Thomas Ashton was born in Hyde on 8th December, 1818. As a young man Thomas became a close friend of John Fielden, the owner of a large textile company in Todmorden. Ashton started a similar business in Hyde and eventually became one of Fielden's main competitors.
Ashton was a Unitarian and an active member of the Liberal Party, shared John Fielden's views on social reform. In 1870 Ashton worked closely with John's son, Samuel Fielden, in raising money for Owens College, the Nonconformist education establishment founded in Manchester by the cotton-merchant, John Owens. By 1870 Fielden and Ashton had raised £200,000 for the college.
As her biographer, Jane Bedford, has pointed out: "Not only did Thomas carry on the Ashton family tradition he had inherited as an employer - that of an employer who realized his responsibilities to the men and women who worked for him - he improved on it. He enlarged the mill school, built a church at Flowery Fields, and expanded the village built by his father; he also established scholarships at the Hyde Mechanics' Institute and the technical school which enabled students to go to Owens College and to the Manchester Technical School. Care of his employees had always been an important factor to him, and during the cotton famine, when many mills were closed and most employers ruined, Thomas Ashton made sure that his mills never stopped."
Ashton's daughter, Margaret Ashton, claims that "her father refused her request to be taken into the family business, although she was able to concern herself with its welfare policy." She was an active member of the Women's Liberal Federation, the Women's Trade Union League and the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies.
Thomas Ashton died at Ford Bank, Didsbury, on 21st January 1898.