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James was born in Bilston in 1888, the son of Joseph and Eliza Selina Ann Flavell or Flavill. In 1901 they were living at 41 Wolverhampton Street, Bilston, together with James’s siblings Arthur, Joseph Israel, Benjamin, Thomas Henry and Nellie. His father, Joseph, died in 1908. By 1911 they were at 7 Millfields Road, Bilston. James had become a horse driver for a hauling company. He married Gertrude Cox in Wolverhampton in 1917, but they do not appear to have had any children.

James enlisted in the 1st/5th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment (number 10020). He first served in the Balkans from 21 July 1915, and was awarded the Military Medal, as announced in the London Gazette on 4 February 1918. However, he was killed in action on 12 October 1918. He is commemorated at the Busigny Communal Cemetery Extension, as well as being listed on the Bilston Town High Town Ward Roll of Honour.