Reginald Valpy James was born 5 February 1878 to Rev. George Burder James, Rector of St Philip and St Jacob, Bristol, and Ellen Eliza James, who had been born in India. He grew up in Bristol and attended Clifton College 1888-1892 where he was a keen rugby player, before moving to the Dean Close Memorial School in Cheltenham. In January 1895 he matriculated at the University of London but conducted his studies locally at the Clifton Laboratory, a private Science, Art and Technical school in Bristol. In 1896 he passed his preliminary examinations in Chemistry and Experimental Physics (The Times, 13 February 1896, p.6), but it is not known when, or if, he graduated. James later matriculated at Durham University in the Easter term of 1904, undertaking a Bachelor of Arts degree as a Non-Collegiate student. Shortly before sitting his first year examinations, in 1905, he married Katherine Norma Wadsworth, the daughter of another vicar in Bristol and the sister of J. H. Wadsworth, Lecturer in Education at Durham University. At Easter 1907 James passed Part II of his final B.A. examination, but there is no record of his having passed Part I or been awarded a degree. Nevertheless, he then went on to teach, and in 1911 was a schoolmaster at King Edward VI School in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, and living with his widowed mother. By 1914 he had returned to the Bristol area and was living in Portishead with his wife, where he continued his work as a tutor.
James was quick to volunteer with the war effort, and enlisted on 9 September 1914. He was originally assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps where he was soon promoted to the position of Corporal on 20 November. On 19 January 1915 he embarked from Southampton with the Expeditionary Force aboard the S.S. “Caledonian”, disembarking in France the following day. He was appointed to 4 Stationary Hospital at Arques in the Pas-de-Calais department near Saint-Omer, and remained there for several months until he requested to be transferred to the Royal Engineers. This transfer was completed on 13 June 1915 when he became a Pioneer with the R.E. as a motorcyclist despatch rider. James’ service records state that this unit had been his first choice upon enlistment, but the unit was then over-subscribed and he was placed elsewhere – something of a disappointment at the time for a man who had been riding a Humber motorcycle since 1911. James had been due for a promotion to Corporal at the time of his transfer, but the service records state that on 27 June he was charged with being drunk, and consequently the promotion was not made, one of a number of occasions during his military career in which promotion was forfeited due to indiscipline.
James was next invalided out of France on 26 September 1915 and admitted to the Rosherville Hospital in Kent, suffering from septic ulcer boils, transferring closer to home to the Red Cross Hospital in Portishead where he continued to be treated until 13 December 1915. It is noteworthy that in the record of his treatment at the time his corps is recorded as 187 Company (Chemical) Royal Engineers, a unit formed to develop a response to German chemical warfare first experienced at Ypres on 22 April 1915. This unit worked principally at Porton Down, but also at a laboratory at Helfaut, near Saint-Omer in France, and the date of James’s first hospitalisation is 26 September, the day after the British Army itself first deployed chlorine gas at Loos. While chlorine gas typically compromises the lungs, during the battle several fully charged cylinders of chlorine gas were hit by German shell fire, and the effect on the skin of direct exposure to liquid chlorine is severe chemical burns leading to cell death and ulceration. It may then be that James was involved in some way, perhaps only in transportation, with the unit tasked with deploying chlorine gas at Loos, and which marked the first time the British Army adopted chemical warfare.
Upon recovery, James was posted to the Dunstable Signal Depot; and a year later, on 11 February 1917 he was sent with the Royal Engineers to Mesopotamia, and he remained there for the duration of 1917. His excellent service there, on the railways in Baghdad, earned him a promotion to Second Lieutenant, on 13 September 1918. A month later he was transferred to the Indian Army Reserve of Officers, attached to the Railway Depot, Indian Railways. His family had connections with India, going back to the East India Company (Valpy family), his mother had been born in Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu, the daughter of a clergyman, and Reginald James himself is reported to have spoken French and Hindustani, which he perhaps learnt from his mother. According to his obituary in the Durham University Journal (vol. XXII, no. 4, p.146), he frequently suffered from heart difficulties whilst in India, and on 15 July 1919 he died at Rawal Pindi of cardiac failure, brought on by taking too much chloral, a sedative that he may have been taking to manage his heart problem. James is buried in the Pindi Point (Noor Ahata) or New Cemetery at Muree at the foot of the Himalayas, and is remembered on both the Karachi war memorial in Pakistan and a plaque in St Peter’s Church, Portishead.