Buxton was born at Castle Hedingham, Essex. His father was also named Thomas Fowell Buxton. His mother’s maiden name was Anna Hanbury. Through the influence of his mother, who was a Quaker, 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 Northrepps Hall in Norfolk.
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 made a partner in the business, renamed Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. Later he became sole owner.
Although he was a member of the Church of England, Buxton attended Friends meetings with members of the Gurneys and became involved in the social reform movement, in which Friends were prominent. He helped raise money for the weavers of London, who were being forced into poverty by the factory system. He provided financial support for Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform work and joined her Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.
Buxton was elected to 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, in which he was helped by his sister-in-law Louisa Gurney Hoare. He also opposed capital punishment and pushed for its abolition.
Although he never accomplished this last goal during his lifetime, he assisted a process by which the number of crimes punishable by death fell from more than two hundred to eight.
Thomas and Hannah Buxton had eight children. Four of them died of whooping cough over a five-week period around April 1820. Another one died of consumption some time later.
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 British Empire. 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. The government in turn backed the Niger expedition of 1841 (not including Buxton) put together by missionary organizations. It began negotiations in the Niger Delta, but suffered many deaths from disease and cut short its mission.
David Livingstone was strongly influenced by Buxton’s arguments that the African slave trade might be destroyed through the influence of “legitimate trade” and the spread of Christianity, which helped inspire him to become a missionary in Africa and to fight the slave trade all his life.
In 1840 Buxton was created a baronet. His health failed gradually – according to some due to disappointment over the failed mission to Africa. He died five years later. There is a plaque dedicated to him in Norwich Cathedral and a monument to him in Westminster Abbey, and a memorial to the emancipation of slaves, dedicated to Buxton, in Victoria Tower Gardens. Commissioned by his son Charles Buxton MP, the Buxton Memorial Fountain designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon stood initially in Parliament Square, but was removed in 1940 and taken to its present location in 1957. Also named after him is Fowell Close in Earlham, Norwich.
Founding Chairman of RSPCA
On 16 June 1824 a meeting was held at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House, St. Martin’s Lane, London that created the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (It became the RSPCA when Queen Victoria gave royal assent in 1840.) The 22 founding members included William Wilberforce, Richard Martin (M.P.), Sir James Mackintosh, Basil Montagu, and Rev. Arthur Broome. Buxton was appointed chairman for the year 1824.
A representation of Buxton can be seen on the current English five-pound note. He is the figure wearing glasses in the group on the left-hand side of Elizabeth Fry. In February 2007 a plaque was attached in his memory at the Norwich Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane. In Weymouth, Dorset, which he served for 19 years as MP, the main route to the Isle of Portland is named Buxton Road. It runs past Bellfield Park, his former home in Wyke Regis. There are plans to erect a permanent memorial to him in Weymouth.
Buxton had a number of notable descendants:
Sir Edward North Buxton, 2nd Baronet (1812–1858): married Catherine Gurney
**Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, 3rd Baronet (1837–1915): married Lady Victoria Noel
**Sir Thomas Fowell Victor Buxton, 4th Baronet (1865–1919)
**Noel Edward Noel-Buxton, 1st Baron Noel-Buxton (1869–1948)
**Charles Roden Buxton (1875–1942)
**Harold Jocelyn Buxton (1880–?)
**Leland William Wilberforce Buxton (1884–1967)
Samuel Gurney Buxton (1838–Feb 1909)
Edward North Buxton (1840–1924)
Henry Edmund Buxton (1844–1905)
Charles Louis Buxton (1846–1906)
Francis William Buxton (1847–1911)
Thomas Fowell Buxton (1822–1908): Married Rachel Gurney
**Elizabeth Ellen Buxton (later Barclay) (1848-1919)
**John Henry Buxton (1849–1934): director of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton Brewery, chairman of the London Hospital
**Geoffrey Fowell Buxton (1852–1929): director of Barclays Bank
**Alfred Fowell Buxton (1854–1952): chairman of London County Council
**Barclay Fowell Buxton (1860–1946): missionary
*****Murray Barclay Buxton (1889–1940)
*****Alfred Barclay Buxton (1891–1940)
*****George Barclay Buxton (1892–1917)
*****Barclay Godfrey Buxton (1895–1986)
Charles Buxton (1823–1871): married Emily Mary Holland
**Bertram Henry Buxton (1852–1934)
**Sydney Buxton, 1st Earl Buxton (1853–1934)
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)