Relatively little is known about Hulme's life. He is recorded as having been baptised in 1631. After the death of his father (also called William Hulme) in 1637, Hulme's uncle John Hulme acted as his guardian. It is probable that he was educated at the Manchester Grammar School. In 1648, some of his property was seized for his Cavalier sympathies in the English Civil War.
Hulme is believed to have matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1649, and to have joined Gray's Inn in 1650, though there is no evidence of his having graduated from Oxford or been called to the Bar. His marriage in 1653 brought Hulme an estate and mansion at Kearsley, where he would reside in later life. The house at Kearsley was the most significant in the locality, and accounted for seven of Kearsley's thirty-nine taxed hearths in 1666. Hulme also owned major properties at Hulme Hall in Reddish, Withingreave Hall in Withy Grove, Manchester, and Outwood near Prestwich. He held minor office in Manchester's court leet, and became a Justice of the Peace. On his death in 1691 he was buried in the Hulme chapel built by his ancestors in the collegiate church of Manchester (now Manchester Cathedral).
His only son having died at the age of 15 while at Manchester Grammar School, Hulme left his property to his wife, and after her death to his trustees and their heirs. The trust was to use the money for educational purposes: Hulmeian Exhibitions were established at Brasenose College, Oxford to support four poor students through their studies and provide them with parish livings for four years after graduation. The trustees determined that the exhibitions should be limited to the sons of Lancashire clergy. As the wealth of the trust increased through profitable property investments, the number of Exhibitions was increased and a lectureship in divinity established, also at Brasenose.
In 1827 the trust was allowed to begin purchasing Anglican benefices, and bought 28 in total. These purchases proved controversial, with some regarding feeling the trust was being misused. In 1881 the Charity Commissioners empowered the trust to use its funds to establish two schools – one in Manchester (William Hulme's Grammar School) and one in Oldham (Hulme Grammar School), and to fund new buildings for an existing school (Bury Grammar School) – as well as a hall of residence for Anglican students (in Owens College, then the only constituent college of the University of Manchester). Later grants were given to Manchester High School for Girls, Manchester Grammar School, and other halls in the university; scholarships to Brasenose from the Hulme schools were also endowed, in addition to the original Exhibitions.
- Rack, Henry (2004). Hulme, William (bap. 1631, d. 1691). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2007-05-02.
- "Townships: Kearsley". A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 5. 1911. pp. pp. 39–41. Retrieved 2007-05-02.
- Moss, John (2002-04-17). "Philanthropy, Philosophy & Religion: William Hulme". Virtual Encyclopaedia of Greater Manchester. Papillon Graphics. Retrieved 2007-05-02.