Mary Higgs

Mary Higgs

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.

Mary Higgs
Mary Higgs

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Higgs, Glimpses Into the Abyss (1907)

Having gradually been brought to the conviction, by investigation of numerous cases of destitution among women, that there were circumstances in our social arrangements which fostered immorality, I resolved to make a first-hand exploration, by that method of personal experiment, which is the nearest road to accurate knowledge, of the conditions under which destitute women were placed who sought the shelter of the common lodging-house or the workhouse.

It was necessary to find a friend willing to share the possible perils of such an experiment, and to arrange in such a way that it should be unknown to all but a few. I was fortunate in finding a fellow-worker willing to go with me, and as to the truth of the following story she is a sufficient witness.

We dressed very shabbily, but were respectable and clean. We wore shawls and carried hats, which we used if desirable, according to whether we had sunshine or rain, or wished to look more or less respectable. We carried soap, a towel, a change of stockings, and a few other small articles, wrapped in an old shawl. My boots were in holes, and my companion wore a grey tweed well-worn skirt. My hat was a certificate for any tramp ward, and my shawl ragged, though clean. We had one umbrella between us.

Our plan of campaign was to take train to a town some way from home, arriving in the evening, and then to seek lodging. We had five nights to spend, and were expected at a town some way off by friends who thought we were on a "walking tour"! We cut ourselves off from civilisation on Monday with 2s. 6d. in our pockets and a considerable distance between us and home. We were expected on Saturday by our friends. We thought that we should be able to sample only two workhouses after the first night, expecting to be detained two nights at each.

Escaping observation by going to a country railway station, we took train to a town about fifteen miles from home. We enquired of the police and others, and found that there was a large municipal lodging-house, so we bought a loaf and a quarter of a pound of butter, and applied for beds. We were just in time to get a double bed in the married couples' quarters, for which we paid sixpence. We were shown by a servant - a young woman, about twenty-three apparently into a large, lofty kitchen, furnished with wooden tables and benches. There was a splendid kitchen range, and all was clean and tidy; hot and cold water were laid on to a sink, and boiling water for making tea could be drawn from a tap. Pots and pans, and  basins  to drink out of, were kept in a handy cupboard. One roller towel, however, was all the convenience for personal washing or for wiping pots. There was a dish-cloth, and we preferred to wash our pots and put them away to dry rather than to wipe them on the towel used by our fellow-lodgers.

Our first difficulty was as follows: We had bread and butter; we had, also, in our bundle, some tea and sugar, the latter mixed with plasmon, as we feared we might not keep our strength up till the weekend without some such help. But we had neither spoon, knife, nor fork, so we could not spread our butter nor stir our tea. A woman, with a girl of twelve, whose language left much to be desired, told us we could have the three necessary articles, and also a locker in which to keep our food, by depositing one shilling. We accordingly did this, but were not given a locker, as we were only staying one night. We had to put our provisions in the corner of a cupboard used by others, but they were not touched. Provided with the necessary implements, we proceeded to make tea, and to cut our bread and butter receiving friendly hints from people who saw we were novices, and studying our companions. We drank out of basins. Besides the loud-voiced woman and child of twelve, there was a man and his wife, and a very nagging woman, whose husband received a great deal of abuse. The inmates appeared to know each other somewhat, and talked about others who had lived there.

We made enquiries for the closet, and found that the key hung by the fireside, and gave admission to a single water-closet, very small, in a yard through which everyone passed to the kitchen. This appeared to do duty for the single women also, as they used the same kitchen and sitting-room as the married couples. There was a good flush of water caused by a movable seat. There was no lavatory or any convenience for washing except the sink in the kitchen used by all the lodgers, men and women alike, but there was a notice up that "slipper baths" could be had for twopence. This absence of any opportunity for personal cleanliness, apart from extra payment, must lead to uncleanliness of person where people are all living on the edge of poverty; it is, too, most desirable that women should be able to wash apart from men.

