The son of a well-to-do brewer, he was born at Reading (not, as is sometimes stated, at Doxey, near Stafford).
He received his early education at Hendon, and at the Reading grammar school. At the age of eighteen he was sent to London to study law under Joseph Chitty, the special pleader. Early in 1821 he joined the Oxford circuit, having been called to the bar earlier in the year. When, fourteen years later, he was created a serjeant-at-law, and when again he in 1849 succeeded Mr. Justice Coltman as judge of the court of common pleas, he earned these distinctions more by his laborious care in the conduct of cases than for his brilliance in court.
At the general election in 1835 he was elected MP for Reading, a seat he retained for nearly six years; he was again returned in 1847. In the House of Commons he introduced an International Copyright Bill; his speech on this subject was considered the most telling made in the House during that session. The bill met with strong opposition, but became law in 1842, albeit in a greatly modified form. Charles Dickens dedicated The Pickwick Papers to Talfourd.
In his early years in London Talfourd was dependent in great measure on his literary contributions. He was then on the staff of the London Magazine, and was an occasional contributor to the Edinburgh Review and Quarterly Review, the New Monthly Magazine, and other periodicals; on joining the Oxford circuit, he acted as law reporter to The Times. His legal writings on literary matters are excellent expositions, animated by a lucid and telling, if not highly polished, style. Among the best of these are his article On the Principle of Advocacy in the Practice of the Bar (in the Law Magazine, January 1846); his Proposed New Law of Copyright of the Highest Importance to Authors (1838); Three Speeches delivered in the House of Commons in Favor of an Extension of Copyright (1840); and his famous Speech for the Defendant in the Prosecution, the Queen v. Moxon, for the Publication of Shelley's Poetical Works (1841).
Talfourd had no position among men of letters until the production of his tragedy Ion, privately printed in 1835 and produced the following year at Covent Garden theatre. The tragedy was also well received in America, and was reproduced at Sadler's Wells Theatre in December 1861. This dramatic poem, its author's masterpiece, turns upon the voluntary sacrifice of Ion, king of Argos, in response to the Delphic oracle, which had declared that only with the extinction of the reigning family could the prevailing pestilence incurred by the deeds of that family be removed.
Two years later, at the Haymarket theatre, The Athenian Captive was acted with moderate success. In 1839 Glencoe, or the Fate of the Macdonalds, was privately printed, and in 1840 it was produced at the Haymarket; but this home drama is inferior to his two classic plays. The Cash/ian (1853) did not excite much interest. Before this he had produced various other prose writings, among them his History of Greek Literature, in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana. Talfourd died in court during the performance of his judicial duties, at Stafford.
In addition to the writings above-mentioned, Talfourd was the author of The Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life (1837); Recollections of a First Visit to the Alps (1841); Vacation Rambles and Thoughts, comprising recollections of three Continental tours in the vacations of 1841, 1842, and 1843 (2 vols., 1844); and Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1849-50).