening.” This was his desire to know more about the Franco-Prussian War, which at the time was being discussed by his fellow workmen who were able to read all the details of the war and its battles in the newspapers during their lunch breaks.  This craving for knowledge was, Joseph said,  “kindling in my mind the spark that was to become a glowing passion for learning”.

                Joseph began teaching himself to read with the aid of “a terribly tattered textbook”, supplemented by the Bible and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  He also had help from a well-educated woolsorter, Alfred Brooks, who took an interest in Joseph’s progress.  Alfred also encouraged Joseph to write with his right hand, as, in common with both his parents and his brothers Joseph was left-handed, and it might be something of a handicap in whatever career Joseph chose to follow.  So Joseph took his friend’s advice, and as a result became unexpectedly but usefully ambidextrous.

                So far he was self-taught, but Joseph felt it was time to widen his knowledge; he began attending a small night-school in Windhill, and around the same time he began buying, for seven pence a part, a fortnightly publication, Cassell’s Popular Educator, which he said, when completed, remained his “constant companion and guide” for many years.

                Another night-school in Windhill had begun teaching French, and later German.  The teacher was accomplished, but, after learning the basics of languages from him, Joseph acquired far more knowledge and understanding by reading and exploring literature in his own time.  He had an outstanding ability to work and study for long hours, and needed little sleep.  Having learnt French and German he taught himself Latin too. However, whilst clearly having an aptitude for languages, Joseph was more drawn towards mathematical subjects, and so in addition to the classes in languages, he enrolled at the Mechanics’ Institute in Bradford for two nights a week to learn Arithmetic, Euclid, and Algebra.  This, incidentally, also meant a three mile walk in each direction for every session; but later when he began regular night-school classes at the Yorkshire College in Leeds, he had to cope with a walk of eight or so miles there after work, and again back home afterwards.

                A letter of reminiscences from a former colleague, sent to Joseph’s wife after his death, describes Joseph at this period working at his wool-sorting table “with his algebra and other books propped open against the back of his table in front of him, and the stupendous mathematical problems he would work out …”

                Around the time Joseph was teaching himself to read, or shortly after, his mother Sarah taught herself to read too, at the age of forty-five.  She also used, as was common in those days, the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. Often they would be the only books in a household where literacy levels were low but church or chapel attendance were an important part of life.  There is no suggestion anywhere that Joseph helped her to learn.  Given her determination and doggedness in other aspects of family life, it seems likely she succeeded all by herself.  It is also possible that, like Joseph, she required less sleep than normal.  Throughout his life Joseph routinely only slept two or three hours every night, and had no problems with that regime.  His mother certainly worked long hours, for example when taking in washing she often worked almost all night, but this may not have been her routine pattern


                Within a short time it became evident that Joseph’s talents included that of teaching, as he decided that he would open a night-school of his own.  In amongst all the subjects he himself was continuing to study, and whilst still working full-time at the mill, which had relocated to Bingley, he began teaching local boys the “three Rs” using one of the small bedrooms in the family house on Wellington Street.  There were sometimes as many as a dozen boys squeezed in to the room, sitting on the bed or the floor, for a fee of two pence a week, all apparently attending with great enthusiasm. In Elizabeth Wright’s biography of her husband, there are copies of several letters from his former pupils, remembering the lessons with pleasure, although Joseph was strict about good behaviour and working hard.  The fees they paid went towards books.  It was never intended to be a profit making enterprise, but as his wife wrote, it was a new venture, “the dawning of his great gift for teaching, which now sought expression”.  One letter also recalls the setting up of a class for those of them who were a similar age to Joseph and of “a more studious turn of mind”.  They met at 8.30 p.m at the Wellington Street house when the younger class was over, and Joseph found himself acting as leader rather than teacher of a “mutual improvement class” which covered more informally a wide range of subjects.  It also ranged over a wider geographical area, as the young men went for walks around Windhill or Idle, such as one described by the writer of the letter as taking place seated on flat gravestones in the small Quaker Graveyard in upper Idle, where Joseph gave an impromptu “oration on Astronomy … on the Stars, the Planets, Constellations, Sun, Moon and the immensity of space etc.” 

                Although all the learning and teaching and travelling to classes took up an enormous amount of time, Joseph Wright did have a social life, albeit an unusual one, hardly comparable with the social world of today’s young people. The family were members of the Primitive Methodist church in Windhill, which Elizabeth Wright describes as “a small but very earnest body”.  She also says that they joined when they first arrived in Windhill, but, inexplicably, a later baptismal record exists of all four boys being christened together in 1863 at Holy Trinity Parish Church, Idle.  Probably Sarah had a good practical if not spiritual reason for doing this.  Relating Sarah’s death in 1903, Elizabeth Wright states that “she always regarded herself as Churchwoman.”  Her funeral was held at Holy Trinity Church in Idle; her husband had been buried there many years earlier.  However, the Primitive Chapel continued to be important in the life of the family,  and by his late teenage years Joseph was a popular entertainer for chapel social events. His speciality was reading dialect tales and poems, not only in Windhill but in other villages around.  He was a regular member of the Chapel’s Sunday Schools and, inevitably, was asked to become a teacher of a class, attending twice every Sunday, in addition to attending two Sunday services in the Church.

