William Fox, generally known as Bill, was born in Ireland probably in 1826 or 1827. Little is known of his early life other than that he received some formal education, that he was a sailor, and that he was on the Californian goldfields about 1850; on the Victorian goldfields; and on the Tuapeka goldfield in Otago, New Zealand, in 1861.
It was through the discovery of gold in the Arrow River in Otago in 1862 that Fox achieved prominence. His claim to be the discoverer was challenged at the time, although his prospecting activities in the Arrow district excited intense interest, speculation and determined pursuit, and his fellow miners generally accepted his claim to be 'the bona-fide prospector of the Lake district.' A petition presented to the Otago Provincial Council in 1871 seeking the grant of a reward or of land to Fox, 'commensurate, to the important services, rendered to the Province of Otago, by that enterprising Prospector', was rejected. Fox's claim to have made the original Shotover River discoveries, moreover, has never been accepted.
While in the Wakatipu district, Fox belonged to a partnership which constructed and ran hotels at Arrowtown and at Arthur's Point, and operated a boat service on Lake Wakatipu and a coach line between Frankton and Arrowtown. A burly man, Fox was also irascible and given to brawling, although he later claimed to be more of a peacemaker than a law-breaker. A serious altercation in the Four Alls Hotel at Arthur's Point led to his conviction in the Dunedin Supreme Court in June 1864 for aggravated assault and a sentence of six months' hard labour in Dunedin gaol.
Released in November 1864, Fox proceeded to the West Coast. He prospected widely for gold, and discovered it at Fox Creek, a tributary of the Arahura River, in January and February 1865, and, most importantly, the coastal-terrace blacksand deposits at Fox River, formerly the Potikohua River. These discoveries led to the establishment of Brighton and the declaration of the Charleston goldfield. Although the Nelson Provincial Council declined to recognise Fox's claim to a reward, he has also generally been credited with the discovery which led to the famous 'pakihi' rush.
In 1870 Fox was offered the financial support of Queenstown residents to lead a prospecting party into the area between Wakatipu and Martins Bay, and in 1874, with the financial support of the Westland provincial government, and at the request of the minister of mines, led a party into the Big Bay (Awarua Bay)–Jackson Bay region. In 1885 he assessed the Terawhiti goldfield for the minister of mines, and at his own request returned in 1886 to prospect Big Bay and Jackson Bay. Otherwise Fox resided in Reefton.
Fox was a man of boundless energy, fortitude, self-reliance and determination. A leader of men, he deserved his reputation as a skilful prospector and miner and the great confidence and faith reposed in him by his fellow miners. He never married, and died at Reefton on 9 April 1890, 'from decay and general debility, engendered no doubt by the hard life the old pioneer had contracted in leading the way to fresh golden fields.'