Biggs, Christopher Thomas Ewart- (1921–76), UK ambassador to Ireland, was born 5 August 1921 in England, the only child of Lt-col. Henry Ewart-Biggs, of the Royal Engineers, and Mollie Hilda Madelene Ewart-Biggs (née Brice). For much of his childhood his father was on active service, so Christopher was largely brought up in his wealthy maternal grandfather's house near Rochester, Kent. He was educated at Wellesley House and Wellington College, where he made up for poor athleticism by his talent for writing and his engaging personality. He was shy, but by the time he left on a scholarship to University College, Oxford, his housemaster noted that he was an admirable mixer, capable of getting on with anyone. At the outbreak of war he was called up without finishing his degree (he was awarded a BA in 1945). After a difficult time at Sandhurst – he was long, thin, ungainly, absent-minded, and not cut out to be a soldier – he was commissioned into the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. At the battle of Alamein (1942) he lost his right eye, so spent the rest of the war and after (1943–7) as political officer in Jefren, Tripolitania. This suited his abilities better than active service; he learned fluent Italian and some Arabic. After serving in the British administration in Cyrenaica (1947–8), he was recruited into the Foreign Office in 1949. Following study at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies near Beirut, he was posted as political officer to Qatar (1951). The following year he married Gabrielle Verschoyle, and gained four stepchildren. Under the pen name ‘Charles Elliott’ the couple wrote a number of thrillers together, which Ewart-Biggs later described as sub-Graham Greene.
After three years in Whitehall, in the eastern department of the Foreign Office, he was posted to Manila as first secretary in 1956. Back in Whitehall (1959) in the African department, he suffered the death of his wife in childbirth. His second marriage (5 May 1960) to (Felicity) Jane Randall brought him happiness; she was glamorous, warm, sociable, and an excellent diplomat's wife. They had a son and two daughters.
As British consul in Algeria (1961), he was threatened by the colonial terrorist Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS) because he favoured independence. Although professional and discreet, he never hid his political leanings, which were centre-left. From 1962 to 1969 he was at Whitehall as head of chancery and counsellor, and was made OBE (1963) and CMG (1969). His experience made him a natural choice for Bahrain, but his daughter had suffered a serious kidney infection after Algiers, so he turned the post down and thereafter his career was European. After two years in Brussels (1969–71) he spent five years as minister in Paris, a high-level posting which he and his wife much enjoyed. His perceptive reports, with their novelistic eye for local colour, were well received in Whitehall. It was rumoured that he was hand-picked for the demanding job of ambassador to Ireland by the prime minister, James Callaghan. On receiving word of his first ambassadorial appointment, Ewart-Biggs wrote in his diary: ‘It sounds interesting at least; possibly dangerous . . . I have never followed the Irish affair. My resolution will be to avoid agitation, internal and external’ (Jane Ewart-Biggs, 177).
Ewart-Biggs took up his post in Dublin on 10 July 1976. After meeting with the Gardaí to discuss security concerns, he noted that they seemed to have given little thought to the possibility of an attempt on his life and had dismissed an attack on the car as unlikely on the grounds that ‘it hadn't happened yet’ (Ewart-Biggs, 202). However, of more immediate concern was his media image. At a recent British–Irish Association meeting in Oxford, he had given an after-dinner speech, intended to be humorous but greeted with bemusement. The Irish Times (10 July) wrote that it left delegates wondering ‘whether he is a real comedian or if his apparently peculiar sense of humour is a front for a studious disposition’. This speech, the fact that his thriller, Trial by fire (1956) had fallen foul of the Irish censorship board over an adulterous scene, and his idiosyncratic appearance – he was very tall, thin, and immaculately tailored, with a shy manner and a black monocle covering the loss of his right eye – led to various jokes in Irish newspapers. Concerned that he was being portrayed as ‘a cross between Colonel Blimp and Bertie Wooster’ (Ir. Times, 22 July), Ewart-Biggs invited (20 July) press delegates to come to his residence for an informal briefing. There he proved friendly and unstuffy and stressed that the era of British diplomatic hibernation in Dublin was over. Pointing out that he had lost his eye at Alamein and that he was liberal with a small ‘l’, he repudiated any Kipling comparison, and concluded: ‘I have one prejudice acquired during the war and reinforced in Algeria: a very distinct and strong prejudice against violence for political ends’ (ibid.).
Less than twenty-four hours later, on the morning of 21 July, he was killed when his car was blown up by a landmine, planted less than 150 m from the entrance to his residence. Of the other passengers, Judith Cooke, private secretary to the Northern Irish Office, was also killed, while the driver and Brian Cubbon, permanent under-secretary at the NIO (and possibly the bomb's intended target) escaped with injuries. Two months later, the Provisional IRA took responsibility, claiming that Ewart-Biggs had been sent to Dublin to coordinate British intelligence activities. The Garda investigation was much criticised – although the unmasked killers and the getaway car were seen by witnesses fleeing the crime scene, no one was ever convicted.
Jane Ewart Biggs (1929–92) was driving to London from Fishguard when she heard the news of the assassination on the car radio. Her reaction was much admired. Within a week she gave an RTÉ broadcast, saying she felt no bitterness and urging people to commemorate her husband's death by remembering his hopes for peace. To this end she set up the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial literary prize to recognise work that promoted peace and encouraged understanding between Britain and Ireland. Beneficiaries have included historians F. S. L. Lyons (qv) and J. H. Whyte (qv), and dramatists Sebastian Barry and Brian Friel (qv). She was involved in the Peace Movement, founded by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, and was a member of Lord Kilbrandon's all-party commission of inquiry on Northern Ireland in 1984. After joining the British Labour party, she became a life peer in 1981. She died of cancer in hospital in Fulham, London, on 8 October 1992, three weeks after marrying Kevin O'Sullivan, her partner of fourteen years.