Chartist Lives: The Biggs family

John Biggs 1801-1871 


He[1] 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.

William Biggs 1805-1881 


He[3] was a hosier and political reformer, was born in Leicester on 18th January 1805, the third child of John Biggs and Elizabeth Heggs. On 26th May 1837, he married Mary Deborah, daughter of John Worthington, yarn merchant, of Leicester. This allied him with a family of distinguished Unitarian ministers; and in her he found a wife who, the few surviving letters suggest, shared the excitement of his political career, and communicated it to their children.

An active partner in the family firm, William, like his brother John, also pursued a political career. Elected to Leicester town council in 1836, he served it continuously for thirty years, was elected mayor in 1842, 1848, and 1859, and appointed JP in 1850. In July 1852, he was elected MP for Newport, Isle of Wight and represented it until his resignation in December 1856.

As a councillor, Biggs got rid of the old corporation’s historic regalia, organized the police force, and supported John’s proposals for extensive improvements. As mayor in 1859, he welcomed the volunteer movement and secured the formation of a company of the rifle corps in Leicester.

William Biggs’s speech to the 1841 Derby commercial convention won him a regional reputation; and although his midland counties charter of 1842 failed to rally Chartists to his middle-class leadership, his initiative helped secure the invitation to stand for Newport. He spoke twenty times in the house, mostly in support of progressive or charitable causes, notably the Homes for Penitent Females, the Leicester branch of which he had helped to found; but his didactic style did not please.

The sale of the family firm forced William Biggs’s sons to seek careers elsewhere. After 1866 he followed three of them to Liverpool. He died there on 8th October 1881 at his house in Upper Parliament Street. He was buried in Welford Road cemetery, Leicester, beside his brother John. Biggs was survived by his wife, daughter, and four sons, of whom the third, Arthur Worthington Biggs, was knighted in 1906.

Joseph Biggs 1809-1895 


He was a hosier and supporter of Italian independence, born in Leicester, the fourth son of John Biggs and Elizabeth Heggs. Co-partner in the family firm, he managed the glove department and gave evidence to Muggeridge’s inquiry for the royal commission on framework-knitters. In 1837, he married Matilda, daughter of W. H. Ashurst, solicitor, of London and, by 1852, had moved to Barden Park, Tonbridge.


Through the Ashursts, Biggs was introduced to an extensive circle of progressive friends, including the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, with whom Matilda maintained an intimate correspondence until her death on 15th October 1866. Mazzini visited Matilda, possibly at Leicester, certainly at Barden Park. Although Biggs at first showed an understandable reserve, he, with his children, became warmly attached to him, and subscribed to his cause. In 1852, after a prolonged visit to Italy, he wrote an indignant letter about its rulers and in 1854 drew up a paper on British policy, which Mazzini highly commended. Although privately complaining of a lack of spontaneity in Biggs, Mazzini continued to give him warm greetings and send Christmas presents to his daughters. After Matilda’s death, Biggs moved to Notting Hill Square, London. By 1893, he was living in St John’s Wood. He died there in 1895 at his home, 3 Alexandra Road. He was survived by three of his four daughters one of whom, Maude Ashurst Biggs, posthumously published extracts from her father’s American diary, To America in Thirty-Nine Days: before Steamships Crossed the Atlantic (1927).


[1] R. H. Evans ‘The Biggs family of Leicester’, Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, volume 48, (1972–3), pages 29–58, R. H. Evans ‘John Biggs of Leicester, 1801–1871’, Clio, volume 3, (1971), C. Ashworth ‘Hosiery manufacture’, Victoria County History: Leicestershire, volume 4, pages 303–13, R. A. McKinley and C. T. Smith ‘Social and administrative history since 1815’, Victoria County History: Leicestershire, volume 4, pages 251–302, R. H. Evans, ‘Parliamentary representation since 1835’, Victoria County History: Leicestershire, volume 4, pages 201–50, A. Temple Patterson Radical Leicester: a history of Leicester, 1780–1850, 1954, C. C. Coe Sermon preached in memory of John Biggs, 1871, Mazzini’s letters to an English family, ed. E. F. Richards, 3 volumes, 1920–22, Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury, 10th June 1871, private information, 2004 William Biggs memorandum book in possession of Mrs Wendy Fraser (née Biggs), Leicestershire Trade Protection Society Directory of Leicester, December 1870 and Leicester Journal, 16th June 1871.

[2] Leicester Journal, 28th February 1862

[3] Archives: Leicestershire Record Office, William Biggs, ‘Scrapbook’, LM 5D61


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