John Biggs lived in a large neoclassical house (built c1830 and demolished 1862) which stood on what is now Knighton Park Road. A granddaughter who stayed there as a child recalled later that it stood “in the country, with fields stretching to the racecourse”, adding that “evergreens grew luxuriantly about the lawn, which was extensive enough to allow several games of bowls to be played at once”.
Biggs was the eldest of four brothers who, after their father’s death in 1827, developed the family business of hosiery and glove making into one of the largest in Leicester, noted for its export trade to North America and Australia.
Commemorated by a statue in Welford Place originally funded by public subscription, he is one of Leicester’s most significant Victorian political figures and, arguably, the best known. A lifelong Unitarian, he believed that business should be the servant and not the master and led his fellow manufacturers in replacing the established system of knitting frame rents with a levy on the value of the product which spread the financial risk more equitably and meant that, in hard times when orders were low, knitters (who rented their frames from their employer) were no longer burdened with the obligation to pay a fixed charge. Coupled with an investment in new wider frames, Biggs seems to have believed that this method of production would make his business more sustainable in the long term (whether he was right or not is still open to question).
From the late 1820s he was a leading light in the movement for parliamentary and local government reform. He was elected a member of the newly reformed Corporation in 1835 and borough Mayor in 1840, 1847 and 1855.
He was a justice of the peace and President of the Leicester & Leicestershire Freehold Land Society which sought to promote wider land ownership at a time when it entitled the owner to vote. A supporter of the anti-corn law campaign, he became closely identified with radical causes and chartism and was elected MP for Leicester in 1856, initially as a radical Whig, later a Liberal. His ambitions to widen parliamentary representation to industrial workers and artisans were, however, frustrated and the end of his political career in 1862 coincided with a series of personal tragedies reminiscent of a Dickensian novel.
Following a downturn in business, the family home in Stoneygate, used as security for a debt of £10,086, had to be sold and over a few months his mother, sister Sarah and her husband, James Hollings, editor of the radical Leicestershire Mercury, all died (the latter hanging himself on the bedpost of the Biggs house).
For the rest of his life, Biggs lived in a terrace house, 46 West Street, near the prison where he died unmarried, on 4th June 1871, his estate valued at “under £1000”. He was buried on 8th June at Welford Road cemetery, the service being conducted by the Revd C. C. Coe, minister of the Great Meeting in West Bond Street, which he had attended regularly.