Hovell was born in Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. His father was captain and part owner of a vessel trading to the Mediterranean, which, during a voyage in 1794, was captured by the French and taken into a port, where he became a prisoner of war for two years. William, when only 10 years of age, went to sea to earn his living. After going through the hard life of a foremast hand, at 20 years of age he was mate of Zenobia bound to Peru, and two years later he was a mercantile marine captain of the Juno bound to Rio Janeiro, and others. He decided to come to Australia, arriving at Sydney New South Wales by the ship Earl Spencer, with his wife Esther née Arndell (daughter of the surgeon Thomas Arndell). and two children, a boy and a girl, on 9 October 1813. Making an association with Simeon Lord, Hovell became master of a vessel and made several trading voyages along the east coast of Australia coast and to New Zealand.
In June 1816, while in command of The Brothers he was shipwrecked in the Kent Group, Bass Strait, and along with his crew of eight survived for 10 weeks on the wheat from their cargo that was washed up, before being rescued by the Spring. In 1819 he settled on the land near Sydney and did some exploring in a southerly direction; he discovered the Burragorang Valley in 1823.
In 1824 Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane asked Hovell to join with Hamilton Hume to undertake the exploration of what is now southern New South Wales and Victoria in an attempt to obtain more information about any rivers that might run south in the direction of Spencer Gulf. Hovell had little bush experience, but had great experience as a navigator.
The planned official expedition did not eventuate, and Hume and Hovell decided to make the journey at their own expense. Some pack-saddles, clothes, blankets and arms were provided from the government stores. The explorers left on 3 October 1824 with six men. They reached Hume's station on 13 October, and on 17 October began the expedition proper with five bullocks, three horses and two carts. On 22 October they found that the only way to pass the Murrumbidgee River, then in flood, was to convert one of the carts into a type of boat by passing a tarpaulin under it; the men, horses, and bullocks swam over, and everything was successfully got across. A day or two later, in broken hilly country full of water-courses, they had great difficulty in finding a road for the loaded carts, deciding on 27 October to abandon them. Until 16 November their course lay through difficult mountainous country. On that day they came to a large river which Hovell called Hume's River "he being the first that saw it". This was an upper reach of the Murray River so named by Charles Sturt a few years later. It was impossible to cross here, but after a few days a better place was found, and constructing the rough frame of a boat, they managed to get across. By 3 December they had reached the Goulburn River, which they were able to cross without a boat. During the next 10 days much difficult country was traversed but they then came to more level and open land, and on 16 December they sighted Port Phillip in the distance. Presently they skirted its shores south-westerly and came to what is now Corio Bay near Geelong. Here Hovell made a mistake of one degree in calculating his longitude, and they came to the conclusion that they were on Western Port. The party returned on 18 December and wisely keeping more to the west had an easier journey. On 8 January 1825 they came to the end of their provisions, and for a few days subsisted on fish and a kangaroo they were able to shoot. On 16 January 1825 they reached the carts they had left behind them, and two days later came to Lake George.
On 25 March 1825 Governor Brisbane mentioned the discoveries of Hovell and Hume in a dispatch and said that he intended to send a vessel to Western Port to have it explored. However, nothing was done until his successor, Governor Darling, towards the end of 1826, sent an expedition under Captain Wright to Western Port. Hovell was attached to this expedition, and when it arrived the previous error made in his longitude was soon discovered. Hovell explored and reported on the land surrounding Western Port and to the north of it, and near the coast to the east at Cape Paterson he discovered "great quantities of very fine coal". This was the first discovery of coal in Victoria. Hovell was away five months on this expedition and afterwards did no more exploring. He made various efforts during the next 10 years to obtain some special recognition from the government in addition to the grants of 1,200 acres (5 km2) for the journey with Hume, and 1,280 acres (5 km2) for the journey to Western Port, "subject to restrictions and encumbrances so depreciatory of its value, as to render it a very inadequate remuneration". He appears to have had no success, but must have prospered on his run at Goulburn, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died on 9 November 1875, and in 1877 his widow left £6000 to the University of Sydney as a memorial of him, which was used to found the William Hilton Hovell lectureship on geology and physical geography.
In 1854 ill-feeling arose between Hume and Hovell which led to each writing a pamphlet with contradicting views on their expedition. In December 1853 Hovell was entertained at a public dinner in Geelong to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the discovery of the district. Reports reached Hume that that Hovell was credited for the discovery of Geelong. The fullest report of Hovell's speech available does not justify Hume's contention.
Hume was the better bushman of the two, and more of a natural leader, but Hovell was a well-educated man of amiable character, and during their joint expedition they seem to have worked effectively together. Between them they were responsible for an excellent and important piece of exploration. Hovell's later discovery of coal during his visit to Western Port was also important; it is remarkable that the discovery was overlooked for a long period.
Hovell died in Sydney on 9 November 1875 and was buried at Goulburn, survived by a son.
Lake William Hovell on the King River is named after him.
- "The Late Captain Hovell.". Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, NSW : 1859 - 1889) (Grafton, NSW: National Library of Australia). 20 November 1875. p. 3. Retrieved 29 April 2012.
- "William Hilton Hovell.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 29 November 1924. p. 13. Retrieved 29 April 2012.
- T. M. Perry (1966). "Hovell, William Hilton (1786 - 1875)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1. MUP. pp. 556–557. Retrieved 6 August 2009.
- The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. 21 September 1816. p. 2.
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Hovell, William". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 6 August 2009.
- Historical Records of Australia, ser. III, vol. V, p. 855
- Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vol. XIV, pp. 725-9.
- "Public Dinner to Captain William Hovell". The Sydney Morning Herald. 27 December 1853. Retrieved 5 November 2010.