Robert Hunter was born at Addington Square, Camberwell, South London, on 27 Oct 1844. He took his degree at University College, London, and for a time lived at Carrick House, Surbiton (c1865). He married Emily Browning who died eighteen months later in 1872, and in 1878 he married again and had three daughters, Dorothy, Winifred and Margaret.
In 1867 he was appointed solicitor for the Commons Preservation Society and was instrumental in the preservation of Wimbledon Commons and Epping Forest among other open spaces. In 1876 he wrote a competition essay for the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society on the means of preserving common lands for the enjoyment of the public. This was chosen as one of six to be published. In 1882 he became Chief Solicitor to the Post Office but continued to advise the Commons Preservation Society. In 1894 he was knighted for services to the open space movement.
In 1884 no organisation existed which could own and manage historic buildings; existing bodies could only advise on restoration. Thus when Mr W J Evelyn wished to give his 17th century manor house, Sayes Court in Deptford, for the enjoyment of the public, there was no authority which could accept and maintain it. The house was later demolished. This lack prompted Robert Hunter to write to Octavia Hill and suggest the formation of such a body. Coupled with the work of Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley in the Lake District this led to the foundation of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.