Herbert Boucher Dobbie was born on 13 February 1852 at Hayes, Middlesex, England, the son of Herbert Main Dobbie, an officer of the Madras Army, and his wife, Ellen Locker. The family moved to Madras three months later. After her husband died on active service in Burma in 1854 or 1855, Ellen Dobbie and her six children returned to England, settling at Irthington, near Brampton, Cumberland. Herbert received his schooling at Brampton and later at Philberd's, a boarding school near Maidenhead, Berkshire. Holidays in Cumberland stimulated what was to be an enduring interest in ferns.
On completing an engineering apprenticeship he worked on ships sailing to the West Indies and then in a locomotive shop as a draughtsman. In 1875 Dobbie sailed to New Zealand in the Lutterworth and began work in Auckland as a fitter and turner with Fraser and Tinne. Two years later he took a similar position with the government railways but quickly transferred to the drawing office. He travelled extensively, both on his penny-farthing bicycle and on foot, collecting ferns as he went.
Dobbie married Charlotte Anderson Gilfillan at Parnell on 31 January 1880. It was to be an eventful year. He had bought a house in Parnell, where he was joined by his mother and sisters Mary and Bertha. Bertha married and shifted to Taranaki, where Mary was murdered during a visit.
Dobbie's collecting culminated in the production of his first, rather crude, book on New Zealand ferns, consisting of full-size, white silhouettes on blue paper. The books were hand-made by mounting fern fronds on sheets of glass and directing sunlight through these onto sheets of home-made blueprint paper. The book appeared in at least three versions over the year.
Dobbie moved to Whangārei in 1881 as stationmaster and manager of the short Whangārei–Kamō railway line. There were only three trains a week and Dobbie used his spare time to establish and run a 17-acre citrus orchard situated between Mill Road and the Hatea River. He was one of the first and largest citrus growers in the district. During his 18 years in Whangārei a stubborn streak led to many arguments and disputes with his seniors in Wellington. He was transferred to Picton in 1899, and then to the Hutt workshops in 1900 with demotion to assistant workshop foreman. Finally, in April 1900, he resigned.
Dobbie then worked his passage to South Africa, with the intention that his wife and family would follow, but after six months as traffic manager on the Beira–Salisbury railway he was dismissed. He then worked as district engineer for a private railway before sailing for Britain in November 1902. A bicycle tour of Scotland followed before Dobbie returned to New Zealand in August 1903, taking up a position as proofreader with the Auckland Star. He built a house and established a fernery in Market Road, where he lived for the remainder of his life. In 1910 he donated 122 acres of bushland on the face of Parahaki hill to the Whangārei Borough Council to form Dobbies Park; the remainder of the property was disposed of in 1923.
In 1921 Dobbie published New Zealand ferns. With its fine photographs of fern specimens, hints on collection and cultivation and delightful essays on fern-collecting expeditions it was an entirely different book from that of 1880. Unfortunately, in his effort to cater to the general reader Dobbie deliberately used popular but inaccurate terminology in his fern descriptions. This was remedied in the fourth edition of 1951, revised by Marguerite Crookes. She then rewrote the book for the final edition of 1963, 'incorporating illustrations and original work by H. B. Dobbie'. For 70 years, in one or other of its editions, it was the most popular book on New Zealand ferns.
Dobbie was a man of many skills and interests, always willing to try his hand at something new, innovative, independent and highly competent. He was an expert wood-carver, but an accident with a chisel left him with a rigid finger on his right hand. He painted a little, wrote 16 novels – though none were ever published – and played several musical instruments. He was a member of the brass bands of Picton and Whangārei, playing a French horn he called 'Dismal Jimmy'. He was also a member and chairman of the One Tree Hill Road Board.
Herbert Dobbie died at Auckland on 8 August 1940, survived by his wife (who died in 1952) and six of their seven children. His daughter, Beatrix Vernon, became known as an animal painter, and was the illustrator of W. H. Guthrie-Smith's book, Tutira.