Local preacher, temperance advocate and lecturer, and newspaper proprietor, he was born near Grindleton on 22 August 1813. The family moved to Clitheroe, then to Blackburn and then to Preston about 1825 on his father being appointed the watchman at Horrock's Mill, where both Thomas and his brother found employment in the weaving department. Preston led the way in the teetotal pledge, and Whittaker received some education in a night school run by Joseph Livesey, a founder of the teetotal movement. Married in Glossop at 19, he returned to Blackburn following a drunken brawl in 1835. Injury, unemployment and the loss of his first child triggered an emotional crisis and conversion to total abstinence later that year. He began a career as an eloquent and effective temperance lecturer, first in northern counties and then from 1837 for the New British and Foreign Temperance Society in London and the south-east.His first wife died in 1837, and in 1838 he married Louisa Palmer (1810-75). In 1849 he moved to Scarborough, using the town as a base for lecture tours both in the United Kingdom and America. He became active in Liberal politics there, was first elected to the town council in 1867 and was mayor in 1880-81. He was both a correspondent and columnist for the town's papers but his contributions were found to be too inflammatory by the editors. For a short time in the 1860s he owned his own paper The Watchman, then in 1877 acquired The Mercury and in 1882 began the still continuing Scarborough Evening News. He wrote two autobiographies, Life's Battles in Temperance Armour (1884), which went through at least three editions, and Brighter England and the Way to It (1891). He died on 20 November 1899. His funeral service was held at Westborough Wesleyan Chapel and he was buried in Scarborough's Dean Road Municipal Cemetery.
Whittaker's family included Sir Meredith Thompson Whittaker (1841-1931), ironfounder, newspaper owner, and chairman of the Press Association 1916-17, and Whittaker, Thomas Palmer, who succeeded to his father's temperance convictions.