Edward Earle Vaile was born on 3 March 1869 at Hampstead, London, England. His father, Samuel Vaile, was a successful Auckland merchant and land agent who had emigrated to New Zealand in 1843. He lived in the United Kingdom from 1861 to 1869, and married Sarah Ann Earle in 1866; Edward was the eldest of their children. He was educated at Auckland College and Grammar School, and passed the junior civil service examination in 1885 (he later unjustifiably claimed to have topped the senior examination as well). At 16 he went to work at the South British Fire and Marine Insurance Company of New Zealand after his father refused to let him join the civil service.
In 1886 or 1887 Vaile entered the successful family real estate business, and from then on became involved in Auckland business, cultural and political life. He was apparently involved in launching what became the Reform Party and may have served under William Massey as vice president of the Auckland Political Reform League. He was president of the Auckland Society of Arts from 1905 to 1908. Vaile also claimed considerable responsibility for the family firm's success, particularly after his father's retirement in 1902.
In 1906 Vaile was asked to give his advice on the value of an estate of undeveloped pumice land between Rotorua and Taupo. Its trustees had received a low offer which Vaile advised them to decline. When they objected that the land was too poor to sell for a higher price, Vaile backed his advice by adding 20 per cent to the original offer and buying the land himself. It was run for two years by managers, but in 1908 Vaile sold his share of the family business and became a farmer.
Broadlands was 53,000 acres of poor-quality land. Animals grazing on a considerable portion of the property developed 'bush sickness'. The cause of the disease (lack of cobalt in the soil) was not known at the time and Vaile had to develop and intensively farm the areas where stock could survive. Careful expenditure and selective development of the land meant that Vaile coped where many others had been defeated. His mixture of sheep, dairy and crop farming proved successful, and he won prizes at the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Show for sugar beet in 1922 and fat lambs in 1924.
He worked hard at fencing, drain-laying, road-making, bridge-building and tree-planting. For the diminutive Vaile – he was five feet four inches tall and weighed nine stone – this work must have been physically arduous. His methods were at times harsh. He wrote of the high profits he made from the farm store, which his workers were obliged to buy from, and he used a considerable amount of youth labour. He did not pay boys until they had been working for him for at least six months.
Vaile's autobiography, Pioneering the pumice (1939), is personally revealing. The book includes examples of self-promotion, exploitation of farm workers and a paternalistic – although not totally uninformed – attitude toward Maori. At the same time it describes the harsh conditions that Vaile had to endure and the monumental amount of work involved in developing pumiceland into farmland. The text also provides a useful insight into the development of forestry in the region.
Vaile was long credited by some with discovering a cure for bush sickness. The claim is unfounded. Vaile had no scientific training, and although his land was used in some of the trials conducted by B. C. Aston, a soil chemist with the Department of Agriculture, Vaile himself was not closely involved. Vaile's expansive interpretation of the past included the assertion that 'Never since my taking up my country have I received six pennyworth of help from any government.' In fact, his real wealth came from the sale of Broadlands, which had become much more valuable because of government-sponsored scientific research on how to profitably farm cobalt-deficient land.
From 1911 Vaile vigorously promoted the construction of a Rotorua–Taupo railway line, which would assist the development of the area and, incidentally, increase the value of his land. A line from Rotorua to Reporoa was authorised in 1924 but construction was not begun until 1928. In 1927 Vaile attempted to secure the line by reminding the prime minister, Gordon Coates, of his past services to the Reform Party. There was a change of government in 1928 and construction of the line was halted in March 1929; it never resumed, and Vaile was heavily defeated when he stood as an independent Reform candidate for Rotorua in 1931 with construction of the line as his main platform.
Vaile slowly sold off much of Broadlands after his years of intensive work. He disposed of 30,000 acres in the 1920s, and by the time of his retirement in 1936 had sold another 20,000 acres for forestry. In 1933 he gave 1,000 acres to the government for the settlement of unemployed people.
At the age of 67 Vaile was forced by ill health to retire to Auckland where he revelled in the role of benefactor to numerous institutions. He is estimated to have given away £40,000, including bequests to Auckland Grammar School and the Auckland Institute and Museum. In 1952 he was made an OBE. He never married, and died at Auckland on 11 January 1956. Vaile's ashes were spread at Broadlands, where a memorial to him was later constructed.