William Edward Ivey was born in Hobart, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), on 26 August 1838, the son of William Edward Ivey, a clerk and landowner, and his wife, Elizabeth Davis. He was educated in England and managed a 600-acre farm after completing the training course of the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. He took up land in the North Island of New Zealand in 1867 but, because of the still unresolved military conflict, returned almost at once to Australia. Ivey spent four years as a chemist in Victoria's Department of Agriculture, and by 1878 he was superintendent of experimental farm reserves in the same department. He was a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and of the Chemical Society. In Sydney, on 20 December 1873, he had married the 'accomplished' Sophia Minna Palmer.
In April 1878 Ivey returned to New Zealand as first manager of the model farm at Lincoln, Canterbury. His title was soon altered to director of the School of Agriculture and the school became popularly known as Lincoln College. Ivey set out an experimental farm and prepared a course for the 16 students who enrolled on 19 July 1880.
Ivey knew he was breaking new ground by inaugurating New Zealand's first agricultural training course at a time of change. He regarded the widespread cropping of wheat in Canterbury as unsustainable; it would have to be succeeded by scientific farming, involving the application of training, observation and experience to the establishment and maintenance of a permanent agriculture. He provided practical work for his students but the emphasis was on science, especially chemistry and plant physiology. He was not interested in training labourers or in giving cadets a model farm to play with, nor did he hope to produce ready-made farmers: the college was to turn out practitioners ready to begin adding experience to their practical and theoretical training.
Ivey's vision was not reflected in pass rates, as few students completed the course. The director wished for brighter students; the students wished for practical training free of science. Lack of finance prevented Ivey from offering more than one course and finance became an even greater problem as the depression of the 1880s hit. His ability was undoubted but his duties were too much for one person: chief lecturer, academic and administrative head, caterer, farm manager and housemaster. He must have earned the respect of students or he would surely have suffered the humiliating insubordination inflicted on his successor, John Bayne, whose students' absenteeism, mismanagement of the farm and refusal to report to work at set times forced his resignation in 1901.
Ivey somehow found time to carry out experimental work. He set up a rotational grazing and cropping system, tested tree and crop varieties, especially wheat, and cross-bred sheep. He saw the potential of irrigation and devised a water drill with which he successfully sowed turnips at the height of a Canterbury summer. He was intensely interested in fertilisers and imported samples of superphosphate for testing. Year after year his reports showing the potential of New Zealand's first experimental farm were published and forgotten.
By the early 1890s moves had begun to rescue Lincoln from its neglected position as an understaffed offshoot of Canterbury College, and to make it an independent institution. The establishment of the Department of Agriculture in 1892 promised more encouragement for agricultural science and research, but the stirrings of relief were too late for Ivey. He had suffered from ill health for some time when, on 13 April 1892, he collapsed and died on the school drive while hurrying to catch the coach to Christchurch. He was survived by Sophia Ivey, who died at Auckland in 1914, and their two children.
Little evidence survives of Ivey's extra-curricular interests. He was vicar's warden at St Stephen's Church, Lincoln, and encouraged students to attend. In 1883 he paid for a reed organ for use at the school. He was a keen cricketer but can seldom have had time to play.
William Ivey's achievements were realised only posthumously. He set up New Zealand's first course in agricultural education and sought to show by his teaching and experimental work the value of agricultural science. His strenuous efforts laid the foundations of future development at the cost of his premature death. Ivey Hall, one of the major buildings at what is now Lincoln University, stands as a memorial to his work, and his portrait hangs in the Memorial Hall.