William Hort Levin, frequently called Willie Levin, was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 7 August 1845. Both his parents, Nathaniel William Levin and his wife, Jessie Hort, were active adherents to the Jewish faith. William Levin was educated at Edward Toomath's school in Wellington (where reputedly he was thought rather dull), and then in England, although where and to what level is unknown. In 1864 he joined his father's merchant business, Levin and Company, as a wool clerk. By working long hours and demonstrating his capability he gained a partnership in the firm at the age of 22, when his father retired. One partner, Charles Johnson Pharazyn, retired in 1871, and the other, Walter Woods Johnston, withdrew in 1878. After this Levin continued on his own. In the 1870s he became active in the wider commercial community by taking up directorships in several companies and reviving the Wellington Chamber of Commerce: he was president from 1875 to 1876.
On 20 May 1876 at Wellington, William Levin married Amy FitzGerald, daughter of James Edward FitzGerald, a former leading politician. The wedding, conducted by Octavius Hadfield, bishop of Wellington, reflected the social standing of both families. By this time Levin was an Anglican; he served on the vestry of St Paul's Cathedral Church until his death.
In 1879 William Levin stood for Parliament, and aided by his widely known charity he polled highly. In politics he was described as 'a pronounced Liberal and anti-Greyite'. Levin was opposed to Sir George Grey because he considered him to be a poor administrator and financially rash. He resigned his seat in 1884 because of ongoing ill health following severe rheumatic fever in mid 1883. His political interests were provincial, notably seeking a 'fair' share of public works expenditure for Wellington and acting as spokesman for several unemployed groups. He made no contribution to national politics and his only lasting contribution to Wellington was in wresting the harbour from Wellington City Corporation control to that of a separate Wellington Harbour Board, of which he was the first chairman. Levin consistently refused to stand for mayor.
During this time William Levin also pushed for the formation of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, becoming a director and for a short time chairman. The town of Levin, located on the railway line, is named after him. John Duncan became manager of Levin and Company in 1882 and took increasing responsibility as Levin's health deteriorated. Levin was in England between May 1886 and early 1887; after his return, in 1889 he entered into partnership with Edward Pearce and Duncan as a sleeping partner, although he continued to have a major input into decisions whenever he was well. Levin and Company expanded rapidly to become a significant provincial concern.
Although frequently ill in his latter years, Levin remained active in both the sporting and cultural life of Wellington, as president or sponsor of over 17 societies, and as the leading contributor to all the major charities. His £250 donation was the basis of the Home for the Aged Needy, and a donation of £1,000 established Wellington Public Library. He was also the major force behind the formation of the Wellington Working Men's Club and Literary Institute. In the public mind he was better known for his charity than for his business or parliamentary career.
William Levin's death at his home in Tinakori Road on 15 September 1893 was unexpected despite his poor health. As a sign of the respect in which he was held both Parliament and the Wellington City Council adjourned for the day, the governor, Lord Glasgow, cancelled his evening dinner party, schools were closed, artistic events postponed and flags flew at half-mast in Wellington, Christchurch and Napier. At his widow's request the public funded the Levin Memorial Home for Girls in his memory. He was survived by two sons and two daughters, one son having died in infancy. Levin's death severely undermined his company's capital. As neither of his sons wanted a partnership, the business was restructured as a public company primarily owned by the National Mortgage and Agency Company of New Zealand. Levin died an extremely wealthy man, with an estate valued at £242,734; he is best remembered for his promotion of many business, social and charitable organisations in the Wellington region.