William Ranstead was born on 8 December 1859 at Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, the son of John Ranstead, an engine fitter, and his wife, Margaret Morris. The Ransteads moved to Liverpool and William was educated at the Liverpool Institute and School of Art. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed as a clerk at the Crown Life Insurance Office. After John Ranstead's death in 1881 the family experienced great hardship. William, who was 21, attempted to support his mother and three sisters on his meagre wages. He soon found a more lucrative job at the Gandy Belt Manufacturing Company in Liverpool, where his ability led him to become manager of the London branch by 1883.
On 28 August 1883 at Musselburgh, Scotland, he married his second cousin, Margaret Lyon Loch, a teacher; they were to have seven children. Margaret Ranstead soon found that her husband was impulsive and prone to enthusiasms that turned the family's life upside down. He joined the newly formed Fabian Society in 1884 and became involved in both a practical and an intellectual way with the growing socialist movement. For a time the family lived at Toynbee Hall, a socialist settlement in the East End of London, which was founded in 1885.
When Maurice Gandy, the owner of the Gandy Belt Manufacturing Company, died suddenly in 1891, his heir offered William Ranstead a half share in the business in exchange for managing it. The company prospered: by 1892 Ranstead had moved his growing family to a large house in Cheshire and was earning £2,000 a year. His wealth gave him more opportunity to explore socialist and humanitarian ideas and enabled him to support labour causes.
In 1894 Robert Blatchford, a journalist who edited the socialist newspaper the Clarion, published a book of articles from his newspaper called Merrie England. Shortly after reading this Ranstead visited Blatchford and gave him a cheque for £250 to finance the paper. This gift prevented the Clarion from folding. At Blatchford's invitation Ranstead briefly took over the newspaper's business operations, formed the Clarion Newspaper Company, in which he invested £1,000, and became a founding director.
In 1898, after a disagreement with shareholders of the Gandy Belt Manufacturing Company, Ranstead went out on his own, forming the Ranstead Belting Company. However, war between the United States and Spain disrupted his supplies, and he was forced to sell in February 1899. Later that year, looking for new opportunities, Ranstead visited New Zealand. He cycled throughout the North and South Islands and talked to a wide range of people, from workers to the premier, Richard John Seddon. He was greatly impressed with the recently introduced Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of which he wrote: 'Think what an Act like this would mean to England! We have not forgotten the horrors of the Hull Dock Strike, the misery and starvation and bloodshed of the victims of the great coal and cotton disputes, the stagnation of trade and loss to the nation during the engineering lock-out.' He visited the Levin State Farm for unemployed men, which provided him with the idea of setting up a model village where the land would be held in common. While in Christchurch he purchased a house set in 2½ acres by the Avon River, for he had made a unilateral decision to return with his family to New Zealand.
His impressions of New Zealand as a 'socialist Canaan' were conveyed in articles published in the Clarion. He wrote to Robert Blatchford: 'If you really knew, you and your 100,000 readers would pack up and come over straight.' In response to these articles, letters of enquiry poured in from hopeful working-class emigrants. On his return to England, Ranstead offered to provide information about New Zealand for intending settlers, and to arrange passages. He recommended that emigrants should be strong and willing to work and that they should take some savings with them. Most settlers were skilled craftsmen, labourers and their wives and children and paid their own passages. Ranstead sponsored some who were unable to find their fares and arranged bulk fares at a discount.
Four ships, the Kumara, Wakanui, Tokomaru and Rakaia, arrived in New Zealand between August and November 1900. They carried some 200 'Clarion' settlers (known as Clarionettes). William and Margaret Ranstead and their children came out on the Wakanui. On arrival the settlers were disappointed to learn that the government would not make them a land grant so that they could live as a group. James Mackay and Edward Tregear of the Department of Labour advised the emigrants to gain practical experience in farm work before taking up land. The settlers dispersed throughout the country but maintained contact through regular meetings and newsletters.
Ranstead had settled in Christchurch and travelled to meetings of the Clarion Fellowship in other localities. It is apparent from correspondence he received that the idea of a co-operative socialist settlement continued to be discussed, but agreement could not be reached on how it should be run. Perhaps the politics of some members of the group were too radical for Ranstead. In any case the impetus to reunite the settlers was lost and they established their new lives individually.
In 1902 Ranstead and J. G. Penniket bought 2,700 acres at Rukuhia in Waikato, and divided the land between them in 1903. By 1905, when he bought Tainui farm at Matangi, Ranstead's interest in socialism and politics had waned and he concentrated his energies on farming; his nickname was 'Farmer Bill'. In 1910 he was the first settler to establish a farming association under the Land Settlement Finance Act 1909. He formed the Tainui Land Settlement Association with his wife and four of his sons and the family lived in an extended settlement at Matangi.
Ranstead was a cultivated, intelligent man who read daily for three hours. He had brought to New Zealand a large library, including novels, volumes of poetry and books on politics, philosophy and religion. He was always open to new ideas, and was for a time a Theosophist before returning to the Anglican church. He attended St David's Church, Matangi, to which he donated the organ. His impulsiveness and idealism were demonstrated when in 1914 at the age of 54 while on a visit to England he enlisted in the British Section of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In 1915 he served in the Mounted Field Ambulance at Gallipoli where three of his sons fought. He died in Hamilton on 24 March 1944, survived by his wife and six children.
William Ranstead inspired and organised a major emigration initiative. After the arrival of the first Clarion settlers, prospective emigrants continued to write to him for many years requesting advice and practical help. It was estimated that well over 1,000 people had come to New Zealand as a result of his efforts. And while the aim of establishing a co-operative settlement was never realised, as a group Ranstead's Clarion settlers had an impact on New Zealand politics and society. They were among the founders in 1901 of the New Zealand Socialist Party, one of the forerunners of the New Zealand Labour Party, and thereby helped revitalise the labour movement.