Thomas Hughes was an English jurist, judge, politician, and author born on October 20th 1822 in Uffington, Berkshire. His father, John Hughes, the scholarly author and editor of The Boscobel Tracts (1830), had seven sons including Hughes and a daughter, Jane Senior, who would later go on to become the first female civil servant of the country.
Hughes himself confessed his brother George to be the greatest influence during his early life. So much so that the protagonist Tom Brown from Hughes’ greatest novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) was largely based on him.
In 1830, at the tender age of eight, Hughes was admitted to the Twyford School, a public preliminary school, near Winchester. Hughes stayed there for a time of four years before passing on to the Rugby School, a more recent and contemporary institution.
Rugby school was run by revered historian and educator Dr. Thomas Arnold, a former fellow of John Hughes at Oriel College, Oxford. Hughes was a great athlete during his stay at Rugby which ultimately concluded with a cricket match at the celebrated Lord’s. Hughes graduated from Oriel College with a B. A. in 1845.
An efficient lawyer
After graduating from Oriel, Hughes went on to pursue law. In 1848, after officially becoming a lawyer, due to his prolific flair Hughes was appointed the Queen’s Counsel in 1869 and finally became a Master of the Bench in 1870.
In July 1882, he was appointed a judge to a court in the Chester district. It was during his time as a lawyer that he wrote his magnum opus, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, first published in the month of April of the year 1857.
Hughes was a stout social reformer. Hughes was pivotal in the establishment of some local trade unions and was also a financer for some Liberal publications, for which he took charge as the first President of the Co-operative Congress in 1869 as well as served on the Co-operative Central Board.
In 1854, he became a founding member of the Working Men’s College at Great Ormond Street, serving as its principal from 1872 to 1883. Hughes was also a notable supporter and fellow of the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade.
Politics and Christian Socialism
Inspired by The Kingdom of Christ (1838) Hughes joined the Christian Socialism Movement with Charles Kingsley and led by Frederick Maurice in 1848, after the House of Commons rejected the Chartist Petition.
The major point of discussion for them was how the Church could help curb the chances of revolution by addressing the grievances of the working class.
Between 1865 and 1874, as a Liberal member, Hughes was elected to the Parliament twice, from Lambeth and Frome. During his time in Parliament Hughes was also keen on the British Co-operative Movement.
Tom Brown’s School Days
The most celebrated schoolboy novel of the 19th century was a product of Hughes’ time at the Rugby School. Published in 1857, it is about an English schoolboy, Tom, who overcomes harassment from the school bully Flashman to come out a winner.
Set during the 1830s, the story is highly notable for its fluid portrayal of the then-contemporary English school. Dr. Thomas Arnold had a major influence on Hughes who honoured him through an indelible role in his novel. Written for his son, Hughes tried to keep the tone of the novel “in a right spirit”.
Hughes – the author
After the success of Tom Brown’s School Days, which ran into 50 editions by 1890, Hughes wrote a second novel Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) which failed to garner as much acclaim as its forerunner. In his illustrious career, he wrote a total of 3 novels including The Scouring of the White Horse (1859) which chronicled the rural customs of Berkshire, a couple of non-fiction including Religio Laici (1868), Life of Alfred the Great (1869), The Manliness of Christ (1879) and memoir on his brother, George, which was published in 1873.
Family and later years
Thomas Hughes married Frances Ford in 1847 and had five sons and four daughters – Maurice, James, George, John, Arthur, Lilian, Evie, Caroline, and Mary.
They settled in 1853 at Wimbledon. Hughes played an apex role for the founding of a colony in the United States of America called Rugby, Tennessee, which was intended for the sons of the English gentry to have a utopian lifestyle.
In 1896, Thomas Hughes died at the age of seventy-three at Brighton due to heart failure. Lilian Hughes, his daughter, was amongst the numerous who perished during the sinking of the magnanimous RMS Titanic in 1912.
Thomas Hughes was given a place in front of the Temple Reading Room of the Rugby School in the form of a white marble statue. The statue was sculpted by Thomas Brock and unveiled in 1899. A Hughes Scholarship was established at Oriel College, Oxford.