William Jenkins, known as 'Bill the Steward', was born on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, England, on 13 September 1813, the first child of William and Catherine Jenkins. Following his father's calling, William went to sea at the age of nine, eventually joining the English whaling ship Caroline, which he left on arrival at Kāpiti Island, New Zealand, in 1836.
Jenkins operated as a whaler, firstly from Tokomapuna (an island near Kāpiti), later at Waiorua on Kāpiti itself, and finally at Te Uruhi (Paraparaumu Beach). In 1841, as the Pākehā-Māori of the Puketapu hapū of Te Āti Awa, he began living with Pairoke, daughter of Rawiri Nukaiahu and Pakewa. They were married at Waikanae on 19 February 1849 by Archdeacon Samuel Williams and had eight children.
Jenkins also ran a cutter between Kāpiti and the South Island, and, on Pairoke's land at Wharemauku (Raumati), successfully farmed sheep, cattle and horses. But his most lucrative business venture was probably the accommodation-house which he built and operated in the 1840s and 1850s at Te Uruhi. All traffic passed his door, and delays caused by frequent floods caused travellers to seek accommodation. The issue of a bush licence doubtless proved profitable. Customers commented that accommodation was of a high standard, with a remarkably good table, and that Jenkins was efficient, honest, and generous.
After Pairoke's death at Waikanae in August 1853, Jenkins's refusal to marry her sister caused a feud with her family. On 11 February 1857 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Wellington, Jenkins married Margaret Carmont, daughter of John and Elizabeth Carmont of Dalbeattie, Scotland. They were to have 12 children. In the 1860s Jenkins and his family lived variously at Wharemauku, Porirua – where Jenkins managed a hotel – and Wairarapa, but by 1867 they had settled in Ōtaki, where in Rangiuru Road they built the wattle-and-daub family home; it survived until 1986. Jenkins earned a living as a market gardener, and indulged a passion for the training and riding of racehorses; for a time he had an interest in the Prosser training-stable at Porirua. He continued to ride competitively as a jockey until his 66th year, and began the renowned Jenkins dynasty of successful jockeys.
Jenkins was recognised as a fearless boat-handler, and used his skills most effectively in leading the rescue of passengers and crew from two ships wrecked near the mouth of the Ōtaki River in 1878. For his bravery he was awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society.
Bill Jenkins was a short, barrel-chested man, honoured locally for his bravery, and remembered for his impatience with officialdom and pretentiousness. Although he made many generous gifts to a wide variety of people and causes, he was a stern, parsimonious parent. He died at Ōtaki on 26 September 1902.