Arthur Clayden was born on 9 August 1829 at Wallingford, Berkshire, England. He was the second of four children of Eliza Mary Greene and her husband, Peter Clayden, an ironmonger. Arthur's education included a time at Clewer House School, Windsor. He later recalled the school lining the Long Drive at Windsor to salute Queen Victoria on her accession to the throne. By the early 1850s he was working as an ironmonger in the small rural town of Faringdon, Berkshire. At Wallingford, on 24 May 1860, he married Julia Greenwood. Arthur's younger brother, Samuel, joined him in his business and by 1869 had taken it over. The eldest brother, Peter William, an active Unitarian minister in his younger life, became increasingly involved in journalism, eventually being appointed an editor on the London Daily News. It was probably through Peter that Arthur moved into journalism.
In 1872 Arthur Clayden joined the opening phase of the New Zealand government's immigration drive, as an agent for the railway contractors John Brogden and Sons. Working among the Berkshire agricultural labourers he 'had infinite difficulty in disabusing their minds of anti-emigration prejudices'. That year also saw him identify himself with the great awakening among the rural labourers and join the advisory consulting committee of Joseph Arch's National Agricultural Labourers' Union. Recognising its immigration possibilities, colonial governments courted the union's leaders. At the invitation of the Canadian government, Clayden joined Joseph Arch in spending the latter months of 1873 in North America. After travelling widely in Quebec and Ontario they briefly visited New York and Boston. Clayden reported the tour at length in the Daily News. Not all was to his liking, and frank accounts of 'haggard-faced farmers' and 'miserable-looking, lank and hopeless labourers' led to friction with some of the union's leaders on his return.
New Zealand's agent general, Isaac Featherston, encouraged the leaders of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union to send a delegate to New Zealand, and by January 1874 had hopes that Clayden would go. But Clayden was not yet ready for the venture. Early in the year he launched his first book, The revolt of the field, which provided a popular account of, and a label for, the rural awakening. Good reports from his Brogden emigrants assisted his Berkshire recruiting for the New Zealand government. By December 1874 he had seen 'some five hundred individuals' leave for the colony.
Samuel Clayden and his large family (seven sons and three daughters) emigrated to New Zealand probably during 1877, and Arthur followed later that year. His brother's success in turning a wilderness of scrub in the Eighty-eight Valley, Nelson, into a thriving farm, in launching his sons either on farming careers or on urban callings in Nelson, and in shaping a public career for himself in local government, were an inspiration to Arthur's immigration work and an example he was fond of quoting. After travelling widely in New Zealand Arthur returned with his wife to England in 1879 with a year's engagement to lecture on emigration throughout the United Kingdom, with the emphasis on recruiting persons with capital. To help in this work he published The England of the Pacific, the first of four books advocating British emigration to New Zealand.
Returning to New Zealand in 1880 Clayden purchased a home in Nelson. Over the next four years he worked as a free-lance journalist, publicising the colony in contributions to the London dailies, half a dozen of the leading provincial and Scottish newspapers, and in the Christian World, which, he maintained, 'reaches all the best middle class homes of the United Kingdom.' It was therefore natural that when the Stout–Vogel government decided in 1885 to accelerate immigration, it should turn to Clayden. He was provided with financial assistance to tour the colony and equip himself, before proceeding with his wife to Britain; but his request for a passage for his brother Samuel to accompany him, as an example of a successful immigrant, was turned down. Clayden arrived back in New Zealand in June 1887, and in 1890 returned finally to England, bringing an exuberant report on Samuel's farm. In 1892 he contested the general election as the Liberal candidate for the seat of Dulwich, following similarly unsuccessful ventures by his brother Peter. He died at Hastings, Sussex, on 22 August 1899, survived by Julia Clayden.
Clayden was justly proud of his contribution to the peopling of the colonial empire of the queen he had saluted in 1837. If it had ever been his firm intention to settle in New Zealand, it seems to have been the loneliness of colonial life that finally drove him back to England. However, having seen something of Canada, the United States and Australia, he never wavered in his advocacy of New Zealand as the superior colony, the land whose climate and institutions conspired to make it the best destination for the English immigrant.