After tea we found our way upstairs to a sitting-room, also furnished with wooden tables and benches and fairly clean. Beyond it was a bedroom for single females, separated by wooden partitions into cubicles. The servant was in attendance, and was the only official we saw during our stay, except when we purchased our bed at the office, and obtained and returned our knife, fork and spoon. Being very tired, we asked for our bed, and were shown a boarded-off cubicle, the door of which we could bolt. It was lighted by a large window, and in the dim light looked fairly clean, but the floor was dirty. The top sheet of the bed was clean, the bottom one dirty, and the pillows filthy. We spread a clean dress skirt over them and resigned ourselves. The bed was flock, and was hot and uncomfortable; it smelt stale. We opened the window. There was no furniture besides the bed; we hung our clothes on nails in the partition. I killed a bug on the wall close to my head.

(2) Mary Higgs, Glimpses Into the Abyss (1907)

On a bright evening in May, when the trees were fresh with Nature's tracery, and the sky glowed with colour, my friend and I found our way by train and tram to a house, which was professedly a lodging-house for all sorts and conditions of women. The building, a large, tall, better-class dwelling-house, set back in a front garden, looked almost too respectable for us, as we had donned our tramp's attire. Some children were playing in the passage, and called "the missus," who made no objection to our engaging two beds at sixpence each, warning us we should have to share a room with strangers. She then showed us into a small kitchen, clean and comfortable, but with little accommodation�two short forms and a dresser were the furniture, with shelves in the wall and a sink. A door gave access to a yard with sanitary convenience, and there was a good fire and plenty of boiling water. We sat a little while to rest, and to listen to one or two inmates - a woman who smelt of liquor, an elderly woman who appeared to help the person in charge, and a rather handsome dark girl, nicely dressed and clean, who told us she had been married a few months, and was deserted by her husband. We learnt afterwards that she had been in hotel and restaurant service. We soon decided to go out and buy some provisions, and to have a walk round. We had only expected the beds to be fourpence a night, so were rather short of money. We laid out our scanty resources as follows: Tea 1d., sugar 1d., bread 3d., butter 2d. (and 1d. we paid for the loan of a knife to be afterwards returned). With these we went back, but not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 p.m., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth, and, being left alone, we returned to the kitchen and prepared to make tea and cut ourselves some bread and butter. Meanwhile various women passed and re-passed. Three cats were on the hearth - one, a tabby, was called "Spot." A Scotch woman was rather genteel in appearance, about forty, but who openly boasted she had been drunk every day for more than a week; she came in and went out more than once. She sat on the form and related apropos of "Spot," that she got a situation as housekeeper, "though she could not say she had not a spot on her character." A widower with several grown-up sons wished to engage her as housekeeper. He asked about her character, she said: "Without thinking, I replied, 'I am afraid it will not bear too strict an investigation,' and, by Jove! if he didn't engage me at once!" She said it was a good place, and she might have been in it all the time but for "a bit of temper." "Yes, and married the master!" added another. A considerable flurry was caused by the advent in the corner of two or three huge black beetles, or "blackjacks" as they were called, which made everybody draw up their skirts. The form was removed to the middle of the room. The dark young lady told us a good deal about her past; how she had an old mistress who died in her chair and "looked heavenly," and how her daughter wished to take her to London, and even sent her fare, but she would not go. She sighed over it, and said, when we asked her if she was not sorry, that she had wished many times she had gone; "but," she added, "I was young and foolish, and had no one to advise me." A nice, bright-looking young girl, who had come in looking very weary, and who had a bad cough, interested us much. She had been out since eight, but obtained no money. She said she had been out all one night, and so got her cough. Later we learned her story. She had been out late one night when in service on a gala day, and, having a strict mistress, she was afraid of returning to her place. A companion persuaded her to take train to N��. The girls had just enough money, and were landed as strangers in a strange town. They walked about and found this lodging-house. They entered, and, being destitute, fell at once into prostitution.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late - many as late as two o'clock - and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

We stayed up till twelve o'clock to learn as much as we could; then, as the proprietress seemed rather anxious for us to go to bed, we went upstairs and were shown into a fair-sized room with seven beds, low iron bedsteads with wire mattresses, and fairly clean mattress, sheets, and pillows. A woman who had a terrible cold and cough and our Scotch friend came to bed, the latter being comparatively sober, though she had had many drinks that day. Later on the other beds were filled. One had had over eleven shillings in the morning, but seemed to have "got without it." The woman with a cold insisted on having the window closed, and the room was very stifling, otherwise clean and comfortable (compared with some of our experiences); but our companions, some of them, had on filthy underclothing when seen by daylight.

