James Henry Bradney was born at West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England, on 2 April 1853, the son of Emily Morris and her husband, Joseph Bradney, an ironmonger. The family emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand, in 1859, arriving on the Mermaid on 19 October.
After a short-lived attempt at farming near Awhitu, the family settled at Duck Creek (in present-day Chelsea) on the northern side of the Waitemata Harbour. Living conditions in a two-roomed sod hut were extremely primitive, and James had a long daily walk through the bush to school at Takapuna. His formal education ended in 1864 when he took his first job, as a farmhand. He soon became a baker's assistant at Otahuhu, but because of the travelling involved was forced to live on the job. He returned home only at weekends by rowing across the harbour, after a journey made on foot.
Bradney was skilled at handling small craft, and soon began his first business venture plying for hire in his rowing boat. He travelled mainly between Auckland and Stokes Point (Northcote), but also to any other points on the North Shore that his fares required. There was not enough income to make this profitable, so James sought wider experience as a bushman and goldminer. He also worked as a deck hand on coastal and deep-sea traders such as the schooner Policeman and the steamers Go Ahead and Lily. The Lily was then in service at Kaipara, a notoriously difficult harbour, where Bradney rapidly accumulated sufficient knowledge of local conditions to enable him to take part in the pilotage service.
Bradney's life became more settled with his marriage at Auckland on 11 October 1878 to Mary Jane Haxton; they were to have four sons and two daughters. Bradney then moved to Mount Roskill, and worked for the Auckland Harbour Board as a cart driver.
Some six years after his marriage Bradney returned to working on the harbour. His elder sister Emily had married Ernest Charles Binns, an engineer from Yorkshire. The combination of Bradney's maritime skills and Binns's engineering ability provided the catalyst for the establishment, in 1884, of Bradney and Binns. As the Auckland wharves were then still only rudimentary timber structures, unsuitable for use by larger vessels, they found considerable scope for transporting passengers and goods to and from ships anchored in the harbour. Bradney and Binns's fleet became the most enduring and best known of the Auckland mosquito fleets.
By 1890 Bradney and Binns was sufficiently well established to order its first steamer, the Despatch. The business had hitherto been confined to the central harbour, but Bradney had never lost interest in its upper reaches. In 1892 the opportunity for expansion came when the firm acquired from Captain Alexander Marshall the 21-ton steamer Vivid, together with her owner's interest in the trade between Auckland and Riverhead, at the head of the north-western arm of the Waitemata Harbour. Prior to the widespread use of motor vehicles, the boat services were the principal means of transport around the upper Waitemata. Bradney and Binns became the link with the outside world for settlers on both shores of the upper Waitemata and its tributaries.
Binns put his engineering skills to good use by supervising the replacement, in 1893, of the Vivid's uneconomical single expansion engines with much more efficient compound machinery. The partners were able to build a series of bigger and more comfortable steamers, two named Pitoitoi, the others Kaipatiki and, in 1910, Onewa. They were specially adapted for the shallows and the twisting channels of the upper harbour.
With their green hulls, varnished deckhouses and black-topped red funnels the vessels of Bradney and Binns's fleet were an integral part of Auckland harbour activities in the first half of the twentieth century. Although the upper harbour services ceased in 1930 with increasing competition from road transport, a new trade to Ostend on Waiheke Island kept the larger ships occupied until the Second World War. The launch Presto, carrying the doctor and customs officials to incoming shipping, remained one of the best known vessels on the Auckland waterfront for many years more.
James Bradney played a prominent part in the Auckland community. His strong tenor voice was a feature of many choirs including the Auckland Choral Society, the Auckland Liedertafel, the municipal choir and the Auckland Amateur Opera Club. He was a member of the Auckland Harbour Board (1907–15 and 1922–23) and served as Reform Party member of Parliament for Auckland West from 1911 to 1914. He was also a member of the Mount Albert Borough Council.
Bradney had retired from active business by 1912, leaving the day-to-day running of Bradney and Binns to three of his sons. The firm was incorporated in 1934 as J. H. Bradney and Sons Limited. Bradney died at Auckland on 26 May 1936, survived by his wife and six children. At the time of his death Bradney was the doyen of the Auckland waterfront, 'the last of the watermen'. He had witnessed the development of Auckland from a port dependent on small craft for servicing its shipping to a modern facility of deep-draught concrete wharves. He had provided a vital transport link between the upper harbour settlements and the city when there were few alternatives, and had participated actively in Auckland's civic and political life.