He was born Daventry, Northamptonshire and began poaching as a teenager to gain extra income whilst working as an apprentice bootmaker. He joined the militia to acquire a gun and reached the rank of corporal, although he left Daventry after falling out with the head gamekeeper at Badby. In 1893 he was elected to the Oadby school-board (sitting next to the "Leading Gentlemen" on whose lands he poached) and in 1894 was a member of the Oadby parish council. Hawker kept photographs of William Ewart Gladstone, Charles Bradlaugh, Augustine Birrell, Thomas Sayers, and Gladys Cooper in his diary. In 1921 he died of a heart attack at Stoughton Road, Oadby and was buried in Oadby cemetery.
In 1961 the Oxford University Press published his journal, written in 1904-1905, a "mixture of autobiography, poacher's handbook, and radical philosophy". A play of Hawker's life, The Poacher, was produced by the Emma Theatre Company in 1980 and written by Andrew Marley and Lloyd Johnston. After the first performance of the play, a collection was raised which paid for a headstone at Hawker's grave, bearing the motto: "I will Poach till I die".
- Robin P. Jenkins, ‘Hawker , James (1836–1921)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 18 April 2010.
- E. F. Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform. Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 217.
- Biagini, p. 403, n. 191.
- Garth Christian (ed.), James Hawker's Journal: A Victorian Poacher (Oxford University Press, 1961, 1979).
- David Sneath and Barry Lount, The Life of a Victorian Poacher: James Hawker (1982).