This Month in Writing – December

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‘The Secret Life of Edward Higgins: The Squire’s Story

Published in the Extra Christmas Number of Dickens’ Household Words, December 1853

After looking at some interesting Welsh locations in ‘The Well of Pen Morfa’, I am returning to England for December’s offering,  to Elizabeth’s home in Knutsford.  However, Gaskell transposes Barford – which is clearly Knutsford for many reasons – to Derbyshire, situating Highwayman Higgins’ house on the road to Derby. 

As Elizabeth Gaskell was growing up in Knutsford during the early nineteenth century,  she would have been aware of the stories surrounding Heath House. In fact Hannah Lumb and Mrs. Grey, who lived at Heath House, were neighbours, their houses only separated  by a narrow strip of land. In 1756 this house had been the home of a notorious highwayman, which must have been very exciting for an imaginative child like  Elizabeth, and she  never missed the opportunity for a good story.

Heath House was slightly more expensive to rent than Hannah Lumb’s property, which is situated opposite the MAR of Market on the map; in fact it was two houses, number 19 and 20, of a road which was to become Gaskell Avenue.  Elizabeth may well have been inside as she gives a very detailed description of the property in ‘The Squire’s Story’; the squire being none other than the notorious highwayman Edward Higgins. 

Gaskell begins by naming it ‘The White House, from its being covered with a greyish kind of stucco.’ And it can be seen that this tradition has been maintained, perhaps to pander to the Knutsford  tourist who comes to walk in the steps of the town’s famous writer.

The fact that Heath House, from its numbering, appears to have been joined, would explain Gaskell’s rather derogatory description of the living accommodation: 

It had a good garden to the back, and Mr. Clavering had built capital stables, with what were then considered the latest improvement…otherwise it had few recommendations. There were many bedrooms; some entered through others, even to the number of five, leading one beyond the other; several sitting-rooms of the small and poky kind, wainscoted round with wood, and then painted a heavy slate colour; one good dining-room, and a drawing-room over it, both looking into the garden, with pleasant bow-windows. 

Historically Edward Higgins, named Robinson by Gaskell  inveigled himself into the Knutsford society through his show of wealth and ability give a good account of himself at the hunt.  Here Gaskell can’t resist a gibe at the old rural aristocracy whose measure of personal worth is predicated mainly on horsemanship.

Sir Harry’s approbation was withheld until he had seen a man on horseback; and if his seat there was square and easy, his hand light, and his courage good, Sir Harry hailed him as a brother.

In addition, Higgins was very liberal with money, ensuring that only ‘well-selected wines, [… were] lavishly dispensed among his guests’ and never dealing in credit. He was also a great entertainer, often heard singing comic songs and recounting humorous stories; a man of surface, not depths and the town was taken in by him:  

he cares no more for money than for water; he spends like a prince,… I don’t know who his family are, but he seals with a coat of arms, which may tell you if you want to know

It is only ‘the Barford this bird of ill-omen was a Miss Pratt’ who is not taken in by Higgins. Very quickly, the new resident at the White House becomes an integral part of the Barford hierarchy, mixing in their social milieu and audaciously stealing jewellery from Lady Egerton of Tatton, while availing himself of their hospitality.  

But it is not just jewellery that he steals: the local squire’s daughter becomes his possession after a speedy journey to Gretna Green, ensuring Higgins can access his bride’s fortune – a clever move by the daring, or perhaps brazen highwayman of Gaskell’s story.

Higgins did marry a local girl named Catherine, but it is unlikely she was a squire’s daughter. Her father was called William and sadly, for those loving romance and adventure, the real Mr. Higgins married in the local parish church in April 1756, rather than Gretna Green. His bride, Catherine Bertles, was only just twenty. Neither does it appear that the historical Catherine was an heiress with £10,000 a year.

Moreover, the historical Higgins continued to make headlines after his execution by hanging in Camarthen in 1775. As his body had been sold to a London surgeon to raise money for his wife and sister, it was cut down before the prerequisite hour had passed. However, when the medical apprentice was about to begin work on the cadaver, Higgins allegedly came back to life and had to be executed for a second time!  I wonder if Gaskell knew this.  I expect not, as she would never have missed such an  opportunity to weave more drama into her tale!  The full story of Higgins’ imprisonment and execution can be read at Wales Online  

Diane Duffy

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