Robert Wilson was born in Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland, probably on 16 December 1832 and educated at the local school. His parents, Robert Wilson and his wife, Margaret Allen, farmed flax for the linen trade at Omagh. The Wilsons emigrated to Victoria, Australia, in 1852. Their farm at Amdewarra was too small to support the whole family, so Robert junior obtained employment with a merchant in nearby Geelong. He later began a carrying and feed business in partnership with Thomas Sutterby, but the discovery of gold in Otago, New Zealand, lured him there.
According to family tradition, Wilson arrived at Port Chalmers on the Oscar in late 1861, bringing a variety of merchandise with him. Business was slower than expected, and he decided to stay in Dunedin to oversee the sale of his goods. He set up as a ship and commission agent and general merchant, as well as undertaking some carting, but soon concentrated on wholesale grocery. He was sufficiently successful to become a guarantor for £100 for the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition, held in Dunedin.
For almost 20 years Wilson was active in promoting various companies in Dunedin, serving as a director of most of them. He was a founder of the National Fire and Marine Insurance Company of New Zealand in 1873, and a board member until his death. He was also associated with the Colonial Bank of New Zealand, the Mutual Agency Company of New Zealand, the Kaitangata Railway and Coal Company and many other concerns.
In early 1881 the Otago Daily Times suggested that 10 local businessmen provide £100 each to examine the feasibility of setting up a freezing works; Wilson was the first to respond. He sat on the board of the resulting New Zealand Refrigerating Company during its first year. Not all Wilson's business ventures were successful, however, and he was eventually to lose money invested in farming.
Wilson had a long involvement with the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, and in 1882 was elected its chairman. He provided sound, enthusiastic leadership and endeavoured to give the ailing organisation some renewed life. From 1881 to 1883 he was a nominated member of the Otago Harbour Board, but resigned in frustration over his inability to influence the board over what he considered bad financial decisions.
Wilson once remarked that he would be happier if he 'did less business and made larger profits.' His health suffered from his active life, and in 1884 he took a trip to Britain to recuperate. On his return he concentrated on business; although he retained membership of a few societies, such as the Caledonian Society of Otago and the New Zealand Institute, he played no active part in them. His major recreation was bowls, and he was a founding member of the Dunedin Bowling Club. Horse-racing and curling were also among his sporting interests.
Wilson had married Eliza Jane Thomson at Upper Derriwell, Victoria, on 15 July 1862; they had three daughters and two sons. He retired in February 1895 and control of his firm passed to his elder son Leslie Robert, in partnership with T. S. Culling. Robert Wilson died on 19 August 1899 at his home in George Street, Dunedin, after an illness of about eight months; he was buried in the Southern cemetery. Eliza Wilson died in 1922.
Wilson was an enterprising, energetic and successful entrepreneur who capitalised on Dunedin's growth during and after the goldrushes. A liberal supporter of Knox Presbyterian Church, he always gave willingly to charitable appeals, and was a genial and well-respected figure.