Alfred Saunders was baptised on 13 August 1820 at Market Lavington, Wiltshire, England. He was the sixth of ten children of Mary Box and her husband, Amram Edwards Saunders, a miller. He was educated at schools in Market Lavington and at an academy in Bristol. After completing his schooling at the age of 14, Alfred spent most of his early working life in the family milling business, although a year in Somersetshire managing a mill owned by a Quaker was a formative influence.
Attracted by the prospect of emigration, Alfred Saunders joined the Second Colony of New Zealand, a society which sought to acquire a settlement area from the New Zealand Company. In August 1841 he paid 'the first £150 that I ever earned' for an allotment in the planned settlement of Nelson. He sailed on the Fifeshire in October, and arrived at Nelson on 1 February 1842. In later life Saunders was proud to claim that he was Nelson's 'first settler', a distinction earned when he leapt from the longboat 'with an axe and spade on his shoulder' and waded ashore. It was an action which typified his independent character.
Saunders soon abandoned his plan to establish a mill or bakery, and went into business hauling timber to Nelson across the Wairoa River from Waimea. At first he resided on his allotted section in Nelson, but subsequently settled at Waimea South, or the Teetotal Section as it was known. An 'aggressive abstainer', Saunders had been prominent as a temperance activist in England, and continued to be so in New Zealand. He founded a temperance society in Nelson in 1842. Saunders's interest in stock breeding was stimulated by the arrival in 1843 of prize animals sent by his father. However, he did not farm extensively in this period, and had soon sold most or all of his land at Waimea to Frederick Tuckett.
Better economic prospects drew Saunders across the Tasman at the end of 1846. At first he worked as a stone dresser in a mill. On 1 January 1847, at Sydney, New South Wales, he married Rhoda Flower of Nelson; there were 10 children of this marriage. After an overland trek Alfred and Rhoda Saunders settled in the Mt Barker district, near Adelaide, where Alfred worked as a contractor, ploughing, carting, and bridge-building. However, persistent illness led to his disillusionment, and the Saunders returned to Nelson about 1851 or 1852.
Ensconced once again at Waimea, Alfred Saunders soon acquired one of several mills operating without conspicuous success in the district. In 1855 he established a water-driven mill at Brightwater. This was to be the basis of his fortune. With a shrewd business sense, he quickly outstripped his competitors and was soon importing wheat from as far afield as Valparaiso. By leasing a 100 acre farm at Waimea East, some five miles from his mill, he emulated his father in having 'a mill for profit and a farm for pleasure'. He later invested in land in Canterbury.
Saunders's rising status in the community was reflected in his election to the Nelson Provincial Council in August 1855, beginning a 41 year political career which was distinguished by his skilful and combative oratory and determined independence from party affiliation. A strong supporter and adviser of the superintendent, John Perry Robinson, Saunders brought to the council progressive ideas and an abhorrence of financial extravagance. He was an early advocate of women's suffrage, a strong supporter of a progressive land tax, and of state, secular education. However, it was an event in late 1859, not long after his appointment as a justice of the peace in January of that year, which propelled him into the provincial limelight, and onto the national stage.
On 30 November 1859 Saunders published an impetuously self-righteous letter in the Nelson Examiner, criticising the district judge, W. T. L. Travers, a political opponent, for finding against him in a minor dispute. His subsequent conviction for criminal libel was the first such conviction in New Zealand. Saunders was obliged to defend himself before a judge already biased against him. Factional politics underlay both the court proceedings and the public response to them. Saunders was fined £150 and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. So widespread was the popular distaste at the treatment meted out to 'one of our oldest and most respected settlers', however, that a petition for his release was quickly dispatched to the governor. Saunders was pardoned, and released on 22 April 1860 after three months in gaol.
