Alfred Albert Thomas William Adams (generally known as Thomas William Adams) was born in the village of Gravely, Cambridgeshire, England, on 24 June 1842. He was the son of Mary Giddings and her husband, Charles Adams. In 1843 the family moved to the neighbouring small village of Offord Darcy where Charles Adams became a shopkeeper and farmer. Thomas went first to a local private school and then to the Borough Road normal school in London. Farming experience on the small family holding was to stand him in good stead in New Zealand.
In 1862 Adams sailed from London on the African for Auckland, New Zealand, with his cousin, George Giddings. He soon moved to Canterbury where he found farming work at Lincoln with Thomas Pannett. A trip with horses and drays across the plains to Kōwhai Bush near Springfield to collect timber gave Adams the chance to look for land on which to settle. In 1865 he arranged to buy a rural section of 100 acres at Greendale, where he was the first farmer.
Adams took up his block of virgin tussock-land in March 1865, carting bundles of straw on his dray to provide some sort of shelter for the first winter on the exposed, treeless site. Clearly he relished the role of pioneer and energetically set about to build a sod hut, sow his first crops and fence them with sod walls. The first two years were lonely bachelor ones, full of hard work. On 10 December 1867 at Lincoln he married Lucy Pannett; they had a daughter in 1868. The next year, on 7 June, tragedy struck when Lucy drowned in the well while drawing water. On 18 May 1872 at Wellington Thomas married Lucy's sister, Harriet; they were to have five sons and three daughters.
The Greendale district soon became well settled; mixed farming developed there and with it Adams prospered. He realised early that tree planting was necessary at Greendale for shelter and fuel. He planted his first tree there in 1866 and never ceased planting. By 1910 his plantations totalled 150 acres. Adams was among the first to conduct planting trials, keep good records and publish the results, mainly in the New Zealand Country Journal and the Journal of the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association. He corresponded with and sought seed from collectors and botanists all over the world. In the evenings he sometimes became so immersed in his studies and correspondence that his sons found it difficult to extract decisions from him about the next day's work on the farm. By 1908 he had an arboretum of 800 species of trees and shrubs, all but 50 introduced. He recognised the promise of Pinus radiata and Pinus laricio, promoting them for widespread planting. Species he firmly recommended for Canterbury included Cupressus macrocarpa, eucalypts, Acacia dealbata and oaks.
Adams made a key contribution in the formative years of New Zealand forestry through his advocacy of pines, especially Pinus radiata, so influencing the choice of species for the large-scale afforestation which commenced in the twenties. Also he was an early proponent of farm planting for shelter, fuel, timber and landscaping. His eminence in forestry was recognised by his being made a member of the 1913 Royal Commission on Forestry and a life member of the New Zealand Forestry League in 1918.
Adams was a staunch Baptist all his life. He took pride in his 40 years of Sunday school work at Greendale, which started in 1871 when he had to begin by teaching most of the children to read. He was the initial secretary of the Canterbury Baptist Association and later served as president. His religious principles led him to support abstinence from alcohol, and to oppose the South African war of 1899–1902.
The Greendale day school opened in 1872, largely through Adams's efforts. In 1892 he was elected to the North Canterbury Education Board, serving on it until 1918, and as chairman from 1897 to 1905. He was elected a governor of Canterbury College in 1897, a position he held until his death at Greendale on 1 June 1919. His will contained a bequest to Canterbury College of £2,000 and 98 acres of land to be used for the establishment in the college of a school of forestry; it opened in 1924.
Thomas Adams was buried at Greendale. When Harriet Adams died there on 15 July 1934 she was buried with him. This sturdy, determined all-rounder made a significant contribution to agriculture, education and the Baptist church in Canterbury. In the field of forestry he was a figure of national significance.