The woman of the house called us about nine o'clock, and we had to get up "willy-nilly." There was a bath-room, with wash-basins and hot and cold water, and we learnt there were some 1s. beds with separate washing accommodation. A woman whose hair was going grey ascribed it to constant dyeing. A young girl had to go to see the doctor.

We found our way to the kitchen and prepared breakfast, securing our knife once more which we had returned. We took our breakfast to the dining-room, where a number of dissolute girls - some handsome, almost all slatternly - were already collected. We saw our young acquaintance of the night before, apparently breakfastless, and invited her to join us, which she gladly did. We learnt that she had had no food the day before, except a drink of tea and a little bread and butter, having had "no luck." Evidently she was starved into prostitution, about which she was still very shamefaced. She had been in several lodging-houses. The town ones were "ten times worse." A private one she had been in one night had had no lavatory accommodation; she had to go and wash at the station, paying twopence. She was afraid to solicit in town; the "bobbies" kept a sharp look-out, and sometimes were in plain clothes. One had stopped her when she was only walking, told her she was on the streets, asked her where she came from, and advised her to go home to her mother. He asked why she was "on the town," and when she told him she had got no work, he said, "You all say that." As she was afraid in the town, she was in the habit of going out to the suburbs. Her friend had quarrelled with her, and even struck her in the street. She was in another lodging-house, and "doing well" on the town.

This forlorn girl had tried in vain to find a true friend among the others. One had borrowed and not repaid, one had been friendly and cast her off. We promised to try and help her.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called "Dot" and another danced "the cake-walk" in the middle of the floor.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. "Never mind, Ivy, you'll soon be through with it!"

Later entered a distressed mother. Her girl was wrongly accused of stealing. She had traced her to another lodging-house, but it was closed. She spoke to say that "she was her child whatever she had done, and she would see her through and take her home if she could find her, as she was her best friend." "Tell her if you come across her that the back door is always open, and she will be welcome." Several girls cried, thinking of their mothers, and a woman offered to take her and search for her daughter later on. This scene brought tears to the eyes of our young friend, and I said, "That's what your mother will say." We had now to leave her, under promise not to go out until we returned. We left our tea and bread and solitary penny, and gladly escaped to the fresh air.

During the time these scenes had gone on several girls received notes. One was packing up to go somewhere; one was told "the landlord wanted her." A further visit gave further light.

(3) Carol M. Talbot, Mary Higgs (April 2015)

Mary Higgs arrived in Oldham in 1891 when her husband, the Reverend Thomas Higgs, took up the ministry at Greenacres Congregational Church. But Mary was not a typical Victorian minister's wife and mother. At the age of 18 she gained a scholarship to a new women's college, which later became Girton College, Cambridge, and was the first woman to study science to degree level, completing her studies in 1874.

The year after the family arrived in Oldham there was a serious slump in trade. A dispute between cotton workers and their employers over a reduction in wages resulted in a lengthy lock-out. Mary saw at first hand how some women could lose their homes due to loss of work and she helped those she could. She also started to visit the workhouse and became friendly with Sarah Lees and her daughter Marjory. By the end of the 1890s Sarah's husband Charles Edward Lees, a wealthy mill owner had died, leaving her with enough money to expand her philanthropic ideals. Mary persuaded her to support the setting up of a rescue home to take in homeless women and their children. A terraced house in Esther Street Greenacres was acquired.

