The son of farmer and malster Richard Hicks and his wife Elizabeth, Hicks was born at Newquay on 26 July 1833, educated at Drakes Academy in St Austell and left Cornwall in 1859 for the mining fields of the United States. By the mid 1860s he left the United States, which was in the throes of the Civil War, for Peru. Here, encouraged by the high price of cotton, he entered into partnership with an American gentleman to work a large plantation in the north of the country that was unsuccessful due to drought and blight of the crop. In 1868 he decided to settle in Iquique which was recovering from a devastating earthquake and subsequent yellow fever epidemic. Here he became a Gibbs nominee, a powerful Anglo-Chilean dynasty involved in guano and nitrates. Employed by nitrate company Melbourne Clark and Co., it was Hicks who supervised the construction of the Salar del Carmen refinery.
In 1870, hoping to discover the whereabouts of fabled silver deposits, he headed a prospecting team into the Atacama desert that located previously unknown beds of nitrate 128 kilometres from Antofagasta, resulting in the 1872 formation in La Paz Bolivia, of a new Anglo-Chilean company: the Compañia de Salitres y Ferrocarril de Antofagasta. Hicks became its first manager and as such became embroiled in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) fought between Chile, Bolivia and Peru over a disputed area of the Atacama.
Described as pugnacious and intractable, Hicks repeatedly ignored warnings to suspend operations made by the Bolivian government and as the company's only representative in Bolivia, was forced to continue working in open defiance of marauding Bolivian authorities who were feared easy prey for the excitable and almost ungovernable Chilean rotos. The Chileans were finally forced to intervene after an embargo of the Compañía de Salitres’ property was announced. An order for Hicks' arrest was made by the Bolivians in January 1879, forcing him to flee to the safety of a Chilean warship anchored off the coast.
He returned to Cornwall after an absence of almost 20 years with a small fortune, building Pentowan, an elegant mansion above the harbour at Newquay, in 1880. But the huge white anchor visible on the hill above the Port of Antofagasta placed there in 1868 by Hicks as a navigation aid, is a reminder of his role in the development of this South American port.
Hicks maintained close contacts with Chile, making two journeys to South America before returning there to make his mark in another important industry - the development of the southern Arauco coalfields near Lota. Here he oversaw the construction of a challenging line of railway as manager of the British financed Arauco Company, a post he held for four years.
He retired to Cornwall investing some of his considerable fortune in the Cornish Hotels Company pioneered by Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail, that attracted the investment of fellow return migrants from Chile, Sir Robert Harvey and John Jose. A staunch Conservative, he was made a County Magistrate in 1893 and died unmarried after a short illness in 1903. He was succeeded at Pentowan by his sister, Miss Louie Hicks, who had managed his household affairs since his return to Cornwall in 1879.