William Thomas Locke Travers, son of Boyle Travers, a captain in the 95th Regiment of Foot, later Rifle Brigade, and his wife, Caroline Brockman, is said to have been born either on 9 or 19 January 1819 at Castleview, near Newcastle, County Limerick, Ireland. Mainly brought up in France where his father retired, William was nearly 17 when he completed his education at St Servan's College, Saint Malo. Travers joined the British Foreign Legion in 1835, serving as a lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment of Cavalry of the British Auxiliary Legion of Spain in the Spanish Carlist Wars from 1835 to 1838. For a short time he was aide-de-camp to the leader of his division, General Espartero, Duke of Victoria. He received a decoration for his services.
In 1838 the Spanish revolution ended and Travers chose to study law in London; he was admitted to the Bar about 1844. Over the next five years he practised first at Chipping Camden and later at Evesham. He married Jane Oldham at Cork, Ireland, in 1843; they were to have a son and a daughter. In 1849 William and Jane Travers and their two children embarked on the Kelso bound for Nelson, New Zealand, where they arrived on 4 November 1849.
Travers practised law in Nelson, Christchurch and Wellington; he served as resident magistrate in Nelson. He also pursued a fitful political career. He was a member of the House of Representatives for Nelson (1853–54), Waimea (1854–59), Christchurch City (1867–70), and Wellington City (1877–78). He stood unsuccessfully for the superintendency of Nelson in 1855 and Canterbury in 1866, but was a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1867. During his time in Parliament he was, from 31 August to 2 September 1854, a member without portfolio of T. S. Forsaith's short-lived executive. He is notable for having attempted to make the general government rather than the provinces responsible for education.
It was outside politics, however, that Travers made his mark in New Zealand. He and his son, Henry, explored the Nelson region. He found the source of the Waiau River in the Spenser Mountains, and named the Ada, Henry, Boyle and Anne rivers in the upper Waiau valley. Mt Travers and the Travers Range bear his name in this area. In the headwaters of the Waiau, Travers collected grasses and alpine flowers, carefully noting the altitude. Much of this plant material was forwarded to Joseph Hooker for the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Hooker regarded him as an 'acute collector'. Herbarium specimens collected by Travers are held in the National Museum in Wellington.
Travers's interest in natural history led him to become one of the founders of the New Zealand Institute, drafting the statute under which the institute was established in 1867. He was one of its governors until his death, and from 1888 to 1903 was its treasurer. Travers also drafted the 1869 act establishing the Botanic Garden of Wellington, which was to be managed by the institute. For 22 years he was a member of the botanic garden board. At the time of the Botanic Garden Vesting Act 1891, his arguments ensured that the original 13 acre strip of the garden should be managed as a true botanic garden in perpetuity.
Travers published some 40 articles on botany, ornithology, geology and ethnology in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. He was a skilled amateur photographer, whose work is now sought after by museums and galleries. Travers edited, and wrote the text for, Charles Barraud's album of views, New Zealand: graphic and descriptive (1877), and in 1889 published From New Zealand to Lake Michigan, a book of travel impressions mainly of America.
Travers was a keen military volunteer in both Nelson and Canterbury and was gazetted captain (unattached list) on 31 March 1869. In 1874 he was founding president of the Wellington Acclimatisation Society. In the same year, as a member of the board of governors of Wellington College, he supervised a large planting of trees obtained from the botanic garden, on the slopes of the town belt behind Wellington College.
Travers was one of the first shareholders of the Wellington Gas Company, the Wellington City Steam Tramways Company and the Wellington and Manawatū Railway Company. For a time he was city solicitor. He was adviser to both the Wellington Woollen Manufacturing Company and the Wellington Patent Slip Company, and urged attention to harnessing the power of the Hutt River. For a time Travers was vice consul for France and received from that government the Grand Cross of Cambodia.
Jane Travers died in 1888, and on 9 April 1891 Travers married Theodosia Leslie Barclay at St Peter's Church, Wellington. John Ballance, the premier, was principal witness. Travers died as the result of an accident at Hutt railway station on 27 April 1903, and was accorded eulogies by members of the Bar of the Supreme Court at Wellington and Dunedin.