Born in Cornwall around 1809. His father was a carpenter and later gamekeeper at Carclew – home to the botanist and gardener, Sir Charles Lemon, who encouraged William in his interests in plants. William became a gardener after leaving school.
His younger brother, Thomas, who was working for the Veitch nursery in Exeter, told James Veitch of William's interest in plants and desire to travel. On 7 November 1840 William Lobb set off for Brazil, and his place in history as Veitch's first famous plant collector. He travelled extensively in South America. He was specifically tasked with bringing back seeds of the Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria aracauna). On reaching Chile, he collected seeds and cones from their high treetops by taking potshots at them with a rifle. At every port he sent back seeds to Veitch and herbarium samples to Kew. Although on at least one occasion he had to doubleback to collect samples again after they had failed to reach England. He finally returned to Britain in May 1844 – after 3.5 years.
He left on a second 3-year trip to South America in April 1845. After returning in 1848, he spent a year working at the nursery with his brother Thomas (who by now was also working as a collector). However, his health was suffering. Even so, he was sent to North America in 1849 to find suitable conifers and hardy shrubs. It was during this trip that he heard of the giant conifers.
He attended a meeting of the newly formed California Academy of Sciences as a guest of Dr Albert Kellogg (one of the seven founders of the first scientific body on America's western frontier) in 1853 (although one reputed source states 1852, the Academy's website states it was founded a year later). It was at this meeting that he heard of the giant trees discovered by Augustus Dowd.
As is usual with the rather convoluted story of the Redwoods, he was not the first or the last to claim to have discovered them (the first published source – in 1839 – attributes their discovery to a party led by Joseph Reddeford Walker which travelled across the Sierra Nevada in 1833). However, Dowd is the source that led to William Lobb hearing about them. Although it is not clear whether he was actually present at the meeting or simply cones and foliage he had collected exhibited. Like with much of the Sequoia story there are conflicting accounts.
William Lobb recognised the importance of the new species and raced to find them. He collected all the cones, seeds, seedlings and shoots that he could carry and headed for San Francisco for the first ship he could get to carry him and his precious cargo back to England. He reportedly arrived back in England by 15 December 1853, and hastened to see John Lindley, noted botanist and editor of The Gardener's Chronicle (The Times of the horticultural world).
The Gardener's Chronicle published the discovery of the Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) as front page news in their Christmas Eve 1853 edition. It was Lindley who gave the tree its first scientific name Wellingtonia gigantea – in honour of the recently deceased Duke of Wellington, who had towered above other men.
Not surprisingly, the Americans were justly incensed. Dr Kellogg had planned to name the tree Washingtonia, after America's first president, George Washington. While the tree proved to be a goldmine for his employer, and added to his own laurels, abusing the Americans' hospitality did little to encourage trans-Atlantic scientific cooperation and was not Lobb's finest hour. It is also likely that the Duke of Wellington whom the tree was named after would not have approved – he is said to be the role model for the English gentleman.
In fairness, William Lobb did a tremendous amount for British gardens and horticultural knowledge – at considerable danger and personal discomfit to himself. It also unlikely that he received a fair share of the proceeds (he appears to have been paid a flat fee for each expedition). Indeed, relations between the Lobb brothers and James Veitch appear to have broken down and ended somewhat acrimoniously. Even though his health continued to deteriorate, William was sent by his employer on another 3-year contract expedition to the States. After this contract ended in 1858 he stayed on in America, and sent material directly to Kew – much to the surprise and annoyance of James Veitch.
William Lobb died apparently alone and forgotten in San Francisco in 1863.
However, his name lives on in horticultural circles and in the gardens of Britain. A Moss rose (Rosa 'William Lobb) was named after him in 1855 (although it is also known as 'Duchesse D'Istrie'), and several other plants have been since. In 2009, the presumed bicentenary of his birth, the Lost Gardens of Heligan opened a commemorative exhibition on his work. Somewhat ironically, on display was an original edition of Hortus Veitchii (a history of his former employers published in 1906).