James Ashworth senior was born probably in 1818 at Castleton, Lancashire, England, into a Methodist family. His father was Abraham Ashworth, a farmer; his mother's identity is unknown. James took up farming, and on 11 November 1844 at Rochdale married Elizabeth Tweedale. There were two children of the marriage. James Ashworth junior was born on 4 May 1845; his sister, Mary, was born two years later. James junior worked alongside his father from the age of eight, and, like his father, never went to school. However, he was taught to read and write as an adult by a boundary rider at Culverden in North Canterbury, New Zealand.
In 1852 James Ashworth senior left his 70 acre farm and a business carting coal to Lancashire factories, and took his family to Melbourne, Australia, on the Gipsy Bride. They travelled to New Zealand on the Colchester, arriving at Lyttelton in July 1855. At first father and son worked on the construction of the Sumner–Lyttelton road. Then they were employed on farms on Banks Peninsula, and in the late 1850s farmed grain with their employer, R. H. Rhodes of Purau.
In 1859 James Ashworth senior won a contract to cart G. H. Moore's wool from Glenmark to Kaiapoi. This involved moving up to 1,500 bales per season. He shifted the family to Saltwater Creek and leased land to graze his draught horses and dairy herd. By 1863 he had built a two-storeyed, limestone block house, which is still standing.
The greatest achievement of the Ashworths was to open communications and supply lines to North Canterbury before roads were formed or bridges built. About 1860 James and Henry Lance begged them to open up a supply route to their station at Horsley Downs, regardless of cost. To reach the station it was necessary to traverse the steep and rocky Weka Pass, and the Devil's Grip swamp further on. Wagons were too big and clumsy; the Ashworths used three horse-drawn drays, which often overturned. In time they worked out the best route to follow and cut tracks in the worst places. The road lines they established were later followed by surveyors when a road was finally completed in 1867.
The Ashworths hauled timber to all stations as far north as Hanmer, allowing the runholders to replace their primitive dwellings with solid homesteads. They delivered fencing material, and James Ashworth junior spent weeks laying this along the divides between Glenmark, Teviotdale and Tekoa. They transported telegraph lines and poles to Cheviot, a windmill from Christchurch to Leithfield, and a sawmill to Oxford. They also quarried stone and manufactured bricks, which, with their horses, won prizes in the inaugural Northern Agricultural and Pastoral Show in Rangiora in 1866.
By 1867, however, James Ashworth senior had lost £3,000 on a contract for the Taipo Bridge in Westland. Forced to borrow at 18 per cent interest, he failed financially. First his stock and plant were sold, then his 594 acres freehold and his home. But the importance of a reliable transport service was such that three runholders bought James Ashworth junior £1,500 worth of equipment to put him back in business. Within two years the debt was repaid.
In 1878 James Ashworth junior was able to buy back the family home, now known as Harleston. By then the railway had reached Amberley. He and his father ceased wagoning, and James junior gradually built up a farm of 2,500 acres, which he broke in from swamp and sandhills. He married Mary Ann Skevington on 17 July 1878 at Rangiora and they raised a large family.
James Ashworth senior was drowned in the wreck of the Tararua off Southland on 29 April 1881. James Ashworth junior's wife, Mary Ann, died in childbirth on 24 February 1899, and on 27 July 1901 at Christchurch he married Elizabeth Reeves. He died at Harleston on 19 July 1932.