Despite being conspicuously removed from the Bench, to which he was not restored until 1862, Saunders found his political standing enhanced by the affair. He had resigned his provincial council seat, but was re-elected unopposed in March 1860, while still in prison. In 1861 he stood for Parliament against one of the jurymen in his libel case and was elected with little effort. A great admirer of William Fox, he nevertheless declined Fox's offer of the colonial treasurership after the defeat of the Stafford ministry. He resigned his seat in October 1864.
Although eschewing national office, Saunders served on the Nelson executive council from 1863. After the death of J. P. Robinson in January 1865 Saunders was elected superintendent in March. An able administrator, he brought order to the province's West Coast goldfields, and played a notable part in bringing the Maungatapu murderers to justice. However, anxious to see his mother again, he resigned his seat early in 1867 and left for England. Sustained by his investments in New Zealand, he spent the next four years there, promoting the colony and furthering the temperance cause.
On his return to New Zealand in January 1872 Saunders settled at Christchurch. He directed his energies towards establishing, in 1873, a successful watermill at Ashburton. This required a diversion of the Ashburton River which was to have widespread irrigation benefits for the whole district. From 1873 to 1875 he lived at Ashburton, where he served as a justice of the peace; he was on the Ashburton Roads Board from 1874 to 1875, and was a governor of Ashburton High School. He was a member of the Ashburton County Council from 1876 to 1881. In January 1876 he embarked with his daughter, Sarah, on an extended visit to England and the United States.
Saunders's resumption of his parliamentary career in May 1878, as member for Cheviot, set the stage for a dramatic downturn in his fortunes. Absorbed in his parliamentary work, he neglected his financial affairs, which he had incautiously left hostage to his eldest son William's business capacity. When a warehouse fire precipitated the failure of his son's firm late in 1878, Alfred Saunders was ruined. He was forced to sell his Christchurch home, Avonbank, and move to a 'bleak and wild-looking' property at West Melton, 15 miles from Christchurch.
Although returning to Parliament in 1879 a poor man, forced to supplement his income by journalism, Saunders resisted the temptation to take a portfolio in John Hall's administration. Instead, he used his politically powerful position, as the informal leader of Fox's supporters, to promote his goals of electoral reform, including manhood suffrage and triennial parliaments. Saunders achieved notoriety as the chairman of the royal commission on the civil service, the 1880 report of which reflected his long-standing animus against civil servants in general, and embarrassed the government with its allegations of corruption. Association with the retrenchment measures that followed the report, although not entirely fair, left Saunders 'as unpopular as Satan', and probably contributed to his defeat at the 1881 general election. Ironically, this was the first election held under manhood suffrage, which he had so long promoted. Saunders was convinced that a combination of runholders, land speculators, Catholics, brewers and wage workers thereafter kept him out of Parliament, for he lost his next four election contests, albeit three of them narrowly.
Saunders now applied himself to his duties with the North Canterbury Education Board, of which he was chairman in 1889 and 1898. He also wrote several books on stock breeding, including Our domestic birds (1883) and Our horses (1886). Re-elected to Parliament in January 1889, he generally supported the Liberal administrations of John Ballance and Richard Seddon, although again, apparently, refusing the colonial treasurership in 1896. He campaigned vigorously for women's suffrage, and enjoyed his status as the House's oldest member. Boundary changes led to his defeat in November 1896, bringing to an end his parliamentary career.
During the 1890s Saunders devoted himself to writing a history of New Zealand, a 'presumtious [sic] task' which he had been persuaded to undertake on the basis of his long parliamentary experience. A discursive account of European settlement and politics, his History of New Zealand was published in two volumes in 1896 and 1899. Saunders returned to England in mid 1899. Depressed by ill health, and by the death of Rhoda Saunders in May the previous year, he had become anxious to renew acquaintance with his family, particularly his ailing cousin and childhood friend Sarah Box. Alfred Saunders and Sarah Box were married on 6 October 1899 at Shottermill, Surrey. They resided at Southampton, until Sarah Saunders's death in June 1904. Returning to Christchurch in October 1904, Alfred Saunders lived in failing health at Papanui. He died there on 28 October 1905.