Charles Clifford was born at Mt Vernon, Lancashire, England, on 1 January 1813, the eldest of nine children of George Lambert Clifford and his wife, Mary Coyney. The Cliffords were an important Roman Catholic family with aristocratic forebears, and Charles was a cousin of William Vavasour, Henry Petre and Frederick Weld, who were all to play a part in the colonisation of New Zealand.
Charles went to Stonyhurst College; later he worked as an engineer with a railway company. He sailed with Vavasour on the George Fyfe in June 1842 to join the New Zealand Company settlement at Wellington. Financed by their fathers, they jointly owned land on the old Porirua Road and ran a land, shipping and commission agency in town. They explored Wairarapa, leased land at Wharekākā and brought 600 breeding ewes over from Sydney, Australia, in 1844. Clifford and Weld drove them around the coast from Wellington. They later took out leases in Marlborough (1846) and North Canterbury (1850), where Flaxbourne and Stonyhurst stations were established.
Clifford was made a justice of the peace and on 13 May 1844 was appointed as a non-official member to the Legislative Council, to represent the southern settlements. With the two other non-officials, William Brown and Samuel McDonald Martin, he protested against the extravagant administrative salaries which the settlers had to fund. However, they were outvoted by the official members. Clifford refused to attend the sitting of the Council held in September 1844, seeing its proceedings as 'an idle and useless formality'. He resigned, as did Brown and Martin, later the same year.
He was active in establishing the Wellington militia in 1845 and held the rank of captain; he became a magistrate in 1846. On 13 January 1847, in Wellington, he married Mary Ann Hercy, daughter of John Hercy of Hawthorne Hill, Berkshire, England, a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant of the county. They were to have a daughter and four sons.
During George Grey's first governorship, Clifford opposed Grey's plan for nominee representation on the Legislative Council. He went to England in April 1848 to raise personal loans and to present the Wellington settlers' request for self-government to the Colonial Office. Before leaving for England, Clifford had taken part in planning the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association, the ideas of which he now represented. E. G. Wakefield encouraged him to approach Earl Grey, the secretary of state for the colonies; Wakefield's influence also led Clifford to join the Colonial Reform Society. On his return to Wellington in November 1850 he informed the settlers that a bill to establish nominee representation in New Zealand would not be passed by the House of Commons.
When representative provincial and central government was introduced after the Constitution Act 1852, Clifford was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council, convened in October 1853, and became its first speaker. Elected to the General Assembly for Wellington City in 1853, he was unanimously chosen speaker of the House of Representatives at its first sitting on 26 May 1854. He was 41, and still retains the record for the youngest to hold that position. Early in the first session, he was on the committees which recommended that each day the business of the House should open with prayer, and which drew up the standing orders. In the crisis which occurred when R. H. Wynyard, as administrator, prorogued the House without notice to postpone the issue of establishing responsible government, Clifford allowed the House to protest against its prorogation.
At the second term of the Assembly (1856–60) Clifford was again elected speaker. He was defeated at the provincial council election in November 1857, was knighted in 1858 and retired from his seat in the House in 1860, receiving a vote of thanks on 5 November when the House was dissolved. In December he returned with his family to live in England, continuing to take an interest in New Zealand affairs and advising British authorities during the wars of the 1860s. He presented the House of Representatives with a mace in 1866, a smaller version of that used in the House of Commons, incorporating New Zealand motifs; it was destroyed when Parliament Buildings burned in 1907.
Clifford held directorships of several financial institutions and was a founder of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company. He was made baronet in 1887, taking his title from Flaxbourne. He died in London on 27 February 1893, aged 80. At the time of his death he was a leading New Zealand landowner and left an estate valued in 1896 at £84,283.
Charles Clifford contributed to the pastoral and economic development of the whole colony, although provincialist in his political beliefs. He was a member of the Wellington Agricultural Society and the committee of managers of the Wellington Savings Bank, a trustee of the Wellington Building Society, and vice president of the Tradesmen's Club and Chamber of Commerce. As member and secretary of the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association, he worked for the introduction of self-government. As speaker, he performed his duties 'with so much satisfaction to all parties in the House'. A practising Catholic, he was described as a 'high-bred, courteous, kindly, and considerate English gentleman.'