Wildfowling magazine - wildfowling waterfowling duck hunting goose shooting
Justice on the Water
Howard Watson on Wildfowling with Sir Lancelot

For the widest selection of shooting and fishing books, Click Here

Waterfowling with Sir Lancelot

During the Spanish Civil War, James Robertson Justice is alleged to have halted a charge on the battlefield, while serving with the International Brigade against Franco’s fascists, by pointing at the sky and shouting “Look! Greylag geese”. Those stentorian tones were put to good use again, after serving with the RNVR and then the Royal Navy in the Second World War, when he played the role of Sir Lancelot Spratt, in 1954’s Doctor in the House and its many sequels. Due to ill health, his film career ended in 1970, but not before starring in such classics as Scott of the Antarctic, Moby Dick and The Guns of Naverone.

Justice was an expert falconer and a keen ornithologist. Acting was a means to an end enabling him to fund his love of wildlife, an enduring passion. With his best friend Sir Peter Scott, he was one of the founding members of the Wildfowl Trust. One of their early successes in conservation was the preservation of the Hawaiian goose. In 1948, with a team, including Keith Shackleton, they also helped develop a rocket-propelled device to net wild geese for marking purposes, developed from an idea used to save the lives of drowning men. To this day, a portrait of Justice hangs in the home of Sir Peter’s widow.

To the uninitiated, hunting and conservation would appear strange bedfellows, but culling as a means to control numbers is a sensible precaution so that one species does not dominate another. With land being at a premium on such a small island, hunting is simply a way of keeping numbers in check. When interviewed, on television in 1966 by Joan Bakewell, that falconry seemed at odds with bird conservation, Justice replied that “they do it anyway. It’s just nature under command.”

Being a born raconteur, Justice fathered many stories, so details of his naval record are sketchy. He appears to have been discharged, due to ill health, in 1943, spending the rest of the war in and around the Scottish town of Wigtown, with another lifelong friend, Keith ‘Toby’ Bromley. A proud Scotsman, he wore the Robertson tartan with pride, returning to live there many years later, making a home on the Dornoch Firth, and serving twice as Rector of Edinburgh University, beating local boy Sean Connery into last place on the second occasion.

Between 1943 and 1944, he stayed with a Nellie McDowall, whose cousin remembers Justice staying for about three weeks. After breakfast, Justice would leave to shoot at the local ducks, doing the same thing after the evening meal. The garage was used to hang the dead geese and ducks, gossips suggesting that his methods of shooting being not entirely legal. Miss McDowall’s cousin, in hindsight, was surprised that Justice had been a lodger, as his landlady was a rather prim lady who was very against blood sports!

As a teenager, Sarah Trew recalls Justice lodging with her mother in Wigtown, as a paying guest, with his friend, Toby Bromley. She remembers that Justice had a golden cocker spaniel called Sally. On a cold and frosty New Year’s Day, he was out shooting wild geese, injuring one bird. Justice swam across the river Cree, to put it out of its misery.

“Few sports,” wrote Elspeth Huxley in her biography of Sir Peter Scott, calls “for greater skill, endurance and self-discipline.” Puntgunning, as its name suggests, involves the use of a punt and a large calibre shotgun, firing a charge of between eight and twenty ounces of shot. Justice’s punt gun, Irish Tom, fired a service charge of fifty ounces. Through this sport, Sir Peter and Justice first became friends.

Irish Tom was acquired by Justice, after the Second World War, and used on his many of his trips on the Wash, including those with another close friend of Justice’s, the Duke of Edinburgh, despite, apparently, the disapproval of the Queen, because of the danger. The Wash is one of the few places that active puntgunning still takes place and it certainly could be a perilous pasttime.

Two officers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were puntgunning on the river Alde in December 1932, when the charge detonated before the breech was properly shut. Fortunately, a RAF officer, also wildfowling, nearby came to their assistance. Despite receiving emergency medical aid, neither the trained nurse on the scene and later the surgeon could avoid one man losing his leg and the other a hand.

For many years, Irish Tom was believed to have been lost. However, it was re-discovered and Justice’s gun now belongs to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), forming part of a collection in their main meeting place, the Duke of Westminster Hall.

Justice’s feature film career came to an end in 1970, appropriately enough with Doctor in Trouble. Before his death, five years later, he worked on several natural history films, including The Puntgunners; in which he appears.

© Howard Watson 2004


For the widest selection of shooting and fishing books, Click Here