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James was born on 10 March 1890 in Wolverhampton, the son of James Ambrose and Mary J. Hancox. In 1891 they were living at 10 Victoria Terrace, Coleman Street, Wolverhampton, alongside his sister Elizabeth and brother Edmund. They were at 6 Stanhope Street by 1901, by which date the 11-year-old James was already a station assistant. On 20 November 1905 he started working for the Great Western Railway. In 1909 he married Mary Jane Pengelly at Devonport, and they had a child. By 1911 he had enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment (number 8116).

He disembarked on 4 October 1914, but was killed in action on 29 October the same year. He is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) memorial, as well as on the roll of honour for Wednesfield Village.