Cunningham was born in Edinburgh on 29 December 1849, and died in Cambridge on 10 June 1919. His father, James, was a writer to the signet; His mother, Elizabeth Boyle Dunlop, was the second wife of James, and William was the youngest of three sons (there were a son and a daughter from the first marriage). He was educated at home until 1864 when he attended Edinburgh Academy. He entered Edinburgh University the following year. He had been brought up in a devoutly Presbyterian household, but in the summer of 1868 he spent three months at the University of Tübingen learning German. There he came under the influence of two Anglican scholars from America, and he resolved to become a priest in the Church of England. He graduated from Edinburgh in 1869 and in the same year entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge to Read moral sciences, subsequently winning a scholarship to Trinity College. He was joint Senior in the moral sciences tripos in 1872, took his MA in 1873 and was ordained deacon, becoming a priest a year later. He went on to serve as vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge (1887–1908) and Archdeacon of Ely (1907–19).
From The Biographical Dictionary of British Economists in Oxford Reference.