Mary Kingsland, the daughter of William Kingsland (1826–1876), a Congregational minister, was born in Devizes, Wiltshire, on 2nd February, 1854. When Mary was a child, her father became minister of the College Chapel in Bradford.
After being educated at home she went to a local private school at the age of thirteen. In 1871 she won an exhibition to the Hitchin College for Women. Two years later she transferred to Girton College, an educational institution founded by Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon in 1870. Mary was the first woman at the university to study for the Natural Science Tripos and in 1874 she gained a second-class honours degree.
For the next eighteen months she worked as a assistant lecturer at Girton. She then returned to Bradford where she taught mathematics and science at the recently established grammar school for girls in the city. She later taught at the Saltaire School in Shipley.
On 5th August 1879, she married Thomas Kilpin Higgs (1851–1907). She now moved to Hanley where her husband was a Congregational minister. Over the next few years she gave birth to four children. The family moved to Oldham where Higgs served as minister of Greenacres Congregational Church.
Mary Higgs became involved in a wide range of religious and philanthropic organisations. This included Secretary of the Oldham Workhouse Ladies Visiting Committee and the organiser of a home for destitute women. She also became friends of William Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the garden city movement. Inspired by the ideas of Howard, she established the Beautiful Oldham Society in 1902.
Higgs became concerned about the scale of poverty she saw and carried out a study of the lives of homeless people in Oldham. Encouraged by the work of James Greenwood, who was the first journalist to use the pioneering technique of temporarily adopting the dress and circumstances of others, she decided to carry out a detailed study of poverty in the town. According to her biographer, Rosemary Chadwick: "Mary Higgs... over many years from 1903 took the highly unusual step (for a middle-class woman) of visiting workhouse wards and common lodging-houses dressed as a tramp. Her vivid accounts of the dirt and degradation which she encountered and of the downward spiral of destitution in which homeless women found themselves helped to fuel demands for more and better regulated women's lodgings, and for lodgings geared to the needs of migrant workers." Three Nights in Women's Lodging Houses was published in 1906. This was followed by Glimpses Into the Abyss (1907).
Chadwick goes on to argue: "Higgs was an early advocate of family allowances, widowed mothers' pensions, and insurances for other life events. Her Oldham home, Bent House, served as a base for countless welfare organizations, many brought together in the Council of Social Welfare. Mobilizing an army of helpers, she established a paper-sorting industry to employ destitute women, pioneered mother and infant welfare centres, and founded Oldham's first evening play centre."
Mary Higgs devoted the rest of her life to social work in Oldham and was awarded an OBE just before her death on 19th March 1937.