William Nelson was born at Warwick, Warwickshire, England, on 15 February 1843, the son of Sarah Philbrick and her husband, George Nelson, a chemist and well-known manufacturer of gelatine and other meat extracts. William was educated at Warwick College and worked in a tannery, a cement works and then the family factory.
On 7 February 1863 Nelson and his elder brother, Frederick (Fred), arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, on the Devonshire with introductions to Henry and William Williams. After spending about six months tramping round the country, they met William Williams's son, James, in Napier and set off to work on his sheep run at Kereru. On the way the brothers encountered Colonel Jasper Herrick who commandeered them for the local militia and later employed them shearing. In January 1864 they purchased Poporangi, an adjoining property, and set about breaking it in. Shortly afterwards William Nelson returned to England, and on 5 October 1865 married his old sweetheart, Sarah Newcome Bicknell, at Llandrillo-yn-Rhos, Denbigh, Wales, then took her back to Hawke's Bay.
In 1866 William and Sarah Nelson set up house at Arlington, which Fred had taken over from Captain Alfred Newman, but low wool prices and a plague of grasshoppers made it impossible for the brothers to keep up the mortgage payments. William hitched his horse to his buggy (virtually all he possessed) and moved to the Mangateretere East block. He built The Lawn, named after the family home in England, at Clive but it was flooded out and had to be shifted to higher ground. He tried milling flax from the swamp on the property but once again falling prices defeated him.
In the early 1870s William Nelson took his family back to Warwick and joined two other brothers, George and Montague, in the family business, leaving Fred to carry on at Mangateretere. Over the next 10 years William learnt about meat preservation and industrial management and thought over the problems of combating low wool prices and disposing of surplus stock.
In 1880 William returned to New Zealand and with Fred established a tallow and canned-meat factory on J. N. Williams's land at Tomoana. It was designed for conversion to refrigeration, but Nelson bided his time and let others experiment with the new process. After the Dunedin successfully shipped the first cargo of frozen meat from Otago to London in 1882, the Nelson brothers and Williams moved swiftly to establish the new industry in Hawke's Bay.
The first consignment of frozen meat from Tomoana was shipped from Port Ahuriri in the Turakina in March 1884. In the next decade Nelson Brothers Limited, registered in London, won the largest stake in New Zealand's frozen-meat trade. William Nelson became general manager of the New Zealand head office at Tomoana, where a well-equipped freezing works and a small model village were established. Branch works were opened at Waipukurau, Gisborne, Woodville and Spring Creek. Despite farmers' fears of monopoly, and a preference for producer co-operatives, Nelson was able to command considerable loyalty and support from his suppliers.
Nelson resumed farming and with Fred acquired more properties to supply stock for the works. He soon had virtual control of some 5,000 acres on the flats and 30,000 acres of hill country. To improve the quality of meat exports he established one of the best Southdown flocks in New Zealand. He used his property at Chesterhope for training young men in farm work and management. From a 7,000-acre bush property, Whenuahou, he milled timber and obtained firewood for the furnaces.
A patriarchal system operated at Tomoana where William Nelson was regarded by his workmen as a friend. If men had grievances he was prepared to listen to them. During the 1890 maritime strike he was president of the Free Association of Employers and Workmen of Hawke's Bay, formed to keep Tomoana and Port Ahuriri open; it continued for some years as an employment agency. Nelson did not object to unionism as such but to outside interference. Hawke's Bay, he believed, should be proud that it had been 'long held up as the hot-bed of Conservatism', if this indicated 'the employment of labour at good wages, the retention of hands for years at a stretch, the feeding of "sundowners" [and] the finding of work for the unemployed'. Tomoana during this period was exceptionally free of industrial troubles. A shrewd judge of men, Nelson helped many to stand on their own feet, notably his young stockman, William Richmond, who set up his own meat-exporting business.
William and Sarah Nelson had five sons and four daughters; Sarah died tragically at The Lawn on 21 November 1883, at the age of 39. In 1884 Nelson Brothers acquired Robert Wellwood's property, Maxwell Lea, near Tomoana. It became the Nelson homestead after William's remarriage on 28 November 1884, at Te Aute, to Emma Caroline Williams, Bishop William Williams's daughter. She and William had a son and a daughter. Emma named her new home Waikoko after the placid lake William created amidst English trees. Emma died at Waikoko on 11 September 1921. William's third wife was Katharine Maud Orford, whom he married at Hastings on 16 September 1922. They had no children.
Nelson wanted a good English public education for his sons. He prevailed upon William Rainbow, an old Warwickshire schoolfellow who was working near Dunedin, to establish Heretaunga School for which he would provide grounds and a building in Hastings. It opened in 1882. In 1912–13 Nelson and others formed a company, purchased the school and moved it to Havelock North. It became a preparatory school, later called Hereworth. Nelson also formed a company to enable Annie Mabel Hodge, headmistress of a day school for girls in Hastings, to build a boarding school for girls, Woodford House, in the Havelock hills.
Nelson took a practical interest in local affairs but never sought public prominence. He was a member of the Hawke's Bay Club from 1864 to 1932 and patron of the Hawke's Bay Cricket Association and the Hastings Horticultural Society. He financially backed the bridging of the Ngaruroro River at Pakowhai. After the disastrous flood of 1897, when he was chairman of the Clive River Board, he developed his own plans for straightening the Ngaruroro River and for totally diverting the Tutaekuri River. From 1900, as a member of a private syndicate, he largely initiated and financially supported the reclamation of a swamp on Te Whare-o-Maraenui block, Napier South.
William Nelson is commemorated by a Nelson Park in both Napier and Hastings. Nelson strongly supported the work of the Hawke's Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society and in 1912 sold them land at Tomoana for a new showgrounds. In 1933 the Society purchased Waikoko, adjoining the showgrounds. The William Nelson memorial pergola was built there in 1951. Those who knew Nelson, however, remembered him more for his personal qualities than his public benefactions. He had the faculty of forming strong, enduring friendships. The number of people to whom he gave sage advice, ready help and practical sympathy was legion. Staunchly Anglican, he followed his mother's precepts and passed them on.
In his 80s Nelson was still 'as alert as ever in mind and as quick of perception' and possessed both personality and humour. Photographed in the garden at Waikoko with his faithful dog Tiddles just before his death, he looks more like a working farmer and stockman than a business entrepreneur embraced by the landed gentry. William Nelson died at Tomoana on 16 November 1932, survived by his third wife and seven children.