James Crawford resided in Port Elizabeth, where he appears to have been a storeman, from 1886 or earlier to 1908. In April 1886 he became a member of the Eastern Province Naturalists' Society (founded in Port Elizabeth in 1882). At the next annual meeting, on 14 January 1887, he was elected as a member of its committee, and re-elected regularly thereafter. During 1887 he read a paper on the cultivation and curing of tobacco at one of the Society's meetings and on 6 July 1888 exhibited some shells that had recently been described by George B. Sowerby*, as well as some sub-fossil specimens. By January 1889 he was in charge of the Society's shell collection, reporting on it at the annual meetings. During July 1890 he and E.J. Langley* undertook some dredging experiments in Algoa Bay, bringing up a number of live molluscs and some dead shells. (Dredging for molluscs in Algoa Bay seems to have been done earlier by S.T. Rous*). Crawford's report on the experiments was published in the Society's annual report for 1890 (pp. 11-12).
The shell collection of the Eastern Province Naturalists' Society became part of the Port Elizabeth Museum, which was officially so named in 1895. In 1896 Crawford undertook to arrange the shell collection, and three years later presented the museum with 130 sub-fossil shells. He donated further shells in 1903, and helped in naming specimens. Around this time he showed J.P. Johnson* a section through a raised beach at Shark River, Algoa Bay. The deposit contained many shells, which Crawford identified. Johnson read a short paper on the finds before the Geological Society of South Africa in May 1903.
Crawford's interest extended also to archaeology, for in 1905 he donated "palaeolithic implements" which he had found near Port Elizabeth to the South African Museum in Cape Town.
In 1904 Crawford was appointed as the first director of the Port Elizabeth Museum, an appointment which did not affect A. Marshall's* position as curator. However, during the next year the Colonial Secretary, on a visit to Port Elizabeth, inspected the museum (which received a government subsidy) and found its condition and general management unsatisfactory. Both the director and curator were dismissed. After F.W. FitzSimons* was appointed director in 1906, Crawford was re-appointed as assistant to the director. During 1908 he moved to King William's Town, where he became an assistant in the King William's Town Museum.
Shortly after his death his personal shell collection was purchased by the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Unfortunately he was very careless about locality details. The collection he had helped so much to build up in the Port Elizabeth Museum had to be discarded many years later owing to the misappropriation of the accession registers. Several species were named after him, for example the marine species Macoma crawfordi, Nassarius crawfordi and Chiton crawfordi, and the non-marine species Sheldonia crawfordi and Jaminia crawfordiana