Thomas Wing was born on 19 June 1810 at Bradfield, Essex, England. He was the son of Matthew Wing, a mariner, and his wife, Elizabeth Cousins. Wing acquired his nautical knowledge during his youth when he lived at the port of Harwich, Essex.
In November 1828 Wing sailed as a crewmember on the Ferguson, which was transporting convicts to Port Jackson (Sydney). Arriving back in England in mid 1829, he continued his study of hydrography, which was to be a lifelong interest. Wing's cousin, Samuel Stephenson, became a leading merchant in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, in partnership with J. R. Clendon. Through this connection Wing was offered the position of first mate on the trading schooner Fortitude, which left London in April 1832 for the Bay of Islands, arriving in August 1832.
From 1832 to 1834 Wing journeyed around the northern coast of New Zealand and to Port Jackson as mate of the Fortitude. During this time he acquired a good knowledge of New Zealand waters. In 1834 Clendon and Stephenson appointed Wing master of their new schooner, Fanny. Wing went on voyages to Tauranga Harbour in June 1835, and Kaipara, Manukau, Kawhia and Raglan harbours in January 1836, making what were probably the first detailed charts of those harbours. Wing was possibly the first European to sail into Kaipara Harbour.
During the 1830s Wing lived at Hokianga with Rautangi, daughter of Waiti, and sister of Tutu. The couple had a daughter, Fanny, who was killed during the fighting at the Bay of Islands in March 1845. Wing became one of the first Europeans to sail into the Waitemata Harbour when, in late 1836, he went to visit his friend Captain J. R. Kent, living near Waiuku. In 1837 Wing sailed down the east coast in the schooner Trent. During the voyage he visited Port Ahuriri and made the first chart of that harbour. His last known ship before returning to England in late 1839 was the Tokirau, owned by J. R. Clendon and G. Mair.
While he was in England Wing married Lucy Cousins, at Bradfield, on 4 April 1840. They were to have eight children. Wing arrived back in the Bay of Islands with his wife in the Deborah in November 1840, intending to settle on land he had bought there. However, the area was no longer prosperous, as Lieutenant Governor William Hobson had moved the capital to Auckland. In March 1842 he left with his family for Launceston, Tasmania.
Wing made several voyages to New Zealand between 1842 and 1852. In early 1844 he sailed from Nelson on the Deborah with the New Zealand Company's survey party to find a suitable site for the settlement of New Edinburgh (Dunedin). During that voyage he drew a chart showing Stewart Island, Foveaux Strait and part of the southern coastline, including Bluff Harbour. Wing had an abiding interest in boatbuilding. In the early 1850s he helped with the restoration of an American schooner, Iliomama, in Auckland, and the building of the schooner Zillah, at Coromandel. The Zillah he sailed regularly between Melbourne and Tasmania. Later Wing designed two steamboats, the Halcyon and the Tam O'Shanter.
Between January 1853 and July 1855 Wing and his family lived in Melbourne, where he was assistant harbourmaster at Williamstown. He then went back to sea, commanding the schooner Pioneer on voyages between Australia and New Zealand. Because of his knowledge of the Australian coastline, in August 1856 Wing was called to give advice to the lighthouse commission in Melbourne on sites for lighthouses in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.
In March 1857 Wing was appointed harbourmaster and pilot of Manukau Harbour, a post he held for 30 years. With the advent of steamships the Manukau Harbour had become an important anchorage, and it was a vital link between Auckland and the theatre of war during the Taranaki and Waikato conflicts. However, the harbour had serious navigational shortcomings which were highlighted when the Orpheus was wrecked at the entrance on 7 February 1863. Wing had already warned the provincial authorities of the potential dangers, but nothing was done. Finally, after a near disaster in 1865, the Royal Navy banned its ships from using the harbour until Wing's suggested improvements were made. During the 1870s there were three major developments to the harbour: the signal station at South Head was connected to the telegraph system in 1873; a lighthouse was established at South Head in 1874; and in 1878 the Onehunga wharf was linked to Auckland by railway. In 1886 the Manukau entrance was resurveyed.
In June 1887 Wing suffered a stroke from which he did not recover; he died at Mangere, Auckland, on 19 August 1888. Wing was well built, above average height, with a kindly, frank face. Forceful, and a strict disciplinarian, he was very conscientious in the performance of his duties. Quick to take offence, he was equally quick to forgive. He played a valuable role in the early exploration, mapping and settlement of New Zealand, and later helped to transform the Manukau Harbour into an important and safe port.