The second son of John Hughes of Donnington Priory, editor of The Boscobel Tracts (1830), Thomas Hughes was born in Uffington, Berkshire. In February 1834 he went to Rugby School, to be under Dr Thomas Arnold, a contemporary of his father at Oriel College, Oxford. In the sixth form, he came into contact with the headmaster whom he afterwards idealized; but he excelled at sports than in scholarship, and his school career culminated in a cricket match at Lord's. In 1842 he went on to Oriel, and graduated B.A. in 1845. He was called to the bar in 1848, became Queen's Counsel in 1869, a bencher in 1870, and was appointed to a county court judgeship in the Chester district in July 1882.
Hughes was elected to Parliament as a Liberal for Lambeth (1865-1868), and for Frome (1868-1874). An avid social reformer, he became interested in the Christian socialism movement, led by Frederick Maurice which he joined in 1848. He was involved in the formation of some early trade unions. Most notably, in January 1854 he was one of the original promoters of the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street. In 1880 he founded a settlement - Rugby, Tennessee in America, which was designed as an experiment in utopian living, for sons of the English nobility, although this later proved unsuccessful.
In 1848 Hughes had married Frances, niece of Richard Ford, of Spanish Handbook fame. They settled in 1853 at Wimbledon, and there was written his famous story, Tom Brown's School-Days, "by an Old Boy" (dedicated to Mrs Arnold of Fox Howe), which came out in April 1857. It is probably impossible to depict the schoolboy in his natural state and in a realistic manner; it is extremely difficult to portray him at all in such a way as to interest the adult. Yet this last has certainly been achieved twice in English literature--by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, and by Hughes in Tom Brown. In both cases interest is concentrated upon the master, in the first a demon, in the second a demigod. Tom Brown did a great deal to fix the Victorian English concept of what a public school should be. Hughes also wrote The Scouring of the White Horse (1819), Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), Religio laici (1868), Life of Alfred the Great (1869) and the Memoir of a Brother. The brother was George Hughes, who was in the main the original "Tom Brown," just as Arthur Penrhyn Stanley was in the main the original of "Arthur."
Hughes died and is buried at Brighton on the south coast of England.