Hamilton, Thomas (1842–1926), presbyterian minister and president of QCB, was born 28 August 1842 in Belfast, one of two sons of Rev. David Hamilton, the first presbyterian minister of York Street congregation, Belfast, and moderator of the general assembly in Ireland (1854), and Eliza Hamilton (née Weir), daughter of a presbyterian merchant from Banbridge, Co. Down. Thomas was educated at the RBAI, and in 1860 entered QCB, where he graduated BA (1863) and MA (1864), winning two gold medals in natural science. Deciding to follow in his father's footsteps, he enrolled for the customary divinity course at the general assembly's college, winning the Herdman scholarship, and was ordained a presbyterian minister 20 August 1865.
In the same year he was elected minister of the York Street congregation. His selection was no doubt aided by his father's reputation and his own academic standing which he had recently enhanced by winning a prize for an essay on the Sabbath, beating 240 competitors. A popular and successful minister, he also served as an examiner in botany and zoology for the Intermediate Education Board of Ireland (1878–80), and as examiner in Greek and biblical criticism for the general assembly.
Hamilton's official connection with QCB began in 1878 when he was appointed dean of residence. He also took a leading role in the administration of the prebyterian church and was elected governor of the general assembly's ‘continental mission’. Developing a reputation as an author, he published Irish worthies (1875), a book on influential historical presbyterian figures, A history of the Presbyterian church in Ireland (1886), and Beyond the stars (1888), as well as being a contributor to the DNB. Although he was known to have unionist sympathies, he was never prominent in politics.
In 1889 he was appointed president of QCB. The presbyterian church used the appointment as an opportunity to reassert their special interest in QCB, with the general assembly's committee on higher education expressing ‘its gratification that the claims of the presbyterian church to the presidentship of Queen's College Belfast have been recognised’ (Beckett and Moody, 324). Hamilton assumed the presidency at a difficult time for the college, particularly in terms of the need for extra funding, staff and buildings. He continually struggled with the Treasury, but succeeded in securing more funding and was estimated to have raised nearly £100,000 for the improvement of buildings, the establishment of new chairs, and the provision of up-to-date equipment including a suite of chemical laboratories and a department for the study of physiology and pathology. He was responsible for the establishment of the students' union and its buildings, opened by the lord lieutenant, Earl Cadogan (qv) in January 1897, and raised funds to buy the Royal Botanic Gardens in an attempt to enlarge the college site.
In 1899 Hamilton presented the lord lieutenant with seven foolscap pages of typescript on the needs of the college; he came to the conclusion that the solution was the organisation of local assistance on a larger scale than hitherto. He appealed to the generosity of Belfast benefactors and established a better equipment fund at a public meeting in April 1901. At its second public meeting in 1905 it was announced that £30,000 had been raised. He approved the enrolment of female students, and made several declarations on the non-sectarian character of Queen's. Hamilton frequently stated publicly that he wanted Queen's to become an independent university, believing that not only was the provision for university education in Ireland inadequate, but also that substantial funding for his own college depended on a general settlement of the wider university question.
He served as a member of the Belfast university commission at the time the Universities Act (1908) was being negotiated and was also a member of the joint committee of the Belfast and Dublin committee established under the same act, which witnessed the transformation of Queen's college into the Queen's University of Belfast. From 1908 to 1923 he served as vice-chancellor of Queen's and in 1911 witnessed the new university’s first graduation ceremony. Because of his knowledge of the politics of the north and experience of public life he was a safe pair of hands during the years of political turmoil that followed. During the first world war he gave strong encouragement to the university's officers training corps. Honorary secretary of the Royal Victoria Hospital and a member of the board of governors of the Belfast Charitable Institution, Hamilton was appointed a member of the Irish privy council in January 1920, and retired from Queen's in October 1923.
In 1925 he received an honorary LLD from Queen's and a DD from the University of Aberdeen. He died 18 May 1926 at his residence in Belfast, two weeks after the death of his wife, Frances Allen, from Derry, whom he had married in 1876. They were survived by two daughters and a son. Hamilton's letters and papers collected while he was president are held in the library of QUB.