Jacob William Heberley was born in Wellington, New Zealand, according to one family record on 11 April 1849. He was the sixth child of the whaler James 'Worser' Heberley and his wife, Te Wai (also known as Mata Te Naihi), of the Puketapu people of Te Ati Awa. James Heberley had settled at Jacky Guard's Te Awaiti shore whaling station in 1830 after an adventurous life at sea. Soon after, he began to live with Te Wai; she had relatives at Pipitea (in present-day Wellington) and Waikanae, and at settlements in the Marlborough Sounds. Their first three children were baptised at Cloudy Bay by the Wesleyan missionary Samuel Ironside on 13 December 1841, the same day he married James Heberley and Te Wai.
Jacob Heberley (also known as Hakopa Heperi) grew up in Queen Charlotte Sound, then as a young man moved to Wellington where he began his carving career. In the absence of practising Te Ati Awa carvers he was apparently self-taught. He developed a distinctive personal carving style that had some resemblance to earlier Te Ati Awa work and to contemporaneous Rotorua carvings, but as far as is known he had no direct connection with either school.
In 1874 Heberley moved to Greytown, where he met Annie Sarah McLachlan; they were married there on 30 August 1877. Their first three children were born in Greytown, and five more were born after the family moved back to Wellington. In 1889, after the death of their father, Joseph, Jacob's two young nephews, Thomas and Herbert, came to live with their uncle and his family. Under Jacob's tutelage both soon became accomplished carvers. Herbert later carved the meeting house Whatu Tamainupo for Ngati Whatua at Riverhead near Auckland; he died in an accident near Rotorua in 1911. Thomas was eventually employed as the Maori carver at the Dominion Museum in Wellington and, until his death in 1937, was responsible for many carvings now held in several New Zealand museums.
Heberley's carving output consisted of non-functional replicas and models of traditional artefacts, and innovative items such as walking sticks, containers and picture frames. His name is not associated with any major tribal carving projects. He was apparently almost totally immersed in a European-dominated art market in which his Maori family and associates were very minor participants. Most important among his patrons were the governor and his wife, Lord and Lady Ranfurly; other prominent Wellington collectors of Maori curios such as Alexander Turnbull and Walter Buller; politicians such as Richard Seddon, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel and Joseph Ward; and government departments commissioning gifts for distinguished visitors. Heberley was responsible for many of the official gifts presented to the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York during their visit to New Zealand in 1901, and for an elaborate carved pataka (storehouse) and the frame of the illuminated address presented by Richard Seddon on behalf of the people of New Zealand to King Edward VII on his coronation in 1902.
Jacob Heberley was never very wealthy: nothing is known of the rate of payment for his commissions. He had other occupations besides carving, although it is uncertain what these were. He died in Wellington on 28 June 1906 and was buried at Karori cemetery. Annie Heberley died at Wellington in 1920.
Beyond his own descendants, Jacob Heberley is not widely known as a tribal carver of Te Ati Awa. His art fulfilled its most significant role in the historical context of New Zealand as a developing nation striving to find a distinctive identity. Thanks largely to his skill and the prominence of his art in official circles, Maori carvings became accepted as a powerful symbol of the new nation, serving as appropriate gifts in the political, sporting and cultural scenes both locally and internationally.