Phillips, a local politician and writer on education, was born at Llanelli, Brecknockshire, the eldest son of Thomas Phillips and his wife, Ann, eldest daughter of Benjamin James of Llangattock, Crickhowell, Brecknockshire. He was articled to a solicitor in Newport, Thomas Prothero, becoming in 1824 a partner in the practice. Phillips and Prothero took a leading part in political life in Newport, and on 9th November 1838 Phillips became its mayor. Towards the end of his tenure of the mayoralty, he had to deal with the Chartist insurrection of 1839 in Newport and in the attack on the Westgate Hotel on 4th November Phillips was wounded, seriously in the arm and slightly in the hip. Following the defeat of the Chartists, he was invited by Queen Victoria to stay at Windsor Castle, where he was knighted on 9 December. The grateful citizens of Newport presented him with a testimonial for over £800, a service of plate, and his portrait. He was voted the freedom of the City of London on 26th February 1840.
On 10th June 1842, Phillips, having given up his practice as a solicitor in January 1840, was called to the bar at the Inner Temple. His career as a barrister, specialising in chancery work, was distinguished and he was named a queen’s counsel on 17th February 1865. He acquired considerable wealth from his legal work and he bought coalmines in South Wales. He took a leading role in educational endeavours: as a governor of King’s College, London, as a supporter of the National Society, and as a benefactor of Trinity College in Carmarthen, Howell’s School in Cardiff, and Christ College in Brecon. His deep commitment to the Church of England led him to serve as a member of the Church Institution, a governor of the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy, and a tireless contributor to the Church Extension Society in the diocese of Llandaff. He was also chairman of the Society of Arts.
Phillips felt keenly that the so-called blue books (the reports of the commissioners on education in Wales, published in 1847) were a serious misrepresentation of social conditions in Wales, and in 1849, after travelling all over Wales to collect material, he produced a magisterial work entitled Wales: the language, social condition, moral character, and religious opinions of the people, considered in their relation to education: with some account of the provision made for education in other parts of the kingdom. The following year he published The Life of James Davies, a Village Schoolmaster, an illustrated account of a pioneer of education in rural Wales. Phillips was struck with paralysis immediately after addressing a committee of the House of Commons and died five days later, on 26th May 1867, at his London home, 77 Gloucester Place, Portman Square. He was buried at Llanelen, Monmouthshire. He was unmarried, but his example of public service was followed by his sister’s son, Thomas Phillips Price, MP for the northern division of Monmouthshire between 1885 and 1895.
 Sources: J. Morgan Four biographical sketches, 1892, Law Times, 1st June 1867, pages 48, 110, The Times, 28th May 1867 and D. J. V. Jones The last rising: the Newport insurrection of 1839, 1985. Archives: Bodleian. Oxford: correspondence with Sir Thomas Phillips; and, National Library of Wales: letters to W. Addams-Williams
 Chris Williams ‘The great hero of the Newport Rising’: Thomas Phillips, Reform and Chartism’, Welsh History Review, volume 21, (2003) and ‘Sir Thomas Phillips and the Problem of “Class-Antagonism”’, in Michael J. Turner (ed.), Reform and Reformers in Victorian Britain, Sunderland University Press, 2002 provide valuable information on Phillips and his role at Newport.