Ever received one of those invitations where you wish you had a good excuse handy to say no? I challenge you all to beat this for an excuse:- In 1907 Lieutenant Geoffrey Biggs was unable to attend his brother’s wedding in consequence of him being in command of the famous submarine A1 which was acting as escort for the German Emperor.
It took me a while to realise that in 1907 Britain and Germany were on friendly terms and linked by the family ties in the Royal Family.
The A1 Submarine
The A1 submarine wasn’t quite the first British submarine but was certainly a very early one. It had an unusual history in that it sunk twice. She was accidentally sunk in the Solent on 18 March 1904 whilst carrying out a practice attack by being struck on the starboard side of the conning tower by a mail steamer, SS Berwick Castle, which was en-route from Southampton to Hamburg. She sank in only 39 ft (12 m) of water, but the boat flooded and the entire crew was drowned.
One consequence was that all subsequent Royal Navy submarines were equipped with a watertight hatch at the bottom of the conning tower. She was raised on 18 April 1904 and repaired and re-entered service, in time for Geoffrey Biggs to take command of her in 1907. Following a petrol explosion in August 1910, she was converted to a testbed for the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Committee. She was lost a year later when running submerged but unmanned under automatic pilot. Although the position of her sinking was known at the time, all efforts to locate her were fruitless. It was not until 1989 that the wreck was discovered by a local fisherman.
Geoffrey Biggs was one of six Biggs brothers who all played rugby for Cardiff. I’ve written about his brother Norman Biggs previously and how he died after being shot with a poisoned arrow. All six brother however have a story worth telling so here I focus on the younger brother Geoffrey.
Geoffrey Nepean Biggs was born in Cardiff on 12 Jun 1885 to John Biggs, a brewer, originally from Cardiff and Emily Sophia Biggs née Clarke originally from Usk. He was baptised at St Andrew’s church on 16 Jul 1885 when the family were living at 37 Park Place, Cardiff. Soon after the Biggs family moved to their new house they had had constructed, ‘Oldwell’ on Pen-y-lan Road.
He was educated at Bath College on a scholarship. Geoffrey enrolled in Royal Navy in 1900 and the following year, aged 15, passed out fourth at the Navel Cadet training ship HMS Britannia, Dartmouth, Devon. He had a successful naval career gaining promotions fast. becoming a Sub-Lieutenant in July 1904 and a Lieutenant in April 1906. In 1904 he gained a distinction when he served as midshipman on HMS Eclipse in the China despite blood poisoning in his right hand. After that he chose became a submariner.
His military records make interesting reading. He was described as trustworthy, capable, processing excellent judgment, zealous, and painstaking. It added that he was very skilful and dashing in making attacks. At the same time he was noted to be not good socially but processed a fine physique and good at all outdoor games.
Geoffrey Biggs went on to command other submarines after working on the A1. A 1910 newspaper article regarding his finances referred to him as Lieutenant Biggs of the ‘submarine B6’ and late of the ‘Forth’. Between Nov 1913 and Sep 1915 he was in command of C16 as the war started. He died on 22 Nov 1916, aged 31, when the submarine he was commanding, E30, is thought to have stuck a mine at Orfordness, Suffolk. He had been awarded the Crois de Chevalier by the President of the French Republic in recognition of services during the war a few months before his death. He was also posthumously awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Navy Memorial and the Bath College Memorial in Bath Abbey.
Outside the Navy
Geoffrey Biggs was a good rugby player and played at centre for Cardiff in 1906 versus the Barbarians. He also played for Bath, United Services, Royal Navy and Somerset. I haven’t quite figured out why he played for Cardiff in 1906 as evidently he had moved from Cardiff quite a few years previously. Was it just so that it could be said that all Biggs brothers played for Cardiff I wonder.
In 1910 an order of bankruptcy was made against him. His naval records record that a fifth of his pay was to be set aside to pay his debt. There is no indication as to how the debt arose other than it was for ‘money lent and work done’.
Geoffrey Biggs married Daisy Elizabeth Boys in Portsmouth in 1907. Four of Geoffrey’s brothers married wealthy heiresses but Geoffrey’s marriage seems different. His naval records record that he made ‘a very undesirable marriage’. Daisy was daughter of naval man William Boys. The 1911 census records the following information: he was aged 25, born Cardiff, Glamorganshire, Wales, married, Lieutenant – Royal Navy, resident with his in-laws at 53 Winter Road, Southsea, Eastney, Portsmouth, Hampshire. Geoffrey and Daisy appear to have had one child together, Gilbert Hugh Kellett Biggs, whose birth was registered as Gilbert Hugh Kellett Boys in 1906 but then re-registered again as Gilbert Hugh Kellett Biggs in 1928. In Aug 1923 Gilbert was charged with stealing six books from a bookshop in Southsea. A few month later he left for Australia in search of a new career as a farmer. He subsequently returned to England but died in Brighton in 1929 aged just 23. Daisy Elizabeth Biggs died in Camden in 1981 aged 93.