William Robinson was born near Warrington, Lancashire, England, on 4 May 1814 according to family information. He was the eldest son of Thomas Robinson, a tenant farmer, and his wife, Elizabeth Lyons. Robinson emigrated to South Australia in 1839, and achieved quick success as a stock dealer and overlander. About 1844 he purchased the Hill River run of over 100 square miles, and was soon a leading pastoralist. On 4 July 1846, at Adelaide, he married Eliza Jane Wood. They were to have five daughters, and a son who died in infancy.
By 1856 Robinson had sold the run and stock and had sent an agent, John Jackson Oakden, to New Zealand to assess pastoral country there. Robinson and his family sailed from Adelaide on 19 February 1856, arriving in Nelson on 1 May. It was almost certainly on the advice of Edward Stafford, then superintendent of Nelson, that Robinson on 5 May placed a deposit of £10,000 with the Nelson commissioner of Crown lands. He sought right of choice, under Governor George Grey's 1853 regulations, over 40,000 acres of 5s. land. Robinson's step was not legal, but was virtually validated by the commissioner's acceptance; the regulations expired the next month.
Robinson purchased land between the Hurunui and Waiau rivers, on the Cheviot Hills run of J. S. Caverhill. By arrangement Caverhill sold the lease to Robinson, who bought the lease of the Hawkswood run for Caverhill. Between 1857 and 1862 Robinson freeholded the Cheviot Hills run, about 84,000 acres, without opposition. He lived in Nelson and represented Amuri on the Nelson Provincial Council from 1857 to 1859. In 1859 Robinson left for England with his family. He remained there until 1866, living as one of the gentry, and indulging his interest in horse-racing.
After his return to New Zealand Robinson divided his time between Christchurch and Cheviot Hills. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in May 1869 by Stafford. Although his stance was basically that of runholders' advocate, Robinson was capable of wider views and made shrewd contributions on a great variety of subjects, usually non-political. He aimed to speak only on topics in which he had experience, and was respected for his independent, practical views.
However, his wealth did not make him a popular figure in depressed New Zealand. In his lifetime he achieved legendary status as 'Ready Money' Robinson, the man who made swift and lavish purchases of land, stock, and buildings, and sought to dominate Canterbury horse-racing. He owned the celebrated stallion Traducer, and his horses won the Canterbury Derby three times during the 1880s.
Robinson received unwelcome publicity when in his absence his Christchurch town house was the scene of a sensational murder. On 9 January 1871 his butler, Simon Cedeno, stabbed to death a housemaid named Margaret Burke. During the subsequent court case it was alleged that Cedeno had been taunted about his racial origins by Robinson, and would have murdered him if he had been present.
Whatever his contemporary reputation, it is now evident that Robinson was in the very forefront of nineteenth century pastoralists. Under Robinson's closer supervision Cheviot Hills made great strides. In 1879 he built the Port Robinson slipway and the Hurunui bridge. A great homestead was completed in 1888. Cheviot Hills became a self-sufficient pastoral kingdom and a symbol of runholder wealth. A lover of trees and birds, Robinson surrounded his house with gardens and plantations and set out miles of hawthorn hedges, parts of which still survive. Robinson's judgement of stock and stockmen was very sound. He retained the services of some able men, including John Jackson Oakden; William Gerard, the manager of Cheviot Hills; and John Sinclair, the building supervisor and household manager. The peak sheep return for Cheviot Hills was 105,000 in 1886. In 1884 the wool clip sold for £20,634, and in 1888 2,079 bales were shipped from Port Robinson.
The financing of Cheviot Hills was a classic example of the relations between pastoralism and banking. At no stage was the run actually mortgaged, but Robinson ran up a heavy overdraft with the Union Bank of Australia, which readily accommodated so large a client. He took the controversial step of purchasing 16,000 acres out of the neighbouring Stonyhurst run in 1875 and 1876, but Stonyhurst's owners managed to defend the rest of their holding. In 1882 Robinson was credited with 92,928 acres, valued at £279,392. This estate was second only in value to G. H. Moore's Glenmark. After Robinson's death in Christchurch, on 9 September 1889, his estate was valued at £324,729.
Robinson left his estate without male heir and encumbered with a large debt to the Union Bank of Australia. His five daughters were empowered under his will to authorise the sale of the estate by unanimous consent. Acting on this consent, the trustees, led by F. H. D. Bell, who had married Robinson's third daughter, Caroline Robinson, solved their difficulties by disposing of Cheviot Hills to the Ballance government in April 1893. The subsequent subdivision into farms was a turning point in New Zealand land settlement history.