Buxton was born at Castle Hedingham, Essex, England. His father was also named Thomas Fowell Buxton. His mother's maiden name was Anna Hanbury. She was a Quaker (member of the Religious Society of Friends). Through the influence of his mother, Buxton became a close friend of Joseph John Gurney and his sister, Elizabeth Fry, who were both prominent Quakers. Buxton married their sister Hannah Gurney, of Earlham Hall, Norwich in May 1807. He lived at Easneye, Herts.
In 1808, Buxton's Hanbury family connections led to an appointment to work at the brewery of Truman, Hanbury & Company, in Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London. In 1811, he was appointed a partner in the business, now renamed Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co; he later became sole owner of the company.
Although he was a member of the Church of England, Buxton attended Friends meetings with the Gurneys and became involved in the social reform movement being led by Friends. He helped raise money for the weavers of London who were forced into poverty by the factory system. He provided financial support for Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform work and became a member of her Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.
Buxton was elected as a Member of Parliament for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in 1818. As an MP he worked for changes in prison conditions and criminal law and for the abolition of slavery. He also opposed capital punishment and pushed for its abolition. Although he never accomplished this last goal during his lifetime, he did help to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death from more than two hundred to eight.
The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but Buxton began to work for the abolishment of slavery itself. He helped found the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) in 1823. He took over as leader of the abolition movement in the British House of Commons after William Wilberforce retired in 1825. His efforts paid off in 1833 when slavery was officially abolished in the United Kingdom. Buxton held his seat in Parliament until 1837.
In 1839 Buxton urged the British government to make treaties with African leaders to abolish the slave trade. They sent a team (not including Buxton) to the Niger River Delta in 1841 that set up a headquarters and began negotiations. The party suffered so many deaths from disease that the government called them back.
In 1840 Buxton was created a baronet. His health failed gradually, which some believed was caused by the disappointment over the failed mission to Africa. He died a few years later. There is a monument to him in Westminster Abbey, and a memorial to the emancipation of slaves and dedicated to Buxton in Victoria Tower Gardens (commissioned by his son Charles Buxton MP, the Buxton Memorial Fountain, designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon, was initially erected in Parliament Square, but was removed in 1940 and moved to its current location in 1957). Fowell Close in Earlham, Norwich, is named after him.
In February 2007 a plaque was attached in his memory to the Norwich Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane.
Buxton Road, part of the main route between Weymouth and the Isle of Portland is named after Sir Thomas Buxton, where he was Member of Parliament for 19 years. The road runs past Bellfield Park, his former home in Wyke Regis.
- An Enquiry, Whether Crime and Misery are produced or prevented by our present system of Prison Discipline (1818)
- The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy (London: J. Murray, 1839)
- Barclay, Oliver. Thomas Fowell Buxton and the liberation of slaves (York: William Sessions, 2001)
- Binney, Thomas. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Bart. A study for young men (London: J. Nisbet & Co, 1853)
- Buxton, Charles (Ed). Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton Bart (London, 1848).
- Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007)
- Temperley, Howard. British antislavery, 1833-1870 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972)