James Henry Marriott was born in London, England, probably in 1799 or 1800, the son of William Marriott, an optician, and his wife, Alice McGuinness. He married Sarah Bateman in London probably in 1823 or 1824; they had three daughters and two sons. Marriott spent a period with the The Times as a reporter. He indulged an enormous passion for the theatre by acting and producing, especially Shakespearian plays, and became a talented painter, engraver and musician. He also followed the example of his father by acquiring the skills of optician and mathematical instrument maker.
Marriott sailed for New Zealand on the Thomas Sparks in July 1842, arriving at Wellington on 31 January 1843. Sarah Marriott came to New Zealand in 1853, with their two youngest children. Marriott quickly involved himself in his first love, theatre. In the months following his arrival he organised, promoted and took part in a season of popular plays which opened on 11 May 1843, in the saloon of the Ship Hotel. These were the first plays to be staged publicly in Wellington, and the first serious attempts at presenting regular dramatic entertainment in the colony.
Encouraged by the success of these performances, Marriott persuaded the owner of the Ship Hotel to build a hall on some vacant land at the rear of his establishment. On 12 September 1843 this was opened with much fanfare as the Royal Victoria Theatre, the first theatre to be built in New Zealand, with the indefatigable Marriott having been involved in almost every facet of its construction. The theatre closed under Marriott's management in November 1843, but in September 1845 he opened the Britannia Saloon (later renamed the Royal Lyceum Theatre) in Willis Street.
Until well on in his life, Marriott continued to be associated with most of the theatrical entertainment given in Wellington. He generally left the tasks of management to others but his enthusiasm and energy were always in evidence as an actor, singer, dancer, musician, scene painter, producer or stage director. The première of his 'Marcilina' on 11 July 1848 is believed to have been the first performance of a play written by a New Zealander. Marriott also wrote poetry, and some electioneering songs, printed as The constitutional budget (1858), were tremendously popular during 1858 when they played a large part in re-electing Isaac Featherston as superintendent of the province of Wellington.
Although he is remembered primarily as a pioneer of theatre, Marriott also worked as an optician and instrument maker. As an engraver he was frequently called on to supply illustrations of prominent events, and many gravestones in the Bolton Street cemetery also carry evidence of his fine craftsmanship. From the early 1850s until 1885 he ran a small but highly esteemed bookselling and stationery business on Lambton Quay. He was instrumental in founding the Oddfellows order in Wellington in 1843 and was a tireless worker for the Mechanics' Institute and the Tradesmen's Club. Marriott also held several minor provincial government offices, including sergeant at arms, inspector of weights and measures, registrar of cattle brands and registrar of dogs. He was reputed to say that he 'did a bit of everything "from chiseling tombstones to putting in ladies teeth".'
James Marriott died in Wellington on 25 August 1886. The mantle of his theatrical achievements passed to his second daughter, Alice, who had remained in England, becoming a celebrated actress on the London stage and grandmother of the author and playwright Edgar Wallace.