Upington, Sir Thomas (c.1844–98), lawyer and statesman in South Africa, was born at Lisleigh House, Co. Cork, the only son of Samuel Upington, catholic merchant, and Mary Ellen Upington (née Tarrant). Educated at Cloyne diocesan college, Mallow, Co. Cork, he entered TCD in 1861, graduating BA (1865) and MA (1870). Deciding on a legal career, he trained at the King's Inns and was called to the bar (1867). In 1869 he was appointed secretary to the new lord chancellor, Thomas O'Hagan (qv), the first Roman Catholic to hold the highest legal office in almost two centuries. With the change of ministry in 1874 Upington decided to leave the country and settled at the Cape Colony, South Africa. Entering the representative assembly in 1878 as member for Caledon, he was appointed attorney general in Gordon Sprigg's administration, formed at the end of the year. During the second Koranna war (1879) he visited Korannaland and established a police station to maintain law and order. After his death this station united with the local mission to form the town of Upington, which was named in his honour. Upington resigned from the government in 1881, having sided in a dispute with Sir Bartle Frere, the British high commissioner who had been recalled in 1880, and became the leader of the opposition in the Cape parliament. Courting controversy, in August 1883 he defended Patrick O'Donnell (qv), who was on trial for shooting the Fenian informer James Carey (qv).
On 10 May 1884 there was a change of ministry and Upington became premier of the colony, also taking office as attorney general. Sceptical of the policies of the British government, he pursued his own agenda and secured the annexation of the Umzimvubu region. He also opposed the expedition of Gen. Charles Warren, arguing that it would exacerbate tensions between the British and the Dutch in the region. He resigned 25 November 1886 in favour of Sprigg, but continued as attorney general till 1890. In 1887 he caused uproar when he argued that natives should not be given the same rights as settlers, insisting that many could not be trusted with the vote; this was dismissed by the opposition as the ‘audacity of nonsense’. Appointed puisne judge in the supreme court of the Cape in 1892, he returned to his favourite office of attorney general in 1896. A delegate to the colonial conference in 1887, he was made a KCMG later that year. He died at Wynberg, near Capetown, on 10 December 1898.
Upington married (1872) Mary Guerin, from Cork; they had several children. James Anthony Froude (qv) visited him in 1885 and left a detailed profile of the premier in Oceana the following year: ‘He was still young looking, with a light active figure, black hair and moustache, black eyes, with a genial lively expression – a well set mouth, with courage and decision in the lines of it – a man who knew what he thought right, and was not to be frightened out of his purpose’ (Cork Hist. Soc. Jn., xxxii (1927), 68).