William James Habens was born in Brighton, Sussex, England, on 17 June 1839, the son of Matthew Habens, a shopman, and his wife, Mary Ann Hayter. He was educated at Puget School, Brighton, and Hackney College, London, and graduated BA from the University of London in 1862. In 1863 Habens was ordained as a Congregational minister and was appointed by the Colonial Missionary Society to answer the call of Congregationalists in Christchurch, New Zealand. On 3 September 1863, before leaving England, he married Anne Mellish (generally known as Annie) at Brighton; they had no children, but adopted a daughter.
William and Annie Habens arrived in Christchurch on 10 January 1864, and William became the founding minister of what was later named Trinity Congregational Church. In 1865 he commenced private tutoring in order to supplement his stipend, and three years later he took up the position of Classics master at Christchurch High School (formerly Christchurch Academy), a post which he held conjointly with his clerical duties. His double role seems to have caused some disquiet within the church.
Habens's reputation as a teacher grew as he became increasingly involved in the educational affairs of the Canterbury province. From 1866 to 1877 he was an examiner of candidates for provincial government scholarships; in 1873 he was elected to the East Christchurch school committee and appointed as a foundation member of the Canterbury College board of governors. In 1876 he was appointed to the full-time salaried position of secretary to the Canterbury Education Board. He remained as pastor of Trinity Church until his successor arrived in mid 1877. The provincial systems of education were abolished by the Education Act 1877, and Habens was appointed inspector general of schools in April the following year, in the new Department of Education which was established in Wellington.
His initial responsibility was to devise a national syllabus of instruction in the shape of prescribed achievement requirements for six successive standards of primary school work; each standard represented one year of schooling. Habens brought to this task the experience that he had gained devising similar regulations for Canterbury in 1875. As inspector general he also designed a separate syllabus of instruction for native schools and a national teacher classification system. Habens had special responsibility for industrial schools or reformatories, and in 1879–80 he served as secretary to the royal commission on the relationship between university and secondary education in New Zealand. When John Hislop retired as secretary for education in 1886, Habens assumed this position; he remained inspector general of schools, the combination of the two positions being an economy measure. He held both positions until his death.
Habens thus presided over the critical years of the introduction of free, secular, compulsory schooling in New Zealand. These were years during which there was a dramatic growth in the numbers of children attending school. In 1878 less than half the school-age population regularly attended any kind of school; by 1900 most New Zealand children between the ages of five and 13 were attending school and receiving uniformly prescribed instruction. This was achieved despite a depressed economy and the expense of providing schools for New Zealand's large rural sector. Yet Habens himself has had a poor press. He was known colloquially as 'Ha'pence', a reference to his reputation for worrying away about minute details. In public he was an elusive figure who sheltered behind bureaucratic rules, and one whom critics found to be stunningly unresponsive to their rudest jibes. In the eyes of many, Habens was remote from the difficulties under which teachers laboured and was therefore incapable of providing genuine professional leadership. One critic believed that Habens spent most of his time sitting in the Department of Education collecting statistics and correcting the grammar in the annual reports of education boards. These criticisms, however, pointed as much to the structural difficulties under which Habens laboured as they did to Habens's character.
The truth was that legislation and political circumstance permitted no official of the Department of Education to have close contact with the primary schools or with their teachers and inspectors. The department could disburse moneys and frame national syllabus regulations; the schools and all who worked in them were the jealously guarded preserve of locally elected education boards. Thus, when Habens initially set out to consult with Otago's inspectors about the new national syllabus, the Otago Education Board asked, Who is this Mr Habens? The board was reported as having concluded that any further attempt by the inspector general to consult directly with its teachers and its inspectors would be seen 'as an attempt to lower the Board's dignity.'
Accordingly, Habens had no choice but to write the first national school syllabus from his office in Wellington. Not surprisingly it was roundly criticised and subsequent amendments were too few and too late. Several major reforms were attempted but eventually Habens became tired of having the latest product of his labours described as being 'the greatest abortion that had ever come forth from the Education Department'. Modern scholarship is much kinder to Habens's work on the syllabus than were his contemporaries. The important lesson learned from his long period of administration is that professional leadership and reform in education cannot proceed in isolation from the schools and those who teach and learn in them.
Habens was active in many cultural and welfare organisations and public bodies. He served as president of the Public Service Association of New Zealand from 1894 to 1898; he was a foundation member of the Polynesian Society and a member of its council from 1892 to 1896; and he was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1879 to 1899. His flowing beard and searching eyes gave him a patriarchal appearance, and he was by nature courteous, kindly and reserved. His last years in office were marked by declining health. He suffered a stroke in 1897 and died at Wellington on 3 February 1899, survived by his wife. Following Habens's death the school teachers of New Zealand raised a memorial fund which was vested in the University of New Zealand to endow prizes for scholarships in education. This endowment is still used today in the older universities to fund Habens prizes which are awarded to outstanding students of education.