The village of his birth and neighboring riverside communities along the Tyne had been growing rapidly for 50 years, beginning with coal mining and later catching the boom in industries such as shipbuilding and the manufacture of heavy chemicals. It was the chemical industry that provided work for William’s father and thus anchored the family in the area for William’s early life.
William was born in Brewery Lane, Heworth, but by the time he was five the family had moved to a roomier home in Gosforth Place and his widowed grandmother from Ireland had moved in with them. They had moved again by the time William got his first job as a railway laborer. By this time, at age 14, he could contribute to the family income, but his younger brother and sister were still at school.
At age 22, William James married Elizabeth Jane Charlton from neighboring Gateshead. Elizabeth was from a smaller family that had moved to Gateshead from rural Winlaton, though Elizabeth herself was born at Gateshead. They had no doubt moved for better work opportunities for her father, though he died a few months after her birth so she had no memory of him. William and Elizabeth chose to be married at the parish church at Byker, across the river in Northumberland.William would work as a house painter all his adult life.