William Greenwell was born 23 March 1820 at the estate known as Greenwell Ford near Lanchester, County Durham, England. He was the eldest son of William Thomas Greenwell (1777–1856) and Dorothy Smales. He had three brothers Francis, Alan, and Henry Nicholas Greenwell, and a sister Dorothy (1821–1882) who published poetry under the name Dora Greenwell.
After an early education by Rev George Newby, he attended Durham School. One of his schoolmates was Henry Baker Tristram. He matriculated at University College, Durham in October 1836 and graduated Bachelor of Arts (BA) in June 1839. He started training to be a barrister at Middle Temple, but owing to ill health decided to leave London and return to University College in 1841, completing a licentiate in Theology in 1842. He received a Master of Arts in 1843. Greenwell was ordained a deacon by Bishop Edward Maltby 30 June 1844 and priest 28 June 1846. He was bursar of University College in Durham from 1844 to 1847.
His family estate included the site of the ancient Roman fort Longovicium. As a child he and his brother Frank would scoop out soil covering the camp, leading to his interest in archaeology. He was a founding member of the Tyneside Naturalists' Field Club in 1846, and later that year toured Germany and Italy. In August 1852 he presented a paper at an Archaeological Institute there. In March 1864 he excavated fourteen barrows at Danes Graves a site of the Arras Culture of the British Iron Age and was subsequently criticised by William Harrison-Broadley for his poor excavation technique.: 16 Greenwell undertook a large-scale excavation of 53 barrows at Danes Graves with John Robert Mortimer between 1897–98.: 17 Greenwell is also noted for his work on the Grimes Graves along with his treatises on electrum coinage of Cyzicus, and cataloguing of the Late Bronze Age finds from Heathery Burn Cave.
Greenwell's enormous collection of antiquities, many of which date from the Neolithic or Bronze Age period in Britain, is now in the British Museum. This was thanks to the generosity of J. P. Morgan, who bought them for £10,000. In 1895 he sold his collections of flint implements to Dr W. Allan Sturge, formerly of Nice. His earliest collection of note was Greek coins, which he eventually sold to a Mr. Warren of Boston, Massachusetts, with Warren later donating it to the Boston Museum. One of his students was Augustus Pitt Rivers. With the money made from selling his collections he was able to repurchase his ancestral home, Greenwell Ford, which was then inherited by his nephew after his death.
Greenwell held the perpetual curacy of Ovingham with Mickley from 1847 to 1850. He then briefly served Robert Isaac Wilberforce as curate at Burton Agnes, Yorkshire, before becoming assistant to William George Henderson, principal of Hatfield Hall, Durham. In 1852 he was appointed principal of Neville Hall, a hostel for students at Newcastle College of Medicine, with whom he worked among the town's cholera victims in 1853.
Greenwell was appointed canon at Durham Cathedral from 1854 to his death, and became known as Canon Greenwell. He was also chaplain and censor at Bishop Cosin's Hall from 1855-1863. From 1863 to 1908 Greenwell was librarian of Durham Cathedral, where he continued the work of cataloguing the holdings begun by Joseph Stevenson. Greenwell was president of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham from 1865 to his death, and vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle from 1890 until his death. In 1868 he was elected to the Society of Antiquaries of London. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1870, later chairing the Durham ward petty sessions, and was elected an alderman in 1904.
Known in Durham as 'The Canon', he had a reputation for being bluff and plain-spoken. Greenwell was a Liberal in politics, and in religion a Tractarian who in later life retreated to more conservative high-churchmanship. His fishing and hunting skills developed in early childhood on the River Browney and he remained a keen angler to his ninety-eighth year. As an outdoorsman keen on angling and shooting, his sporting instincts made him naturally sympathetic to poachers. When a poacher was brought for trial in Durham both the police and the defendant, with differing motives, would inquire whether Greenwell would be on the bench. He is known as originator of "Greenwell's Glory", used in fly fishing.
- William Greenwell (2006) . Boldon Buke: a Survey of the Possessions of the See of Durham Made by order of Bishop Hugh Pudsey, in the Year MCLXXXIII. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 978-0-543-97277-4. With a translation, an appendix of original documents, and a glossary.
- William Greenwell (1877). British barrows, a record of the examination of sepulchral mounds in various parts of England. the Clarendon press. Together with description of figures of skulls, general remarks on prehistoric crania, and an appendix by George Rolleston.
- William Greenwell (1893). "Rare Greek coins". Numismatic Chronicle, Volume XIII Third Series, Pages 81–92.
- William Greenwell (1897). Durham Cathedral: an address delivered September 24, 1879 (Fifth ed.). Andrews.
- Francis Haverfield; William Greenwell (1899). A catalogue of the sculptured and inscribed stones in the Cathedral Library, Durham. Thomas Caldcleugh for Durham Cathedral Library.
- Sir Bernard Burke (1871). A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the landed gentry of Great Britain & Ireland. Volume 1 (5th ed.). Harrison. p. 543.
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- William Dorling (1885). Memoirs of Dora Greenwell. J. Clarke. p. 1.
- Burns, Arthur (2004). "Greenwell, William (1820–1918)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33542. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Fowler, J. T. Durham University: Earlier Foundations and Present Colleges (PDF). pp. 150–158.
- Stead. I. 1979. Arras Culture. Yorkshire Philosophical Society: York
- Greenwell, W. 1894. "Antiquities of the Bronze Age found in the Heathery Burn Cave, County Durham", Archaeologia (2nd Series, 4), 87-114
- British Museum Collection
- "In Memoriam". The Durham University Journal. Durham: Durham University. 21: 427. Retrieved 12 August 2019.
- Petch, Alison. "Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers and Yorkshire". England: The other within: Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Retrieved 28 March 2010.
- "Canon Greenwell and the Development of Archaeology in the North of England". Department of Archeology, Durham University. Retrieved 27 March 2010.
- "The Royal Numismatic Society-The Society's Medal". The Royal Numismatic Society. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
- Andrew N. Herd (2005). "Greenwell's Glory". A Fly Fishing History. Retrieved 27 March 2010.
- Barry M. Marsden The Early Barrow Diggers Tempus 1999 (reissue of the ed. Shire Publications, 1974); pp. 33, 45, 49, 56-57, 90-91, 98-106, 109, 113, 115