William Australia Graham was born at Auckland, New Zealand (according to tradition, in a tent), on 22 November 1841. He was the son of Jane Sargeant and her husband, George Graham, a government official and later member of Parliament whose sympathetic attitudes towards the Maori greatly influenced his son. William was sent to England to finish his schooling, attending Clewer House School, Windsor, and Exeter Grammar School, and returning to New Zealand in 1854.
Trained as a surveyor, Graham worked in many parts of Auckland province, and in the mid 1860s was involved in the survey of lands confiscated from Maori. In May 1865, while encamped at Tamahere, south of Hamilton, he acted as interpreter when his father accompanied the Ngati Haua leader, Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi, to a meeting of reconciliation with Brigadier General G. J. Carey, commander of the British forces in the area. He expressed in later years particular pride in his mediatory role on this historic occasion.
From the mid 1860s to 1882, in association with his brother, Samuel, Graham developed an estate of more than 1,000 acres at Tamahere, on former Ngati Haua land. As well as encouraging growth of the Tamahere community through donations of land and other gifts for a school and an Anglican church, he espoused the development of the Waikato region through his membership of the Auckland Provincial Council from 1873 to 1876, and subsequently through lectures, articles and participation in organisations designed to further various economic and cultural causes in Waikato. Among the crops cultivated on his farm he took a special interest in sugar beet, and his enthusiastic advocacy influenced Julius Vogel, the colonial treasurer, to introduce the Beet-root Sugar Act 1884, a protectionist measure. The North New Zealand Farmers' Co-operative Association, of which Graham was chairman of directors, was formed in 1884 to establish a sugar beet industry. Although the association was wound up in 1887, Graham continued to believe in the prospects of sugar beet as a staple crop for Waikato.
Graham had married Alice Combes at Auckland on 5 March 1872; they had 11 children. In 1882 the family moved to Hamilton and resided in The Lodge, a former private school built on what had been until 1864 the site of the Ngati Wairere pa, Kirikiriroa. Presented with a numerously-signed petition, he consented to stand for the Hamilton mayoralty in 1884 (he observed when nominated that he had been the original surveyor of the Hamilton East portion of the township in 1864), and, after defeating the incumbent, was re-elected unopposed in the two succeeding years. His large-scale schemes of improvement inspired hope even if they did not produce much of substance in a period of economic depression. He resigned in May 1887 when he took as a personal insult a request by residents for a public meeting to review a borough council decision: if his sense of duty was strong, so was his estimation of honour.
Appointed the Hamilton borough representative on the newly established Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board in 1885, Graham demonstrated his commitment to the development of the region by working with other Waikato members to create a separate Waikato board. When this was formed in 1886 he became its first chairman. However, his regional vision then took a more localised form: he resisted attempts to establish cottage hospitals in several Waikato townships, and instead persuaded the board to establish a single hospital close to Hamilton, where he had arranged for the purchase of a suitable site.
Graham's manner was not to everyone's taste: he had, said one observer in 1887, 'serious idiosyncracies of character', including an 'insufficiency of backbone'. But even that critic agreed that Graham was public spirited and well meaning. Alice Graham was held in equally high public esteem. She shared her husband's close interest in the Anglican church and was noted for her charitable work.
Although he did not hold public office after he retired from the hospital board in December 1888, Graham continued to be a close observer of regional and colonial affairs. In speeches and letters to newspapers he propounded at length his views on the need for government retrenchment, the advantages of canals over railways, the cultivation of sugar beet, and a host of other subjects. Not everyone shared these enthusiasms, and it is said of his later years that when his friends saw him approaching – a tall, well-built figure with patriarchal black hat and white beard – they would cross the road to avoid undue delay.
Now and again Graham was called on to act as an interpreter in negotiations over Maori land, and was presented with a patu paraoa (whalebone club), as the symbol of a peacemaker, by Mahuta, the Maori King. Graham consistently – and at times vehemently – argued for Maori to be accorded the fullest privileges of British subjects, including the right to deal with their lands without government interference. His lucubrations eventually resulted in a pamphlet, The land of the moa (1911), in which he argued that the Maori and the British had a common ancestry as well as a convergent destiny: 'The New Zealand tane, the English thane, and the Norman dane, are the same races'.
Towards the end of his life Graham was badly injured in a buggy accident. He died at his home in Hamilton on 9 May 1916. Alice Graham died in October 1931. William Graham has since been honoured more for his establishment of the Waikato Hospital and Charitable Aid Board than for his visionary projections of Waikato as the Manchester of New Zealand or his bicultural aspirations.