History Centre Heroes: James Joseph Judge

“Your books are as usual the best we have had. You are a genius at picking them out but then you are a genius at many things.”
Excerpt from a letter from Nancy Astor to James Joseph Judge, 1 January 1926

Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, James Joseph Judge (1869-1954), or JJJ to his friends, had a close personal friendship with the Astors. He is not as widely known as he deserves to be, but he certainly did a lot for Plymouth.

Judge came to Plymouth in the early 1900s. He was the editor of the Western Evening Herald newspaper until 1921, and assistant editor of the Western Independent until 1946.

Judge was also heavily involved in social work and was a tireless supporter of social causes. He was the founder of the Plymouth Civic Guild of Help, later the Plymouth Council of Social Service. He was also the ‘corner-stone’ of Nancy Astor’s Virginia House Settlement (VHS). Formally opened in December 1925 in a series of buildings on Looe Street near The Barbican, the VHS offered local people facilities for training, employment, entertainment and socialising.

There was a meeting room, gymnasium, billiard room, music room and a dance hall.  Smaller rooms hosted cooking, carpentry, dressmaking and singing classes. Writing classes were held in a library. Over 1,000 people were members and it was hugely popular with many clubs and societies including a mothers’ club, youth club, men’s club, soccer team and boxing club.

Judge also helped establish a number of day nurseries in the city, worked with people who had been crippled and those who had suffered from tuberculosis.

The Plymouth and West Devon Record Office holds the J. J. Judge papers. This archive is packed with documents linking him to Nancy Astor who affectionately referred to him as ‘Judie Judge‘. He was a regular visitor at Cliveden, the Astor family home. As a result, he became close to all Nancy’s family as well as some of her others friends including George Bernard Shaw and T. E. Lawrence.

A photograph of James Joseph Judge and Joyce Grenfell.
There are very few known photographs of James Joseph Judge. This image shows him with Nancy Astor’s niece, the actress and comedienne Joyce Grenfell. You can see an inscription from Joyce to him underneath the photo.

In the archive there are many letters thanking him for birthday and Christmas presents, encouraging him to visit or discussing different projects.

Many of Nancy’s letters are typewritten with extra messages or jokes scribbled at the bottom for him.

When he died at the age of 85 many of the Astor family paid tribute to him and the work he had done. He was described as a ‘saintly personality’ with an ‘inner goodness’ who had done much for Plymouth.

Nancy said that she found it hard to write about him and that he had provided her and her husband Waldorf with the guidance they had needed when they had first arrived in the city. “Plymouth has lost a great citizen,” she said, “and we of the Astor family have lost one of our most beloved members.”

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