James Bodell was baptised at Arnold, Nottinghamshire, England, on 3 July 1831. He was the son of William Bodell, a framework knitter, and his wife, Maria Margrom. The family soon moved to Leicester, where Bodell went to school for three years. In 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe, James Bodell enlisted in the 59th (2nd Nottingham) Regiment, the 'Lilywhites'. He served in Ireland during the great potato famine and William Smith O'Brien's rebellion, and then in Hong Kong, where most of the regiment of 650 men died of malaria and other diseases. Bodell rose to the rank of sergeant. In 1854 he purchased his discharge, married Sarah Mackinay on 3 October and departed for Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).
Bodell was a hotel-keeper there and, from 1856 to 1863, on the Victorian goldfields. He made good money but lost it through unwise speculations and heavy drinking. He was a big and powerful man: in Victoria when a criminal tried to garotte him he overpowered and captured him. He was tough and rough.
In 1863 he volunteered for the Waikato militia, who were being recruited in Victoria. 'My old soldiering propensities revived', he later explained. But also he hoped to recover his fortunes by enlisting. The recruits were offered free land grants from confiscated Maori land. Bodell reached Auckland on the Star of India in September 1863.
After arriving at the war zone south of Auckland Bodell continued his drinking and was reduced in rank from sergeant to private after a court martial for insubordination towards an officer. He then volunteered for a most arduous task, helping to row boats carrying provisions for troops up and down the Waikato River. He was under fire on one occasion and in trouble on many others.
In 1866 Bodell was discharged. He married Jane Munro, a widow with four children, in Hamilton on 19 January 1866. The fate of his first wife is not known; she did not die in Victoria before he remarried. In his reminiscences he refers to his first marriage and life with Sarah, but does not say what happened to her.
Bodell took up residence in the military settlement of Tauranga. There he became a reformed character. He joined the Good Temperance Lodge and became one of the most energetic businessmen in the little town. He was an auctioneer and a carpenter. He sold his land and became a storekeeper and general merchant. He was a photographer and a brewer of ginger beer. Near the end of his life he owned a cattleyard, a sawmill and two small coastal vessels. He prospered and was able to afford two voyages home to visit his family.
In 1882 Bodell was elected to the Tauranga Borough Council, on which he served until 1889. In 1888 he was elected mayor, but was defeated in an election a year later. He was more notable as a successful settler, a jack-of-all-trades, than as a local politician.
Between 1881 and 1891 Bodell wrote his reminiscences. They give a frank and vivid account of his eventful life. He died of apoplexy on his way to choir practice at Trinity Church, Tauranga, on 23 September 1892.