He was born in the Yorkshire linen-weaving and coal-mining town of Barnsley about 1806. His father was an Englishman, and a linen weaver, and his mother was an Irish Catholic. Ashton always identified strongly with his mother’s nation and faith and often spoke of himself as an Irishman.
Although linen weaving was still a hand trade, the number of workers coming from other branches of textile manufacture and from the declining Irish industry, as well as the continual pressure to lower prices, led to a series of conflicts between weavers and employers on questions of prices, wages, and working practices. By his early twenties, Ashton was among the leaders of the weavers and was arrested for his part in a strike and in a series of riots in 1829. At the York assizes in August 1830, he and another young weaver, Francis Mirfield, were sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation and were sent to a penal colony in Australia. A memorial for their release was organised in Barnsley, and after seven years both men were released and returned to England, their fares having been raised by the Barnsley people.
Ashton and Mirfield arrived back in the spring of 1838 and were immediately involved in the local Chartist movement. Barnsley had one of the earliest and most active Chartist groups in the country, and Ashton soon became a prominent leader. In the troubled summer of 1839, he escaped briefly to France, but returned after a few months and was arrested in the autumn of 1839. At the York assize of March 1840, he and two other Barnsley Chartists were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for sedition.
Ashton gave an account of the Newport rising of November 1839, and of the various plots which undoubtedly existed in other parts of the country, which has been taken seriously by some historians; but the events have never been entirely elucidated. Ashton claimed, in letters and at a public meeting held after his release from prison, that he had acquired advance information about the lack of enthusiasm among provincial leaders for the proposed rising, and sent a message to Feargus O’Connor asking him to warn John Frost of the potential lack of support. The message was never delivered to Frost, who was taken and sentenced to death. There are many problems with the story, not least the fact that Frost appears never to have relinquished his friendship with O’Connor, and so could hardly have felt betrayed in the way Ashton suggested. At the public meeting, Ashton was howled down by his fellow Chartists and left immediately afterwards with his family for the United States, financed on his journey by the government, who were offering imprisoned Chartists assisted passages on their release. Ashton did not settle in the United States, however, but returned to Barnsley after less than a year away and soon became active again in Barnsley politics.
In spite of the controversy aroused by his accusations against O’Connor, which he renewed in a letter to the Northern Star newspaper on 3rd May 1845, Ashton seems to have continued to be an active and leading member of the Barnsley Chartists and he represented them at the 1848 Chartist convention. Soon after this, however, about 1850, Ashton again emigrated with his family, this time to Australia. He spent the rest of his life there, dying at Craigie, Victoria, on 26th September 1877. He made his living in Australia mainly as a shopkeeper, but still wrote regularly to the Barnsley Chronicle about Australian life, as well as recounting his memories of the Chartist movement. Like many Chartist emigrants, he was disappointed by the experience of life in a more democratic system, commenting in a letter of March 1866 that ‘The same system prevails here as is the general rule at home; the rich get richer whilst the poor get poorer’.
 The major sources for William Ashton are: D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984 and J. H. Burland Annals of Barnsley, c.1881