He was born at 6 St Mary's Street, Penzance, Cornwall, England on 1 April 1909.
He was the eldest son of James Sibley Richards (1887-1939), a general labourer, and Emily Hocking (1887-1972). His parents were both Cornish and had married in 1908. He was named after his maternal grandfather.
He appeared on the 1911 census living at 6 St Mary's Place, Penzance, a boarding house ran by his grandmother Eliza Hocking. He and his parents later moved to The Meadow in Newlyn, Cornwall and he gained a brother in 1911, Sibley George.
His father and uncle George Hocking subsequently emigrated to Akron, Ohio. William, his mother, and brother boarded the Titanic at Southampton as Second Class passengers under ticket number 29106 (which £18, 15s), having been transferred from the Oceanic. Traveling with them was his grandmother Eliza Hocking, aunt Ellen Hocking, uncle Richard George Hocking, who had returned from Akron to accompany them, and his great-aunt Ellen Wilkes.
On the night of the sinking, William and his brother were asleep in their cabin with their mother when their grandmother came to alert them of the danger. The family escaped in Lifeboat 4, but his uncle was among the lost. Boarding the rescue ship Carpathia, he was hoisted aboard in a sack. The same sack was later fashioned into a makeshift garment for him and he was photographed in this when he eventually made it to New York, being met there by his father.
He and his family settled in Akron, Ohio but the death of his grandmother in April 1914 perhaps compelled the family to return to England and they did so before the end of the year. Back in England, his mother had another child, a daughter named Emily Needs (b. 1914). He and his brother Sibley George, with whom he had been saved from Titanic, reportedly became estranged from each other in later years.
William continued to live in Cornwall and on 26 May 1929 at High Steet Chapel, he married Edith Melva Frances Hicks (b. 17 May 1909) and they had three children: George Hocking (b. 1930-1998), Mavis (b. 1932) and Jeanette (b. 1945). During WWII he served in the Royal Navy and was involved in the evacuations at Dunkirk in 1941. He later worked as a general manager in a smoked salmon company before retirement
He and his wife Melva later divorced and he later lived with a woman named Barbara Grace. They lived at White House Close, Carbis Bay, St. Ives, Cornwall but were forced to move due to subsidence in 1986. They chose to call their new home in Carpathia Longstone, also located in Carbis Bay. Despite few recollections of the events of the Titanic disaster William was frequently called upon for interviews by local media. He died on 9 January 1988, at the age of severnty-eight, following a heart-attack, and was interred in Longstone Cemetery, Carbis Bay, Cornwall. Melva (his first wife) outlived him by just four months, and she died on their wedding anniversary, 26 May 1988.