James Robertson Justice

James Robertson Justice
Born James Norval Harald Robertson Justice
(1907-06-15)15 June 1907
Lee, London, England, UK
Died 2 July 1975(1975-07-02) (aged 68)
Romsey, Hampshire, England, UK
Resting place Scotland
Other names Seamus Mor na Feaseg
James R. Justice
James Robertson
James Robertson-Justice
Occupation Actor
Years active 1944–71
Spouse(s) Dillys Ethel Hayden (1941–68)
Irene von Meyendorff (1975–his death)
Children James Norval (1945–49)

James Norval Harald Robertson Justice (15 June 1907[1] – 2 July 1975)[2] was a popular Anglo-Scottish character actor in British films of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.


The son of an Aberdeen-born geologist and named after his father, James Robertson Justice was born in Lee, a suburb of Lewisham in South London, in 1907. Educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, Justice studied science at University College London, but left after a year and became a geology student at the University of Bonn, where he again left after just a year. He spoke many languages (possibly up to 20) including Spanish, French, Greek, Danish, Russian, German, Italian, Dutch and Gaelic.[3]

After university

Justice returned to the UK in 1927, and became a journalist with Reuters in London, alongside Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. After a year he emigrated to Canada, where he worked as an insurance salesman, taught English at a boys' school, became a lumberjack and mined for gold. He came back to Britain penniless, working his passage on a Dutch freighter washing dishes in the ship's galley to pay his fare.

On his return to Britain he served as secretary of the British Ice Hockey Association in the early 1930s[4] and managed the national team at the 1932 European Championships in Berlin to a seventh-place finish. He combined his administrative duties in 1931–32 with a season as goaltender with the London Lions.[5]

Justice was entered in a Wolseley Hornet Special in the JCC Thousand Mile Race at Brooklands on 3 and 4 May 1932. The car was unplaced.[6] The following year a "J. Justice (J.A.P. Special)" competed in the Brighton Speed Trials: "Justice's machine "Tallulah" noisily expired before the end of the course, and was pushed back to the start by way of the arcade under the terrace."[7] The Brighton event was won by Whitney Straight and according to Denis Jenkinson: "Flitting round the periphery of the team was James Robertson Justice." In February 1934 Straight took delivery of a new Maserati: "Jimmy Justice went off to Italy to collect the first car which was 8CM number 3011."[8] Motor Sport reported in 1963: "We remember him at Lewes with a G.N. and in a Relay Race with a Wolseley Hornet."[9]

Justice left Britain again to become a policeman for the League of Nations in the Territory of the Saar Basin (a region of Germany occupied and governed by France and Germany under a League of Nations mandate originating in the Treaty of Versailles). After the Nazis came to power, he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. It was here that he first grew his signature trademark bushy beard, which he retained throughout his career. On return to Britain, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, but after sustaining an injury in 1943 (thought to be shrapnel from a German shell), he was pensioned off.

Love of Scotland

He married nurse Dillys Hayden (1914–1984) in Chelsea in 1941, and she gave birth to his son James. On his return from the war he reinvented himself with stronger Scottish roots. Feeling strongly about his Scottish ancestry, he claimed to have been born in 1905 under a distillery on the Isle of Skye; he also claimed on separate occasions to have been born in Wigtown, Wigtownshire, now in Dumfries and Galloway.[10] He unsuccessfully contested the North Angus and Mearns constituency for the Labour Party in the 1950 general election.[3] With the earnings he made from the film Doctor in the House, Justice bought a cottage in the Scottish Highlands village of Spinningdale.

Acting career

Justice took up acting after joining the Players' Club in London. The club, under the chairmanship of Leonard Sachs who was latterly chairman of BBC's television's The Good Old Days, would stage Victorian music hall nights. Standing in for Sachs one night, he was recommended for the film For Those In Peril in the summer of 1944.

As an actor, with his domineering personality, bulky physique, (he played rugby for Beckenham RFC First XV in the 1924/25 season [11] alongside Johnnie Cradock who would become the partner of 1950s TV chef Fanny) and rich, booming voice, he was soon established as a major supporting player in British comedy films. His first leading role was as headmaster in the film Vice Versa, written and directed by Peter Ustinov, who cast him partly because he'd been "a collaborator of my father's at Reuters." Justice was the demanding surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the "Doctor" series of films of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Doctor in the House in 1954, playing a role for which he is possibly best remembered. In his films he was sometimes credited as Seumas Mòr na Feusag (Scottish Gaelic, translation: Big James with the Beard), James R. Justice, James Robertson or James Robertson-Justice.[12]

On 31 August 1957, he helped launch the TV station Scottish Television, hosting the channel's first show, This is Scotland.[13] From 1957 to 1960, and again from 1963 to 1966, he was Rector of the University of Edinburgh.[14] In the 1961 war film The Guns of Navarone, Robertson Justice had a co-starring role as well as narrating the story.

He appeared in four films with Navarone co-star Gregory Peck, including Captain Horatio Hornblower, and most notably, Moby Dick, in which Robertson Justice played the one-armed sea captain also attacked by the white whale. In the film, Robertson Justice's character tries to befriend Captain Ahab (played by Peck), but is amazed and repulsed by Ahab's obsessive pursuit of Moby Dick.

Later life

After a series of affairs[15] and the drowning of his son in 1949 at his watermill home[16] in Whitchurch, Hampshire, Justice separated from his wife; she eventually divorced him in 1968. He met actress Irene von Meyendorff in 1960 on the set of The Ambassadress (original German title, Die Botschafterin), and they remained together, eventually marrying in 1975 three days before he died.

Not long after completing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968, Justice suffered a severe stroke, which signalled the beginning of the end for his career. He suffered a further series of strokes, which left him unable to work, and he died penniless in 1975. His ashes were buried in a north Scotland moor near his former residence in the Highland village of Spinningdale.

A biography called James Robertson Justice—What's The Bleeding Time? (named after a joke in the first Doctor film) was published by Tomahawk Press on 3 March 2008.[17] It was written by James Hogg, Robert Sellers and Howard Watson.



  1. GRO Register of Births: SEP 1907 1d 1112 LEWISHAM – James Norval H Justice
  2. GRO Register of Deaths: SEP 1975 20 0869 ROMSEY, James Harold N. R. Justice, DoB = 15 June 1907
  3. 1 2 Sheridan Morley, "Justice, James Norval Harald Robertson (1907–1975)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 12 Nov 2007
  4. Motor Sport, December 1933, Page 57.
  5. A to Z Encyclopaedia of Ice Hockey entry. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
  6. Motor Sport, July 1932, Pages 415–419.
  7. Motor Sport, October 1933, Page 540.
  8. Denis Jenkinson, Maserati 3011: The story of a racing car, Page 11, Aries Press, 1987.
  9. Motor Sport, February 1963, Page 82.
  10. Pendreigh, Brian (18 November 2007). "'Scots actor Justice outed as Londoner". Scotland on Sunday.
  11. http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/beckenham/
  12. James Robertson Justice at the Internet Movie Database
  13. This Is Scotland: 31 Aug 1957 on YouTube
  14. "Full list of Rectors to date". The University of Edinburgh Information Services. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
  15. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/10217102/Lawyers-may-take-starring-role-in-West-End-show-The-Golden-Voice.html
  16. Photo: Mr Robertson Justice's House c1955, Whitchurch Ref: W490025. Retrieved 8 November 2011.
  17. ISBN 0-9531926-7-9
Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir Sydney A. Smith
Rector of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Jo Grimond
Preceded by
Jo Grimond
Rector of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Malcolm Muggeridge
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