James Robertson Justice
James Robertson Justice in The Lady Says No (1950).jpg
Justice in The Lady Says No (1952)
James Norval Harald Justice

(1907-06-15)15 June 1907
Lee, London, England
Died2 July 1975(1975-07-02) (aged 68)
Romsey, Hampshire, England
Resting placeCremated; ashes buried in Spinningdale, Sutherland, Scotland
Other namesSeamus Mor na Feaseg
Years active1944–1971
Dillys Ethel Hayden
(m. 1941; div. 1968)

(m. 1975)

James Robertson Justice (15 June 1907 – 2 July 1975) was a British actor. He is best remembered for portraying pompous authority figures in comedies including each of the seven films in the Doctor series. He also co-starred with Gregory Peck in several adventure movies, notably The Guns of Navarone. Born in south-east London to a Scottish father, he became prominent in Scottish public life, helping to launch Scottish Television (STV) and serving as Rector of the University of Edinburgh (1957-60 and 1963-66).


The son of Aberdeen-born mining engineer James Norval Justice and Edith (née Burgess),[1] James Robertson Justice was born James Norval Harald Justice in Lee, a suburb of Lewisham in South East London, in 1907. Educated at St Hugh's School, Bickley, Kent,and 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 English, Spanish, French, Greek, Danish, Russian, German, Italian, Dutch and Gaelic.[2]

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[3] 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 goalie with the London Lions.[4]

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.[5] 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."[6] 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."[7] Motor Sport reported in 1963: "We remember him at Lewes with a G.N. and in a Relay Race with a Wolseley Hornet."[8]

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 bushy beard, which he retained throughout his career. On returning to Britain, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, but after sustaining a wound in 1943 (possibly from shrapnel from a German shell), he was honourably discharged from the service with a pension.

Love of Scotland

He married nurse Dillys Hayden (1914–1984) in Chelsea in 1941, and they had a son named James. On his return from the war, he reinvented himself with stronger Scottish roots, dispensing with his two middle names and acquiring the new middle name Robertson out of his habit of wearing Robertson tartan. Feeling strongly about his Scottish ancestry, he once claimed to have been born in 1905 under a distillery on the Isle of Skye; many sources listed his birthplace as Wigtown, Wigtownshire.[9] He lived in Wigtown at Orchardton House between 1946 and 1950. He unsuccessfully contested the North Angus and Mearns constituency for the Labour Party in the 1950 general election.[2]

With his earnings from the film Doctor in the House (1954), Justice purchased a cottage in the Scottish Highlands village of Spinningdale. In 1966 Justice appeared as a narrator in five episodes of the BBC children's television series Jackanory, telling stories and legends from Scotland, including those of The Battle of the Birds and The Black Bull of Norroway.

Acting career

Justice pursued acting after joining the Players' Theatre in London. Under the chairmanship of Leonard Sachs, who was latterly chairman of BBC television's The Good Old Days, the club would stage Victorian music hall nights. Substituting for Sachs one night, Justice was recommended for the film For Those in Peril (1944).

With his domineering personality, bulky physique (he played rugby for Beckenham RFC First XV in the 1924–25 season alongside Johnnie Cradock who would become the partner of 1950s TV chef Fanny), and rich, booming voice, Justice was soon established as a major supporting actor in British comedy films.[10] His first leading role was as headmaster in the film Vice Versa (1948), written and directed by Peter Ustinov, who cast Justice partly because he had been "a collaborator of my father's at Reuters."Justice made it to Walt Disney in a film adaptation of Robin Hood called The Story of Robin Hood (1952) where he took the role of Little John. Justice also was the demanding surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the "Doctor" series of films of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Doctor in the House (1954), playing the 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.

On 31 August 1957, he helped launch the TV station Scottish Television (STV), hosting the channel's first show, This is Scotland.[11] From 1957 to 1960, and again from 1963 to 1966, he was Rector of the University of Edinburgh.[12] In the war film The Guns of Navarone (1961), he 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 (1951), and Moby Dick (1956), in which he played the one-armed sea captain also attacked by the white whale. In the film, 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[13] and the accidental drowning of his four-year-old son in 1949[14] near his watermill home in Whitchurch, Hampshire, Justice separated from his wife and the marriage was dissolved in 1968. He met actress Irene von Meyendorff in 1960 on the set of The Ambassador, and they remained together, eventually marrying in 1975 three days before he died.

Not long after completing his work for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968, Justice suffered a severe stroke, which signalled the beginning of the end for his career. He appeared in a number of films afterward, albeit in less prominent roles (i.e. playing his best known character of Sir Lancelot Spratt for the final time in Doctor in Trouble (1970), featured only briefly in several scenes). He suffered a further series of strokes, which left him unable to work. He was declared bankrupt in 1970,[15] 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 entitled James Robertson Justice—What's The Bleeding Time? (referring to a joke in the first Doctor film) was published by Tomahawk Press on 3 March 2008.[16] It was written by James Hogg, Robert Sellers and Howard Watson.



  1. ^ "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/49503. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b Sheridan Morley, "Justice, James Norval Harald Robertson (1907–1975)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 Retrieved 12 Nov 2007
  3. ^ Motor Sport, December 1933, Page 57.
  4. ^ A to Z Encyclopaedia of Ice Hockey entry. Retrieved 1 November 2007. Archived 19 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Motor Sport, July 1932, Pages 415–419.
  6. ^ Motor Sport, October 1933, Page 540.
  7. ^ Denis Jenkinson, Maserati 3011: The story of a racing car, Page 11, Aries Press, 1987.
  8. ^ Motor Sport, February 1963, Page 82.
  9. ^ Pendreigh, Brian (18 November 2007). "'Scots actor Justice outed as Londoner". Scotland on Sunday. Archived from the original on 21 November 2007.
  10. ^ "Beckenham". Retrieved 30 June 2018.
  11. ^ This Is Scotland: 31 August 1957 on YouTube
  12. ^ "Full list of Rectors to date". The University of Edinburgh Information Services. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
  13. ^ Walker, Tim (2 August 2013). "Lawyers may take starring role in West End show The Golden Voice". The Daily Telegraph.
  14. ^ Hull Daily Mail - Tuesday 21 June 1949 Page 3 Col.3 James Norvil Justice, four-year-old son of James Robertson Justice, Scottish film actor, was found drowned last night in the River Test, near his home at Lower Mill House, Whitchurch, Hampshire.
  15. ^ "James Robertson Justice". Aberdeen Evening Express. 2 December 1970. p. 1.
  16. ^ Hogg, James; Sellers, Robert; Watson, Howard (3 March 2008). James Robertson Justice: What's the Bleeding Time?: A Biography. Tomahawk Press. ISBN 978-0953192670.
Academic offices Preceded bySir Sydney A. Smith Rector of the University of Edinburgh 1957–1960 Succeeded byJo Grimond Preceded byJo Grimond Rector of the University of Edinburgh 1963–1966 Succeeded byMalcolm Muggeridge