James Henry Edwards was born at Islington, London, England, on 19 February 1892, the son of Ellen Sellman and her husband, James John Edwards, a printer. He began work as a telegraph boy at 13, then served as a steward with the Blue Funnel Line. In 1913 he worked his passage to New Zealand on the Arawa, arriving at Wellington on 25 November during the waterfront strike. He later confessed with regret to working as a strike-breaker. He had been active in the Salvation Army since his youth, but in 1914 he also joined the New Zealand Socialist Party.
Jim Edwards volunteered for military service in the early months of the First World War but was turned down on medical grounds. In 1916 he rejected the Salvation Army and became involved in agitation against military conscription. Arrested for protesting in December that year, he was sentenced to two months in prison. There he met Peter Fraser, Tom Brindle and other labour leaders gaoled for anti-conscription activity. Edwards was released after one month. On 21 March 1917, at Wellington, he married Nellie Douglas, whom he had met in the Salvation Army; they were to have six sons and two daughters. He was arrested again in 1918 for avoiding conscription and chose regular service with the New Zealand Medical Corps as an alternative to prison. Following training at Featherston Military Camp he was awaiting an overseas posting when the war ended.
By 1922 Edwards and his family were in New Plymouth, where he worked variously as a picture-framer, a salesman and a watersider. He joined the New Zealand Labour Party, stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the borough council and was active in the local waterside workers' union. In 1925 he moved to Auckland, where he sold books door-to-door for the Caxton Printing Works, and came into contact with radical left-wing political activists. In 1927 Edwards became secretary of a committee established to support the American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and helped to set up the Labour Defence League. As unemployment increased he became involved with unemployed workers' organisations, and played a leading role in the establishment of the Unemployed Workers' Movement (UWM) in 1931. The same year, disillusioned with the Labour Party, he became a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand. Despite periods of serious illness he continued to earn his living as a door-to-door salesman, mainly peddling cleaning products.
Jim Edwards's involvement in political activity on behalf of the unemployed soon brought him into conflict with the authorities. In February 1931, when unemployed workers threw bricks at the labour bureau in Queen Street and clashed with police, Edwards was arrested and bound over to keep the peace. He also took a leading role in the UWM's Anti-Eviction Committee, established to assist those unable to pay their rent. He was arrested on several occasions, and following the occupation of a house in October 1931 was sentenced to one month's imprisonment. At that year's general election Edwards stood as the Communist Party's candidate for Auckland Central. He polled 456 votes; Labour's W. E. Parry won with 5,076.
As the depression deepened, the coalition government introduced relief schemes that imposed harsh conditions on the unemployed. Widespread protests were generally ignored, prompting more militant action by the UWM, the Auckland Provincial Unemployed Workers' Association (a pro-Labour Party group) and the Communist Party. After attending a national conference of unemployed groups in Wellington in March 1932, Edwards embarked on a speaking tour of the North Island.
In April he was summoned to return to Auckland, where the UWM was planning a relief workers' strike. During a demonstration on 13 April Edwards used his influence to rescue a police sergeant attacked by the crowd. The following evening post and telegraph workers marched on the Auckland Town Hall to protest against wage reductions. Joined by large numbers of unemployed, the crowd was estimated at 15,000. Outside the hall, as Edwards urged the unemployed to fight for their rights, the mood turned ugly.
Subsequent events remain controversial, but most observers and newspaper reports agreed that Edwards, attempting to calm the crowd, was struck from behind by a baton wielded by a police sergeant. Despite a serious head wound he again spoke and urged restraint. At the insistence of friends he then went to hospital for treatment. In his absence the crowd rioted, smashing windows and looting dozens of shops in Queen Street. About 200 people were injured, including several police, and over 40 were arrested. Edwards returned to the scene after the riot to find himself wanted by the police. Spirited away, he remained in hiding for six weeks before giving himself up.
Police evidence at his first trial in June suggested that Edwards had encouraged violence and taken an active part in attacking police. Sentenced to three months' gaol for inciting lawlessness, he was released on bail pending a Supreme Court hearing into the charge of taking part in a riot. At the first trial on 28 and 29 July the jury failed to agree. At the second on 1 August he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour. In gaol he was kept segregated from other prisoners.
After his release in January 1934, Edwards resumed his activities as a touring organiser for unemployed and labour defence groups. He was again arrested for speaking at unauthorised public meetings in August and November 1934 but was discharged. In May 1935 Edwards contested the Auckland City Council elections as a Communist candidate; he polled over 4,000 votes but was unsuccessful. In August 1936, disillusioned with the Communist Party, he sought to resign and was expelled from membership. He continued his political activities through the National Unemployed Workers' Movement and the People's Theatre. In February 1940 he surprised many friends by volunteering for military service.
Jim and Nellie Edwards had separated by this time and were divorced in May 1941. On 16 July that year Jim married a widow, Harriet Emma May McLetchie (née McGuire), a former beauty queen and actress known as Nola Caselli. Following his discharge from the army in 1947 he was twice charged and convicted of sly-grogging. Drinking heavily and in poor health, he played no active part in the 1951 waterfront dispute. Jim Edwards died at Auckland on 29 March 1952, survived by his second wife and the eight children of his first marriage.