John Edward Bingham was born on July 27th 1839, the eldest son of Edward Bingham of Broomgrove Lodge, Sheffield, and the grandson of John Bingham, a prominent citizen of Chesterfield. He was to grow into one of the most remarkable men that Sheffield has ever seen, being one of the city’s leading businessmen, a prominent local politician, a fervent patriot, and the driving force behind numerous charitable and benevolent projects.
Bingham was educated privately at first, afterwards at Bramham College, Yorkshire. At school, he was a good all-round athlete and was especially successful in hurdle-racing, winning important events against the best runners of the day. On March 9th 1863, he married Maria Fawcett at the Sheffield Parish Church of St. Peter’s, which has since been made the Cathedral. Both were twenty- four years of age. His wife was the daughter of William Fawcett, head of the firm of James Dixon & Son, Lord Mayor for the year 1855-1856, and one of the leading members of the Wesleyan Church in Sheffield. On November 23rd 1867, a son, Albert Edward was born. When the boy reached school age he was sent to Wesley College, Sheffield, which afterwards became the King Edward Grammar School, and later attended Blair Lodge School at Polmont near Falkirk. In 1873, Bingham bought West Lea on Ashdell Road, Ranmoor, a very spacious dwelling with one of the best views in Sheffield. One of his first actions was to build some stables to adjoin the house, as by now one of his favourite pastimes was horse-riding.
In 1855, Bingham had embarked on a brilliant business career when he joined the firm of Walker & Hall, being the nephew of Anne Hall, wife of one of the proprietors. At this time, the firm was only a small one, employing 19 people. By the time of Bingham’s death, the firm had grown to the point where it employed two-thousand. The firm had been founded in 1845 by George Walker, who had developed the process of electro-plating, which he had learned from the inventor, a surgeon of Attercliffe called Dr. John Wright. Bingham’s uncle, Henry Hall joined the firm as partner providing capital and marketing expertise. The firm provided an electro-plating service for other manufacturers, but shortly after Bingham joined, the decision was made to produce the firms own silver and plated hollow-ware, flatware, and cutlery. Bingham progressed step by step through all the grades, and he took over practical control of the firm when first George Walker, then Henry Hall, retired. He was determined that his company should take and hold the lead in electro-plating by the bold use of technical innovation, and in time he was successful. He was always popular with his workforce, and there were celebrations at the works on the occasion of his marriage.
On August 2nd, 1881, Bingham was chosen as Master Cutler. This is the title given to the head of the Ancient Corporation of the Cutlers of Hallamshire. It is a highly prestigious office, equal to that of the Mayor of Sheffield. During the one-year term of office, a Master Cutler holds the position of head of the industrial and commercial interests in the city. On September 1st, at a gathering in the Cutlers Hall, Bingham was presented with his portrait by the workforce of Walker & Hall. It is rare for anyone to serve more than one term as Master Cutler, yet Bingham was accorded this honour when, on August 5th 1884, he was elected for a second year. On October 18th, he entertained his workpeople to dinner, and was presented with a portrait of his wife by the employees. During his second term as Master Cutler, Bingham initiated a Workmen’s Handicrafts Exhibition to prove the capabilities of Sheffield workmen. The exhibition was opened on July 1st by Prince Albert Victor. It continued until August 15th, and was considered a great success. During his visit to the city, the Prince visited Bingham’s expanding works, thus becoming the first of several dignitaries to visit the factory. On November 4th 1892, The Duke of Teck visited the works, followed in 1895 by the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George V and Queen Mary.
In 1882, Bingham had been joined at Walker & Hall by his brother, Charles Henry Bingham, who joined the firm as junior partner. Charles also served a term as Master Cutler in 1894. Bingham also took his son Albert into the firm on his coming of age in 1889, when all the employees and many friends were entertained at a large dinner.
Bingham was for a time the President of the Metal Trades Pension Society, and on February 8th 1892, he announced the setting up of one of the first non-contributory pension schemes for his employees. The company continued to grow, and in the same year, the firm of Henry Wilkinson & Co. was taken over. In 1903 the workpeople presented Bingham with his life-sized statue in Portland stone, and a secretaire was presented to Mrs. Bingham. In 1913, on their gold wedding, the workforce presented them with a massive gold cup.
In 1897, Bingham was commercial representative for England at the Brussels Exhibition. The problems posed by foreign competitors were a major concern for him throughout his life. His response was to advocate tariffs on cheap foreign imports. He was Vice-President of the National Fair Trade League and President of the Sheffield branch for twelve years. He was also President of the Sheffield branch of the Tariff Reform League. He was a skilled lobbyist and in 1883 received the special thanks of the Cutlers Company for the part he played in securing the passage of the Patents, Designs, and Trade Marks Bill, which secured the independence of the Cutlers’ Company in registering trade marks. He was also involved in a dispute over French and Germans stamping Sheffield marks on their own inferior goods. This resulted in the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887. Together with his son Albert, he successfully petitioned to obtain a Gold Assay for Sheffield, and an extension of the time the Assay Office was open. This was accomplished in 1906 in the Sheffield Assay Office Bill.
He was a staunch Conservative, and entered the City Council on May 4th 1877, when he was returned unopposed in a by-election for the St. Peter’s ward. He was again returned unopposed in the elections of 1879, but stood down from the council in 1882.
In 1882, Bingham had a serious accident when his horse slipped, and he was thrown from his cart onto his head. For a time his life was in danger, and although he recovered, he never regained his full health. He attributed the accident to the Highway Committee’s use of granite setts on the roads, and convinced that these were unsafe, in 1893 he formed, and became President of, the Sheffield Street Pitching Defence Association, to resist the indiscriminate use of granite setts. He returned to the City Council for the St. Peter’s ward on July 23rd, 1895, and fought a crusade against the use of granite, going so far as to patent a pavement of his own, which was highly spoken of by experts. Single- handedly, he created a climate if opinion that forced the Highway Committee to substitute wood for granite in many central thoroughfares. He stood down from the council at the elections of 1898, having accomplished his aim.
Besides the granite controversy, another issue that dominated Bingham’s second term on the city council was that of the smoke nuisance. During the period in question, Sheffield had one of the most polluted atmospheres of any industrial town in the country. The city’s factory chimneys poured forth a smoke, which then settled as a fine dust. In any one year, the amount of dust that fell was measured in tonnes, with consequent detrimental results on the health of the inhabitants. Bingham fought fiercely for cleaner air. During his time on the council, he argued that smoke inspectors should hold their appointments direct from the Local Government Board, so that they ran no risk of being dismissed by the local authority as a result of pressure from manufacturers. Also, he took an active part in the formation, in 1893, of the Smoke Abatement League. This body instituted prosecutions against offending manufacturers and urged the Corporation to employ those powers it already held in this field. In appreciation of his public work, Bingham was presented by his fellow citizens with an illuminated address and scroll bearing over 5,000 signatures.