Edmund Hobhouse was born in London, England, on 17 April 1817, the son of Henry Hobhouse and his wife, Harriet Turton. Henry Hobhouse was a prominent government official, and Edmund had a privileged upbringing and education. In 1828 he went to Eton, where his tendency to overwork first manifested itself. Recurrent and virulent headaches, beginning in 1830, forced him to finish his schooling privately. Nevertheless he completed a BA at Oxford in 1838. Between 1838 and 1840 he studied at the theological school of the University of Durham, and in 1841 was elected to a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford. He was ordained deacon that Christmas and priest a year later.
Although financially independent, Hobhouse became vicar of St Peter's-in-the-East, Oxford, in 1843. He subsequently became involved in Bishop Samuel Wilberforce's reform of the diocese of Oxford. This made him familiar with diocesan administration. In 1853 he attended a general convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, gaining valuable knowledge of synodical church government.
In 1855–56 Hobhouse, who was a friend of Bishop G. A. Selwyn, nearly became the first bishop of Christchurch. He withdrew when sufficient funds became available to allow Henry Harper to accept the office. On 1 January 1858 he married Mary Elizabeth Brodrick at Wells, Somerset, England. There were two sons of the marriage. In September 1858 he was consecrated as the first bishop of Nelson. He now added honorary DDs from Oxford, Cambridge and Durham to an Oxford MA (1842) and BD (1850). He arrived in New Zealand in late January 1859, just in time to participate in the first General Synod.
Hobhouse spent much of his episcopate organising the diocesan and parochial structure of the new diocese. In August 1859 he held the first of Nelson's annual diocesan synods. He streamlined the administration of existing endowments and tried, with limited success, to encourage voluntary contributions. In the end he subsidised diocesan finances very substantially from his own stipend and his private income. Diocesan and local trusts were created to manage estates previously held by Selwyn.
Hobhouse himself became trustee of the Wakarewa Trust, a large endowment of land by the Crown to provide education for children of every race. His efforts to set up a Maori boys' school were unavailing. Neither boys nor parents favoured the sort of boarding establishment Hobhouse envisaged. His desire to start a school in Nelson for Maori girls was also fruitless. But he succeeded in reopening a Church of England boys' school in Nelson.
Hobhouse experienced severe difficulties in obtaining sufficient clergy for parish and Maori work. One of his small band of assistants was the Reverend R. H. Codrington, his former curate, later a notable scholar in Melanesian languages. Codrington was the first clergyman Hobhouse sent to the populous Golden Bay goldfields. Another of Hobhouse's recruits was his cousin, the Reverend H. M. Turton.
Stress caused by staff shortages and exacerbated by conscientiousness, a tendency to overwork and an inability to delegate meant that Hobhouse's health, never good despite his apparently robust physique, was always a concern. Initially, however, long visitations of the diocese on foot or horseback controlled his headaches.
His devotion to duty at first won admiration. But three factors probably helped create distrust of episcopacy in Nelson. A dispute festered between Selwyn and some Nelson members of the church over a contribution to the Nelson episcopal endowment which Selwyn refused to pay. The wars of the 1860s generated anti-episcopal feeling. Moreover, class feeling ran high in Nelson, and the shy and reserved Hobhouse, who was clearly a gentleman, may have met with a negative response from some quarters.
Two aspects of his beliefs also undermined his popularity. Firstly, many Nelsonians were more fervent supporters of religious tolerance than was usual in contemporary England. Hobhouse was attacked as unacceptably intolerant. Secondly, Hobhouse's churchmanship displeased the strong evangelical element in Nelson. Although he rejected the Tractarian label, Hobhouse firmly believed that his church was 'Catholic' as well as reformed. He openly said the daily offices, and his sermons did not suit evangelical tastes.
Turton, who took charge of Nelson city from the bishop, was also a high churchman and he aroused considerable opposition. His public standing, already under attack, was irreparably damaged when in 1863 he was charged with sodomy. The motivation of the accuser and the truth of the accusation were questionable, and remain so. Turton was in any case acquitted and returned to England. As a consequence, additional duties were thrust on Hobhouse. This burden, combined with a feeling that the other clergy had given him and Turton inadequate support over the sodomy accusation, apparently upset the precarious balance of his health. In August 1864 he announced that he would resign as bishop, but continue to serve in the diocese under his successor. His resignation took effect in 1865. The death in October 1864 of his wife, to whom he was devoted, led him to reconsider his decision to stay. He left for England in June 1866.
Back in England Hobhouse first held the living of Beech Hill, near Reading. He remarried on 14 January 1868 at Bramshill, Southampton: his second wife was Anna Maria Williams. From 1869 he acted as assistant to Selwyn, now bishop of Lichfield. He was also chancellor of Lichfield diocese in 1874–75. In 1881 he retired to Wells, Somerset. A keen amateur historian, Hobhouse was active in founding the Somerset Record Society in 1886. His publications were confined to historical subjects. He died on 20 April 1904 aged 87 years.
Historians have tended to ignore or minimise the effect on Hobhouse's health of difficulties caused by his and Turton's churchmanship and, in particular, by the sodomy case. Without these problems his episcopate might have lasted much longer. Because of his rather rigid temperament and uncertain health Hobhouse was not an ideal choice for a colonial bishop. But his piety, zeal and liking for travel to some extent compensated for these factors. During his brief episcopate Hobhouse laid the foundations of diocesan organisation, and his munificent financial contributions, particularly his gift of the Bishopdale estate, were of lasting benefit to the diocese of Nelson.