When Thomas and Mary arrived in Oldham their four children were aged between 11 and one. As they grew more independent Mary was able to spend more time on activities outside the home and church. Through her contact with homeless women at the rescue home and workhouse she learned of the conditions many had to endure when staying in casual wards and common lodging houses. Workhouses had casual or tramp wards for men and women who needed short term accommodation, often while seeking work. Most towns had common lodging houses. These were run for profit and unregulated. In 1903 Mary took a radical decision; she would dress as a tramp and go undercover to gather information. In spring of that year, Mary and her friend Annie Lee, a cotton worker, travelled by train to West Yorkshire to begin their tramp.

After enduring five nights undercover in tramp wards and common lodging houses, Mary published an anonymous report on her investigations. The report caused uproar and Mary decided to go public. In 1904 she was called to give evidence before a Government Enquiry. She took the opportunity to offer constructive solutions to what she saw as the many inadequacies of the system.

Over the next few years Mary extended her undercover investigation to Manchester and London. Again she recorded her findings and also published a booklet on how to set up a rescue home. It was vital to expand provision in Oldham. Mary persuaded Sarah and Marjory Lees to purchase a 15 room house in West Street. This was converted into a Lodging House for women and also because the hub social initiatives.

In 1907 Reverend Higgs died and ironically Mary found herself homeless. Sarah and Marjory made the cottage to Bent House available for Mary and two of her children. A year later, Mary became the Northern secretary for the National Association of Women's Lodging Houses.

Mary had grown to love her adopted home, but felt that something should be done to improve the environment. So in 1901 she wrote a letter to the Oldham Chronicle entitled Beautiful Oldham – Why Not? The following year the Beautiful Oldham Society was founded. Through schools, children were encouraged to care for and grow plants. Trees and other plants were bought by the committee and sold to businesses and groups at cost. Individuals were encouraged to plant window boxes and take up flags in their yards.

This was a period in which the Garden City Movement was in full swing. Mary wanted to create a garden suburb in Oldham on the lines set out by Ebenezer Howard. Sarah and Marjory Lees sold land in Hollins at cost, and in 1909 Howard came to the official opening of Oldham Garden Suburb.

After many years of pioneering and reform work, Mary was presented with the OBE in 1937. Following the ceremony she was unwell and stayed with her eldest daughter in London. Only days after receiving official recognition of her years of service to the people of Oldham, Mary Higgs died at the age of 83.

(4) Nigel Barlow, The story of Oldham’s undercover tramp and social reformer (21st February, 2021)

Few people will have heard the name of Mary Higgs and although she was born in Devizes, she became known as a woman of the North, coming to Oldham in 1891, she will be remembered as a pioneer of a movement for obtaining decent lodgings for women of poor means.

Born in 1857, she moved to Bradford at the age of eight when her father became minister of the College Chapel.

At the age of seventeen she became the first woman at the university of Girton to study for the Natural Science Tripos and in 1874 she gained a second-class honours degree.

Marriage would bring her to Oldham in 1891, Thomas Kilpin Higgs, a Congregational minister serving as minister of Greenacres Congregational Church.

Soon after arriving in the town a letter appeared in the local paper under the headline Beautiful Oldham,Why not?

The letter written by Higgs, contained the suggestion that the then smoke filled Lancashire Town, if its citizens only chose, could be turned into a beautiful city. The beautiful Oldham society was born and one of the schemes that would come out of it was the concept of a garden suburb.

But it was her concern for the scale of poverty that Higgs will be remembered. Going out on the streets in disguise, she stayed in a municipal lodging house, several workhouse tramp wards, a Salvation army lodging and a women's lodge to gain first hand experience of life on the streets of the town.

Soon after arriving in the town a letter appeared in the local paper under the headline Beautiful Oldham,Why not?

The letter written by Higgs, contained the suggestion that the then smoke filled Lancashire Town, if its citizens only chose, could be turned into a beautiful city. The beautiful Oldham society was born and one of the schemes that would come out of it was the concept of a garden suburb.

But it was her concern for the scale of poverty that Higgs will be remembered. Going out on the streets in disguise, she stayed in a municipal lodging house, several workhouse tramp wards, a Salvation army lodging and a women's lodge to gain first hand experience of life on the streets of the town.