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Biggs, Leonard Vivian (1873–1944)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Leonard Vivian Biggs (1873-1944), journalist, was born on 29 March 1873 at Hackney, Middlesex, England, son of James Biggs, a cashier for the Great Eastern Railway, and his wife Mary Ann, née Wrensted. Educated at Enfield Grammar School he became a junior clerk with the Great Eastern. From 1893 he spent two years on the staff of the weekly Middlesex Gazette. In 1895-98 he worked in London for the Central News Agency and for the African Critic, a financial paper; in 1896, with W. F. Purvis, he published a book on South Africa.

Energetic and intelligent, Biggs took a keen interest in the politics of social reform. He was an active debater and a member of many men's societies. In the 1890s his attention was drawn to the newly formed London County Council and the influence of Fabian socialism in that body; in 1898 he stood for the council as a Progressive candidate. An Anglican, he was particularly influenced by the Christian Socialism of Henry Scott Holland.

After a brief sojourn in South Africa, Biggs arrived in Melbourne in October 1898 and at once began contributing to the Age; in April next year he joined the reporting staff. As Federal roundsman in the first decade of the Commonwealth he formed close relationships with Andrew Fisher, (Sir) Isaac Isaacs and, particularly, Alfred Deakin. As chief of the reporting staff in 1914-20 Biggs supported the recently formed Australian Journalists' Association. He retained English contacts as Melbourne correspondent for the London Daily Chronicle in 1898-1918, the Manchester Guardian in 1905-18 and the New Statesman in 1913-17.

Biggs had become interested in the Greater Melbourne movement in 1898, a plan for municipal amalgamation modelled on the London County Council. He threw his energy and experience into the debate, and in speeches, pamphlets and articles argued that the proposed body should be democratically based and an instrument of redistributive social reform. However, opponents of the proposal held their ground and the issue remained unresolved in his lifetime. He served a term as member of the Hawthorn City Council in 1911-13.

Biggs was equally active within the Church of England. As a member of synod in 1907 he successfully moved for the establishment of the Social Questions Committee, a body concerned with the social responsibility of Christian citizenship. The committee published various pamphlets, including one by Biggs on the housing problem (1913). He also helped to form the Church of England Men's Society in 1911 and later became its chairman. A member of the council of the diocese and the chapter of St Paul's Cathedral until 1927, he was a lay canon in 1917-27.

In 1920 Biggs left the Age and joined the National Union to take charge of political propaganda for the ruling Federal National Party. He fell out with the Nationalists and in 1926 returned to the Age as a leader-writer. After the sudden death in December of G. F. H. Schuler, he was appointed editor by (Sir) Geoffrey Syme and retained the position until his retirement in 1939. While real power in the Age remained in the hands of Syme, Biggs enjoyed his public position, and his energetic and mannered style was a contrast to that of his dour employer.

Biggs's editorship maintained the traditions the Age. As a journal of opinion it campaigned on various public issues with considerable energy and prejudice. Metropolitan authorities such as the Board of Works, together with the State Electricity Commission and the Victorian Railways, were always in its sights. The policy was born of old grudges but also reflected Biggs's concern with a Greater Melbourne Council, which the paper supported. Certainly he professed high ideals concerning the practice of journalism and saw his role as falling within the canons of English liberalism. His 1938 A. N. Smith Memorial Lecture remains an eloquent statement of his beliefs. As editor he expanded the literary section and wrote under the pen names of 'Audax' and 'Ludgate'.

Biggs was appointed in 1943 to membership of a three-man royal commission concerned with the reform of the Metropolitan Board of Works by the Victorian government. He signed the majority report which recommended a directly elected body with wider powers: the board would be made in effect a Greater Melbourne Council.

Biggs died suddenly of coronary thrombosis at his home at Hawthorn on 20 January 1944 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. He was survived by his wife Marion, née Row, whom he had married at Canterbury on 2 April 1902, and by three daughters and a son. His portrait by Percy White hangs in the Chapter House of St Paul's Cathedral.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Malloch, Fellows All (Melb, 1943)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1943, 1, 781
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 20 (1943-44), no 3
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 18 Feb 1944
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Jan 1927
  • Newspaper News (Sydney), 1 Mar 1933
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1944
  • D. Dunstan, Greater Melbourne 1898-1915: A Political Controversy (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1974).

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Biggs, Leonard Vivian (1873–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/biggs-leonard-vivian-5233/text8809, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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