                Joseph Wright undoubtedly had a gift for teaching, and was confident that this was how he wanted to earn his living.  In the mid 1870s he visited France to extend his knowledge of the language, having forged a friendship with some weavers from Roubaix who had set up a mill in Windhill, having left France after the Franco-German War.  They gave Joseph introductions to other mill owners and textile workers in Roubaix.  His French was fluent enough by then to give him no problems communicating.  Through his contacts with some of the German merchant families living in Bradford, Joseph also improved his command of colloquial German.  In 1876, during a period when the Bingley mill was temporarily closed, Joseph took the opportunity to travel to Heidelberg University in Germany to spend a term studying maths, improving his language at the same time.  He had savings of £40, and with economy in mind, he planned to walk there, from Antwerp via Cologne, staying overnight in a network of cheap hostels set up throughout Germany for “the honest artisan on the tramp.”

                Joseph had to return home before the end of the University term because his money ran out, but he had made his mind up that teaching was his chosen career. He obtained a post at a school in Bradford, teaching algebra, Euclid and French.  At the same time he continued studying, in particular for the London Matriculation examinations.  Passing these exams meant he was eligible to go to university to study, but he carried on making his own way through the academic system.  He continued teaching at various schools around the country, as well as in France, until 1882.  He loved school teaching, and although he was known as a strict disciplinarian he was well-regarded by the boys he taught.  But, he said, “he couldn’t do with parents”, and couldn’t deal diplomatically with them, so he would never become a head teacher, and would never “be at the top of the pedagogic tree.” It was time for a change.

                Joseph was in his late twenties when he went to Germany this time.  He had saved sufficient money to stay there for long enough to study for a degree at Heidelberg and at other universities, as was the custom in Germany. He taught classes at the universities while studying, to pay for his fees. His plan was to further his mathematical studies.  But, in an almost Damascene conversion, he became engrossed in Comparative Philology, and the study of languages became his life’s work.  He gained a Doctorate of Philology in 1885 earning the title of Dr Joseph Wright, and stayed there to teach before moving to a post at Oxford University.


                Joseph Wright never returned to live in Thackley, but spent the rest of his life living and working in Oxford.  He often visited his mother and kept in touch with people he had known from childhood, and although he had lost his local accent, he instinctively spoke it whenever he came home. As well as teaching at Oxford, where he met his wife when she was a student there,  Joseph wrote many books on language and grammar, some co-authored with his wife.  In 1891 he began to compile the great work for which he became famous, the 6-volume, 5000 page, English Dialect Dictionary, which I hope to make the subject of a later article.

                According to the biography by his wife,  Joseph Wright had a strange theory about his success.  He insisted that

“it was owing to his plebeian ancestry that he brought with him to the field of science and letters that prodigious vitality of brain which enabled him to accomplish the intellectual feats which marked his progress.” 

                He believed that if his ancestors had done any reading, that vitality would have been sapped and their brains would have become inflexible.  However, it seems more likely, although more prosaic, that Joseph Wright inherited a strong constitution, and his mother’s determined character, and he had both the intelligence – or maybe a “prodigious vitality of brain” – and the willpower to improve himself far beyond the expectations of a boy with such an inauspicious start in life.  His mother clearly was a strong influence on him in his early years, and probably throughout his later life.  Did he know anything of the ‘hidden’ events in her past?  Joseph and his mother often had long talks together, until Sarah’s death in 1903, and the past must have been among the subjects discussed.  After one such session he wrote “My mother and I had such a long talk together last night … I shall ever remember that talk with a very grateful heart”.  It is hard to imagine an elderly Victorian mother confessing to her adult son specific discreditable events from her past, but revealing just how difficult her early married years, such as her appallingly deprived life in the north-east were, would have been traumatic for both of them.  However, resilient like his mother, Joseph was never ashamed of his underprivileged beginnings and lack of formal education.

                As he himself commented in 1926, towards the end of his life:

“We cannot all be professors; few of us desire to be students, in which respect I can claim to be an exception.  But, with certain limitations, we can all better ourselves if we wish to do so.  It is a matter, I think, of singleness of purpose, inflexible determination, and perseverance.  And the greatest of these, I am inclined to believe, is perseverance”. 

PART TWO to follow after publication in the Bradford Antiquary


Shipley Times and Express, 12 Jan 1906. Report on the Opening of the Carnegie Library [Windhill].

Shipley Times and Express,  08 March 1930.  Joseph Wright’s obituary.

SLADEN, C.  Idle Scholar who brought local language to book.  Oxford Today, vol 22, No 3, 2010 [Online Journal]

WADDINGTON-FEATHER, J.  Professor Joseph Wright, 1855 – 1930.  History of Education in Bradford, 1870 – 1970.  Bulletin No 5, May, 1970

WATSON, Wright   Idlethorp.  Byles, Bradford, 1950

WRIGHT, Elizabeth M.  The Life of Joseph Wright.  2 vols.  Oxford U P, 1932

WRIGHT, Elizabeth M.  Rustic Speech and Folklore.  Oxford U P, 1913

WRIGHT, Joseph.  From a Yorkshire Quarry to a Chair at Oxford.  John O’ London’s Weekly,  15 May, 1926

Official Records online:  Census 1841 onwards, Church Records, Birth, Marriage, Death Records.

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