Edward Wakefield, registered as Felix Edward, was born in Launceston, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), on 22 May 1845, the son of Eliza Felicie Bailli and her husband, Felix Wakefield, a surveyor and engineer. After the family moved to New Zealand Wakefield spent his childhood in Christchurch and Nelson, and was then educated in France and at King's College, London, before studying medicine at King's College Hospital. Returning to Nelson in 1863, Wakefield worked on the Nelson Examiner. He then worked for the secretary for Crown lands, a position which included responsibility for land claims. In 1866 he became confidential clerk to Premier Edward Stafford. After Stafford's defeat in 1869 Wakefield served his successor, William Fox. From 1870 to 1872 he was a clerk at the Customs Department in Dunedin. He was briefly private secretary to Stafford again in 1872, then for a short period resident magistrate and collector of customs in the Chatham Islands. From 1872 to 1874 Wakefield worked as a clerk in the Customs Department at Auckland.
In 1874 Stafford's influence helped to gain Wakefield the editorship of the Timaru Herald, which he developed into a politically important daily. Trenchant campaigns achieved a port and waterworks for Timaru and reform of the local Anglican church. He also wrote leading articles for the Press, Otago Daily Times and New Zealand Times, and was Reuter's agent and correspondent for the Australasian, Melbourne Argus and Sydney Daily Telegraph, often using the pseudonym 'Taniwha'. On 15 July 1874, at Christchurch, he married Agnes Mildred Hall, niece of Sir John Hall; they were to have at least two sons and a daughter.
In 1875 Wakefield was elected MHR for Geraldine on the returning officer's casting vote. Regarded even by enemies as brilliant, he was aggressively ambitious. He subjected John Ballance, Sir George Grey's colonial treasurer, to memorable parliamentary maulings, and in August 1879 delivered what William Rolleston considered 'the finest speech ever made in the House'. Wakefield was defeated in 1881, but, having pledged to oppose Harry Atkinson, was returned unopposed for Selwyn in 1884. Left out of the first Stout–Vogel ministry, he changed sides, becoming Atkinson's colonial secretary; when Atkinson's week-old government fell he received a large dead rat from his constituents.
Wakefield encountered difficulties in his personal life in 1886. He and Agnes were divorced in August, and one week later Agnes married Edward Withers; their daughter, Aimée Mildred, was born on 10 September 1886. He abandoned politics in 1887 and for two stormy years, filled with libel actions and financial difficulties, edited and part-owned Wellington's Evening Press. After his attacks on Bank of New Zealand policies in 1887 the bank's Wellington manager declared that Wakefield was 'unsteady, and in all respects unworthy, & his private life would not bear investigation.'
Wakefield became New York representative for Stafford's British and United States Agency in 1890. When this closed he returned to England and resumed writing, contributing prolifically to British and American journals until his death. He was associated with the Royal Colonial Institute. When he became blind in old age he was made a brother of the Charterhouse in recognition of his services to New Zealand and the British Empire. He died on 10 August 1924, in Richmond, Surrey.
Edward Wakefield's son Edward referred to him as 'heart and soul a New Zealander'. He was elected a governor of Canterbury College in 1882 and, in 1889, published New Zealand after fifty years, an able and well-written survey. Wakefield was very clever and allowed no one to forget it. He was among the best parliamentary debaters of the time; admired for his wit and power of argument, feared for his sarcasm. He was, however, distrusted for his political inconstancy: 'no Government which does not contain Mr Wakefield as a member can count on him as a friend.' He made enemies effortlessly, and never quite fulfilled his early promise.