James Irwin was born in Birmingham on 18 August 1890 and baptised at the church of St Laurence, in the Northfield area of the city, two weeks later. His father was James Irwin (who possibly was born in 1856 in St George, Birmingham). James senior worked as a printer and later a metal tube maker, a substantial industry in Birmingham at this time, much of it serving bicycle-manufacturing. His wife was Ellen Irwin, born in Birmingham in 1858/59. The couple had three children, all born in Birmingham: Nellie (born 1885/86), Arthur (1887/88), and James (1890), and they lived in the Aston area of the city.
James's father died when the children were young and Ellen married again, in 1895, when James was five. Her new husband was Samuel Hill, a brass caster nine years her junior, also from Birmingham. The couple remained in Aston and three more children were born: Samuel (1896) and twins Clara and Flora (1900). In 1901 James and his brothers were still at school but his older sister Nellie was working as a steel pen marker. On leaving school James found work as a brass fitter, working for a time for a Mr Harwood.
James enlisted in the army on 4 May 1910, when he was 19. Here is his letter of recommendation from Ernest Brittain, a local wire manufacturer. James joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a Gunner with the 103rd Company, service no. 33342, and started his military career at Fort Rowner in Gosport in Hampshire. In October he was posted to Jamaica and served there until May 1914. He came back and served in England for almost a year before being posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force in June 1915. He returned to England in September and on Christmas Day 1915, when he was 25, James married Lilian Yeatman at St Matthew's church in Grandpont. Lilian was 23 and had been born and brought up in London, but her father Mark (1867-1943) was originally from Oxford and he and Lilian's mother Marguerite (1868-1925) had moved to 34 Western Road earlier in 1915. Mark Yeatman had been a police sergeant but was now a Sergeant Major with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and worked at the Third Southern General Hospital in Oxford during the War.
Three months after the wedding, in March 1916, James was posted to India, and thence to Aden (in Yemen) in May. In November James's wife Lilian had a daughter, Margaret (or Marguerite, after her grandmother and aunt), who was baptised at St Matthew's. The following month, December 1916, James was posted to Egypt, where he was to remain for the rest of the War.
In April 1918 James was compulsorily transferred to the Railway Troops section of the Royal Engineers, as a Pioneer (or Sapper), service no. WR/143031. He was described as a 'fitter's mate' and his work as 'proficient'. Until the middle of 1915, a British force defended the vital Suez Canal from the Germans and Turks. After the victory at Rumani in August 1916, the British began building a railway along the coastal plain. This would later prove important when a war-winning advance was made into Palestine. It is likely that James took part in the construction of this railway. He had suffered several bouts of illness during his time in the army, particularly whilst in India and Egypt, and on 18 December 1918, six weeks after the Armistice, he died of bronchial pneumonia in the military hospital in Alexandria. He was 28 and had completed almost eight and a half years of military service. He was buried at the Ramleh War Cemetery, Israel.
After James's death Lilian wrote several letters to the army asking for the return of his wrist watch "as I want it for my little girl", but it could not be found.
Lilian married again, in September 1919 in St Matthew's church, to George Howard Spencer, a widowed shopkeeper, who was 12 years older than her. Between 1921 and 1929 they had three sons and two daughters. George Spencer died in 1937, leaving Lilian widowed for a second time, at the age of 45. When she was 66 she married her third husband, Ernest Pattenden. She died in 1966 in Cuckfield, Sussex, at the age of 74.
Lilian's sister Marguerite also married a man who fought in the War, but he survived: she and Henry Webb married in St Matthew's in July 1916 and he served as a Private with the Tanks Corps Depot (service no. 309806).
It's not clear what happened to James and Lilian's daughter Marguerite, who was only just two when her father died.