Although not widely known outside Knutsford and Frenchay, more is told about Edward Higgins in local folklore and fiction than is readily available in factual documentation.
He is commonly known as Highwayman Higgins, but I have yet to read compelling evidence that he was a highwayman. He was certainly a convicted thief.
Roughly a century after Higgins’s death Elizabeth Gaskell wrote The Squire’s Story, a short story based on his time in Knutsford. More recently, just over two centuries after Higgins hanged for his crimes, Raymond Foxall wrote the novel, Squire Errant, a well researched and more complete story with a lot of local historical detail.
The mix of myth and fact about Higgins has it that he was born in Cradley, Worcestershire, into a genteel family, his father being the local squire. He is meant to have run off with the wife and valuables of his parents’ neighbour. He had been tried of sheep and horse theft. Acquitted of the former and convicted of the latter. He was sentenced to transportation for seven years to the American colonies. Before leaving for the ship, a woman, believed to be his sister, stole a large sum of money from a local farmer and gave it to Higgins. This money may well have paid the balance of the cost of his travel, avoiding the need for him to be sold into indentured servitude upon arrival in America. In less than a month after arriving in Maryland, Higgins had travelled to Boston, broken into a merchant’s house and stolen a large sum of money, then bought his passage back to England.
He spent some time in Manchester before settling in Knutsford. In Knutsford he lived in a house overlooking the heath on a road that is now named Gaskell Avenue. The house in question has been known variously as The Cann Office, The White House and Heath House. He passed himself off as a respectable gentleman and, a year from his arrival, married a woman from a respectable local family. They had several children while at Knutsford and are meant to have socialised with the local gentry, including Lord Egerton. Whilst receiving Lord Egerton’s hospitality, presumably at his Tatton Estate, Higgins is believed to have stolen a valuable snuff box from his host. The story goes that he hid it within the grounds. Upon Egerton’s discovery of the theft of it, Higgins is meant to have instigated a search of all those present and their rooms, including that of himself. Later returning to pocket the snuff box.
He supported his family by his thieving, periodically riding off, ostensibly, to collect rents from his tenants further afield. On these excursions, he broke into houses and is rumoured to have committed murder. It was for one of these brake-ins that he was arrested in Knutsford. He managed to escape and fled to Frenchay in Bristol, changing his name to George Hickson. Once more he portrayed himself as the gentleman, living with his wife and children, keeping a horse and dogs for hunting.
He was later recognised as the convict who had returned before the period of his seven year banishment had elapsed – a capital offence – but somehow was acquitted. He was later convicted of house breaking and sentenced to death. A contemporary account of this can be found within the blog on this site.
In this blog my aim is to record what I find about Higgins and the world around him, trying to separate fact and fable. For me. And for you, if you so wish to read it.