Clement-Jones family 12/22 - Person Sheet
Clement-Jones family 12/22 - Person Sheet
NameJohn BIGGS, 11639
FatherJohn BIGGS , 11637 (1774-1827)
MotherElizabeth HEGGS , 11638 (1780-1862)
Notes for John BIGGS

He was a hosier and political reformer, born at Leicester, first of the seven children of John Biggs (1774–1827), hosier, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Heggs (1780–1862), of Arnesby, Leicestershire. By the time his father died in 1827 the firm of John Biggs & Sons was firmly established and his family were worshipping among the dissenting élite at the Unitarian Great Meeting. John made his father’s firm one of the largest in Leicester, noted for its export trade to North America and Australia, and its innovations in fancy hosiery and glove-making. In 1859, when he invested heavily in equipping a steam-powered factory, it became one of the most modern. Respected even by Chartists as a model employer, he exposed the malpractices to which the framework-knitters were commonly subjected, welcomed a bill to abolish frame-rent, the source of most abuses, and demanded greater regulation of children’s employment.

From 1826, Biggs participated vigorously in the local reform agitation, helped found the Political Union and Reform Society, and liberally supported the anti-corn law campaign. In 1846, he and a fellow hosier were publicly acclaimed as ‘the Cobden and Bright of the Midland Counties’. Meanwhile Biggs was among the leaders of the reformed corporation of Leicester, mayor in 1840, 1847, and 1856 and borough magistrate from 1840. His hopes that reform would initiate a municipal renaissance were soon frustrated when his modest proposals for street-widening and a new town hall were rejected in 1845 by the Improvement committee in an ill-tempered squabble between ‘expenders’ and ‘economists’.

Disillusioned with the Reform Society and having quarrelled with the MPs it supported, Biggs began in 1847 an ultra-radical crusade, aiming to win control of its electoral machine, to obtain the election of genuinely radical MPs and to agitate for a truly popular franchise. The success of his initial coup, which secured control of the Reform Society, ejected the sitting MPs, and won the election of his two radical candidates, provoked a fifteen-year-long battle between the factions. Biggs was himself elected MP for Leicester in 1856. At this point, he dominated the scene like a political boss, the electoral machine at his command and the radical newspaper at his disposal. To his opponents he was the ‘Dictator’, leader of a ‘Chartist clique’. It was a precarious dictatorship, however, maintained by his uncompromising commitment to total victory, and his audacity in facing one setback after another. Finally a by-election in 1861 produced the setback from which he could not recover a Conservative victory. The only answer was Liberal reunion; the only way was by compromise. Biggs would not oppose it; but he would not take part in it. In 1862, he gave up his parliamentary seat, resigned from the municipality and withdrew completely and finally from politics. Political failure coincided with financial failure, possibly the result of slack trade, costly new machinery, and political expenses. In 1862 his house, used as security for a debt of £10,086, had to be sold, including his collection of allegedly ‘old master’ paintings. The business was sold to another firm as a going concern. At the same time, Biggs suffered severe personal loss within his household. In the space of a few months his mother, his sister, and her husband, J. F. Hollings, editor of the radical Leicestershire Mercury, historian and luminary of the Literary and Philosophical Society, all died; the last by his own hand.

For the rest of his life, Biggs lived in a terrace house, 46 West Street, near the prison. After he died there, unmarried, on 4th June 1871, his estate was valued at ‘under £1000’. He was buried on 8th June at Welford Road cemetery. The service was conducted by the Revd C. C. Coe, minister of the Great Meeting, whose sermon was afterwards published. Biggs was not forgotten by the public. A subscription, intended to provide a memorial over his tomb, received such support that a public statue was decided upon. Among the donations was a sum contributed by Leicester men who had emigrated to Philadelphia, USA. The statue, created by G. F. Lawson, was of Shap granite, 7 feet tall and mounted on a plinth. It presented Biggs in dignified maturity, upright, sturdy, and benign. Erected in Welford Place, it was later replaced by a bronze cast and set up facing in a different direction.

Unpretentious and generous in prosperity, dignified in adversity, John Biggs won a unique place in the affections of the Leicester public. He was less successful in the House of Commons. He addressed it seven times in his first year as MP, but his ‘homely style’[2] seems to have failed to earn more than patronising respect for his integrity. After that he was a silent member.

A judgement on Biggs must include events after his death. Within five years Leicester was at last dignified by a new town hall. Frame-rent was abolished in 1875. The Education Acts helped to end the evils of children’s employment. His radical campaign rescued the local Liberals from their inertia, and after 1867 the reunited party profited from his cultivation of the popular forces when the non-electors he had rallied became the electors of the new order.
Last Modified 28 Dec 2012Created 4 Mar 2023 using Reunion for Macintosh