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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Samuel Bignold

Samuel Bignold 1791-1875  'Father of the City'

Look closely at the HEART logo and what do you see?  Norwich Castle.  This article covers a little of the history of the man who "saved" it.

Samuel Bignold was Mayor of Norwich in 1833 (and again in 1848, 1853 and 1872) and it was at this time the local authorities were considering knocking down the Castle.  Instead of demolition, he suggested restoration and so we have the building we see today.  This is just one example of the influence Samuel Bignold had on the city.

After his marriage to Elizabeth Jex Atkins in 1815 they lived at Catton Old Hall.  In 1822 they moved to Surrey Street where they raised 13 children.  Samuel's father had been a churchwarden at St Peter Mancroft and he attended worship there.

Samuel was the third son of Thomas Bignold, founder of Norwich Union.  Whereas his father could be difficult and awkward, Samuel was welcoming and easy going.  He succeeded his father as Secretary of Norwich Union in 1818 and was in charge of the company for almost 60 years.  He died, in service, in 1875.  Very much a family man he regarded the Norwich Union and all its employees as his extended family and took his duties as its head very seriously.

Samuel supported the arts and Robert Ladbrooke was one of the Norwich School artists appointed to teach drawing to his children.  Samuel also supported John Sell Cotman and, following Samuel's recommendation to the King's College School, London, Cotman was appointed professor of drawing there in 1833.

Samuel was a political animal and supported the Conservative (Tory) party.  His great friend was Arthur Wellesley, 2nd Duke of Wellington, who was Member of Parliament for Norwich 1837-1852.  Samuel himself was elected in 1854 but he lost the seat in 1857 to Samuel Morton Peto.

Samuel Bignold not only responded to the political and artistic needs of the city.  In 1833 he was involved with the establishment of the Norwich Yarn Company.  At a time of great unemployment in the city the company employed 300 men and 200 children.  The wage bill was £200 a week.  The following year during a public meeting he suggested promoting the provision of a railway link from London to Norwich.  It wasn't until 1849 that the completed line was opened but on November 7th Samuel was on the first train and at the celebrations that followed at St Andrew's Hall and the Assembly Rooms.

In 1853 he attended the inaugural meeting of the Jenny Lind Hospital as its President.  The following year he laid the foundation stone of the Free Library on Guildhall Hill, the first public library in Britain.

Samuel was involved with the Norwich School of Art, St Peter Mancroft church, Norwich Castle, St James' Mill, local politics, Norwich City Water Works Company, Jenny Lind Hospital and Norwich Free Library.  Just reading this list it comes as no surprise to learn he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1854.

He died in 1875 and shops and offices throughout the city were closed as a mark of respect.  The Norfolk Herald in its tribute to him said "There was never, we will venture to say, a good and useful work to be done in Norwich, in which he was not only willing but ready and anxious to take a share, to bear a citizen's part".

He would be at the heart of HEART were he alive today: steering, advising and encouraging us all to take our part.

Further reading:

  • Robert Blake, 'Bignold, Sir Samuel (1791-1875)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 []
  • Sir Robert Bignold, 'Five Generations of the Bignold Family 1761-1947'
  • Robert Blake, 'Esto Perpetua'
  • Jonathan Mantle, 'Norwich Union The First 200 Years'
  • Aviva archive, Norwich Union Magazine

Sheree Leeds

August 2007