Thomas Hughes was born at Uffington, Berkshire [now Oxfordshire] on 20th October 1822. Hughes was the second of the eight children born to John and Margaret Hughes. His father was an essayist and storyteller, and figures as the squire in Tom Brown's School Days. He was educated at Rugby School (from February 1834) and then Oriel College, Oxford University (1842-1845). At the time of Hughes's schooling Rugby was under Dr Thomas Arnold, a highly influential schoolmaster who Hughes idealised as the perfect teacher in his Tom Brown novels. Hughes excelled at sports, especially cricket, rather than in scholarship and his school career culminated in a cricket match at Lord's Cricket Ground. After completing his Bachelor of Arts at Oxford Hughes was called to the Bar in 1848, became Queen's Counsel in 1869 and a bencher in 1870. As a solicitor he worked for Equity and Law Life Assurance Society, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London in the 1860s. He was appointed to a county court judgeship in the Chester district in July 1882. Hughes was a man of deep social conscience and was horrified by the vice, squalor and poverty he found in London while training as a barrister and anxious to play a part in improving conditions for the poor, he joined the Christian Socialists in around 1848.
The Christian Socialists are Christians who are adherents to socialism and as such believe in a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by the community. Christian socialists see Christianity and its beliefs as the best way to achieve socialism and vice versa. Social reform is therefore key to their ideology, as it was to Hughes. His interest in reform led Hughes into politics and he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal for Lambeth, London (1865–1868) were he hoped to advocate on the behalf of the working classes, and for Frome, Somerset (1868–1874) having become disillusioned with the corruption in London-based politics. Aside from his political career his socialism also led him to help the formation of some early trade unions and he helped them to gain legal status. Hughes was greatly interested in the education and betterment of workingmen; he was a key member of the Christian Socialists education movement and helped to set up a night school to bring education to the illiterate workers. The success of the classes led to the Working Men's College being established by Charles Kingsley and Hughes in January 1854 on Great Ormond Street, London. Hughes was responsible for sporting activities being developed at the College. His association with the College continued all his life and he became principal from 1873-1883. Hughes's Christianity and socialism also led him to oppose slavery and he was an active member of the anti-slavery Aborigine Protection Society, founded in 1837 and merged with the Anti-slavery Society 1909.
In addition to his interest in socialism and reform Hughes was an advocate of co-operation and was actively involved in the early movement for example, he was President of the Co-operative Congress, London of 1869. He was also on the Board for several societies including, the Congress Board, the Central Co-operative Board (precursor to the Co-operative Union, now called Co-operatives UK) and was involved in establishing a Dress Making Co-operative. He was an advocate of producer co-operation and took part in debates on producer versus consumer co-operation through the 1870s-1880s. Hughes was an outspoken man and his views led him to become disillusioned with the co-operative movement (and trade unionism) as he believed they failed to live up to their own ideals whilst he on the other hand always stuck by them even if they made him unpopular for example, as MP for Lambeth Hughes attempted to introduce legislation against false weights and measures and on public house opening hours, this was not a popular move amongst the small traders and publicans of Lambeth and was one of the reasons he did not re-stand as their MP.
His socialism led to utopianism in later years. In 1880 he founded a settlement in America [Rugby, Tennessee] which was designed as an experiment in utopian living for second sons of the English gentry who often had little money. The settlement was not successful in the long-term as the land proved to be inadequate for self-sufficiency. Hughes thought that manual labour would better these second sons, who were often left little money and expected to join certain career paths such as the army or clergy.
In 1848 Hughes had married Frances (Fanny) Ford (c1826-1910). They settled in 1853 at Wimbledon and whilst living there Hughes wrote his famous story, Tom Brown's Schooldays, which was published in April 1857. His daughter, Lilian [Lily], perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, married 1889, d1912. His other children were; Maurice, d1859; Evie, d1856; James (Jim, nickname Partner) emigrated to USA 1870s, d1874; George (nickname Plump); John (Jack), d1888; Mary (May) Arthur (nickname Pip?); and Caroline (Carrie). He was also close to his nephew, William [Wills] the son of his brother Hastings. Mary Hughes (1860-1941) continued her fathers work after his death, she lived in the East London and took over a former public house and renamed it the Dew Drop Inn: for Education and Joy. Here she took in the destitute and held religious and trade union meetings.
Hughes also wrote The Scouring of the White Horse (1859), Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), Religio Laici (1868), Life of Alfred the Great (1869), Memoir of a Brother(1873), Rugby, Tennessee (1881) and James Fraser, Second Bishop of Manchester(1887). His brother was George Hughes, whom the character of Tom Brown was based upon.
Thomas Hughes died on 22nd March 1896.