William Gisborne was born probably on 13 August 1825, the third son of Thomas John Gisborne of Holme Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire, England, and his wife, Sarah Krehmer. The Gisbornes were among Derbyshire's pre-eminent families, having filled Derby's mayoralty for two centuries. William was educated at Rugby, and in 1842 went to South Australia.
He arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, on the Pestonjee Bomanjee on 7 August 1847, and until 1848 was secretary to E. J. Eyre, lieutenant governor of New Munster. He then moved to Auckland as commissioner of Crown lands for New Ulster. After visiting England during 1852 and 1853 he became chief clerk in the colonial secretary's office; in 1856 he succeeded Andrew Sinclair as under secretary. He was also secretary to the treasury from 1857 to 1858, and was appointed cabinet secretary in December 1863. He resigned from the civil service in 1869 to become William Fox's colonial secretary, with a seat in the Legislative Council.
Such transformations from civil servant to politician were not unprecedented. Alfred Domett, F. D. Bell, J. E. FitzGerald and Donald McLean also enjoyed dual careers. It was predicted that Gisborne would be a great strength to the new ministry, although there was regret among rank-and-file civil servants, by whom he was much liked. Their welfare had always been his concern. In 1856 he had bargained unsuccessfully for staff salary scales; in 1858 he secured pensions for retiring officials; and as a member of the 1866 Civil Service Commission he argued for better conditions. Some of his ideas were included in the Civil Service Act 1866 but others had to wait until the reforms of 1912.
As colonial secretary (1869–72) and minister of public works (1870–71), Gisborne was not altogether successful. He was not an incisive debater either in the intimate atmosphere of the Legislative Council or in the ill-tempered and boisterous House of Representatives to which he was elected, unopposed, for Egmont in 1871. Given the difficult task of translating Julius Vogel's public works and immigration policy into legislative and administrative practice, Gisborne's was the hardest of ministerial tasks; he had to bear heavy criticism when mistakes were made and the scheme ran into difficulties. During the disastrous parliamentary session of 1871, when the government abandoned half its legislative programme, Gisborne was unable to counter the often scarifying attacks, from Edward Stafford in particular, who later blamed him for politicising the public works policy. Gisborne also carried an extra weight of work and responsibility owing to his cabinet colleagues' frequent absences from Wellington. Opposition members, especially Henry Bunny, made much of this in 1872, charging an incompetent and largely absentee ministry with overworking its most conscientious member.
Since 1869 Gisborne had kept the post of government annuities commissioner, although without salary. This technically disqualified him from Parliament, and he resigned his seat immediately the Fox government fell in 1872. He resumed the £700 salary of the post (in 1874 renamed the government insurance commissioner), and was criticised for providing yet another example of the late ministry's 'miserably degrading' influence on public life and morality. It was observed ironically that as supervisor of the government's insurance scheme Gisborne had certainly assured himself against contingencies. He remained commissioner until 1877 whereupon he was elected to the House of Representatives for Totara, becoming a leader of the 'Middle Party' with William Montgomery and James Macandrew. Later he supported Sir George Grey and in 1879 served briefly as minister of lands, and also as minister of immigration and mines during the Grey government's last disordered months.
In 1881 Gisborne achieved parliamentary notoriety during the paralysing stonewall against John Hall's Representation Bill, when he forced a procedural ruling which led to the introduction of the closure. He deliberately defied the chairman of committees' ruling; Hall moved against him for contempt of Parliament, and Speaker G. M. O'Rorke, quelling the uproar with 'a fierce voice', rebuked Gisborne and fined him £20. Gisborne's style of defiance was typical of the man. It was done, Fox remarked, 'with chivalrousness' and 'the manner was gentle'.
Outside Parliament Gisborne wrote leading articles for the Lyttelton Times between 1875 and 1885, was a governor of, and examiner for, Wellington College, and a member of Wellington's education board.
On 16 January 1861, William Gisborne had married Caroline Gertrude Bridgen at St Mary's Church, Parnell, Auckland. They had three daughters and one son. He retired from Parliament in November 1881 and returned to England to manage his family's large estates, which had come to him on his brother's death. In 1892 he inherited Allestree Hall, Derbyshire, from a cousin, Sir Thomas Evans. He was a magistrate for Herefordshire and a New Zealand commissioner for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition. He wrote prolifically on many subjects and published two important books, New Zealand rulers and statesmen (1886, revised 1897) and The colony of New Zealand (1888, revised 1891). He died at Allestree Hall on 7 January 1898. Caroline Gisborne died at Lingen Hall in Herefordshire on 18 January 1908.
When young, Gisborne's sensitivity to insult led him to fight a duel about an orange thrown during an Auckland ball. He matured into a reserved man of wide interests and liberal sympathies and opinions. Edward Wakefield said he 'held very strong ideas as to the importance of his position', yet was both friendly and helpful. Alfred Saunders, natural foe of civil servants, pronounced him to be 'of fair judgement and respectable habits'. William Pember Reeves wrote: 'In the House of Representatives he was the mildest of men, yet as a writer of political articles he had a trenchant style with quite unsuspected powers of banter and sarcasm.'
Gisborne certainly observed shrewdly and wrote well. His New Zealand rulers and statesmen with its perceptive and vivid pen portraits is arguably one of the best and most influential books on colonial New Zealand. His temptingly quotable character analyses have been used by generations of New Zealand historians, usually uncritically. Gisborne's perceptions of his contemporaries have frequently become later generations' preconceptions about them. He is also remembered by having had the city of Gisborne named after him.