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Higgins family


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Part 3: Eliza Higgins (1848 - 1900)


Early life

Eliza Higgins was the sixth child of James Higgins Jr and Ann Holland. She was born in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, in 1848 and baptised at St Michael and All Angels Church 17 September the same year. Eliza probably had some schooling – signing a name on an official register usually indicated literacy (although for some people, that was the extent of their ability to write!). It is not known if Eliza undertook paid employment as a teenager. Three of her sisters went into service but there is no indication Eliza did.

When Eliza was about 20 years old, she gave birth to an illegitimate son, Robert. There was no record of who his father was. It was common enough at the time for a young couple to go ‘courting’, the girl to become pregnant and marry a few months before the birth. Some women had to remain single mothers though – perhaps because the father could not be prevailed upon to marry (even with threats) or had departed the scene. Three years later, Eliza had another illegitimate son, William, and again there was no indication who his father was (or whether it was the same man who fathered Robert).

In 1871, Eliza was still living at home in New Street Cottage and her occupation was described as ‘housework’. As the eldest daughter still at home, with an infant son, a young nephew, a younger brother who had an infirmity and a mother who was quite possibly an invalid, the responsibility of running the household would have fallen to Eliza. When she registered William’s birth, she described herself as a ‘domestic servant’ and when she married, she was ‘housekeeper to her father’.


Marriage to Thomas Harris

Eliza married domestic groom Thomas Harris (c1845 - c1909) 18 March 1879 at the Baptist Chapel, Kington. Thomas (or ‘Tom’ as he was sometimes known as) was born in Pembridge, the son of mason William Harris and Mary Fletcher. Eliza and Thomas never had any children together and continued to live with her father. By 1891, they had moved to Pound Cottage and James came to live with them until his death. Eliza developed valvular disease of the heart and a renal disease known as chronic parenchymatous nephritis. Eliza died in the Kington Cottage Hospital 14 October 1900, aged 52. Cottage hospitals were voluntary institutions funded by private means and were usually to be found in rural areas or small towns. Kington’s hospital was founded in 1887 and would have been an alternative to the workhouse infirmaries. Voluntary hospitals had a reputation for providing urgent, short-term treatment and availing themselves of modern techniques. [1]

Thomas himself was a patient in another voluntary hospital in Llandrindod Wells, just across the border in Wales, less than six months later. It is not known why he was there but Llandrindod Wells was a well-known spa town and he may have been there for the reputed beneficial properties of the spa water. Thomas died in Herefordshire c1909, aged 64.


Children of Eliza

Robert (1869 - ?) was born 04 February 1869 in Lyonshall and baptised 14 March of the same year. He was admitted to the Lyonshall School 06 May 1873 when he was four and left 31 March 1882 when he was thirteen, having achieved the School Standards I-VI. There were few options for teenage boys whose forebears were agricultural labourers. Robert and William’s cousins generally became coal miners, farm servants and gardeners and few moved away from the county. It seemed Robert and his brother had some ambition to make a life for themselves outside of Lyonshall and the coming of the railways offered them that opportunity.

The first public steam railway opened in 1825 between Stockton and Darlington in County Durham. From this 25-mile route, other railways lines were opened in isolation, and then joining up to form a network that covered most of Great Britain. Herefordshire’s first passenger railway opened in 1853, connecting Hereford to Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Previously, the nearest railway station had been in Abergavenny in neighbouring Monmouthshire, Wales. In the late 1850s, a line was built connecting Leominster to Kington. No doubt Robert and his peers would have been excited when a line was constructed through Lyonshall, the grand station built not too far from their school. The line opened in 1874 and brought change to the community, as it had done throughout Great Britain. [2]

The government-stipulated price of 1 penny per mile became the rate for 3rd class tickets (2nd class tickets were about 50% higher and 1st class were double). This allowed ‘ordinary’ folk to travel for leisure, live further away from their place of employment, as well as seek employment elsewhere. Goods could be also transported more easily and cheaply. One other little-known impact the railways brought to Herefordshire was that the county lost eleven minutes when Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) replaced ‘local’ time! [3]

Employment with one of the many railway companies that operated at the time was much sought after and required passing an exam. Robert passed his for the Midland Railway and was appointed an assistant porter at Credenhill Station (near Hereford) 04 August 1884, at the age of 15. He was paid 8 shillings a week (his grandfather James received 15 shillings as an agricultural labourer). As the most junior staff member, Robert worked long hours: he unlocked the station early in the morning and locked up late at night. He handled the mail, did the gardening, cleaned the station, lit fires in the waiting rooms, assisted passengers, collected tickets, wound clocks and many other duties. [4]

In 1888, Robert married Welsh-born Anne Lewis (c1870 - ?). They went on to have nine children and the different birthplaces of the children listed on various census returns showed how often the family moved around. A humble assistant porter could work his way up to be a station master one day, but promotion usually meant removal to another station – often in another county. Their children were: Roberta Annie (1890 - ?), Gwendoline Maud (1891 - 1969), Robert Henry (c1895 - 1903), Gladys Vida (1896 - ?), Eric Lewis (1901 - ?), Doris Mary (1902 - ?), Horace George (1903 - 1942), Clifford Victor (c1907 - ?) and an unknown child who died in infancy. Horace spent his adult life in the merchant navy working his way up from a cabin boy to ship’s cook. In August 1942, he signed on with the SS Reynolds after their regular cook had been discharged due to an accident. Tragically, on the voyage from New York To Karachi, via Durban, the ship was torpedoed by German U-boat U-504 and all 47 crew were lost. [5]

A year after they married, Robert and Annie were in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, on the edge of what is now the Peak District National Park. Robert was now a station porter with a wage of 16 shillings. Within two years he had become a railway signalman and earning 22 shillings a week. The Victorian-era signalman had been described as ‘the loneliest man on the railway’, leading a solo existence in their signal box. The hours were incredibly long, depending on how frequent changeovers with other signalmen were. As the guardians of rail safety, they had to pass an eye test. They had to know when trains had passed through and sections of track were clear – otherwise a catastrophic accident could ensue. To avoid boredom, signalmen often spruced up their domain with flower boxes and competed for the best-tended! [6]

The family moved to Market Harborough, Leicestershire, and then 21 September 1893, Robert was appointed station master in the north of the county at Frisby-on-the-Wreake. The station master was someone of standing in the local community and was often provided with a station master’s house. Robert now earned £65 per annum (about 25 shillings a week). For this modest increase in salary, he oversaw the staff at a station, inspected level crossings and signal boxes (especially checking the equipment and the registers of trains), delivered pay to the railway employees and ensured the rules and regulations of the company were being strictly adhered to. Station masters were known to supplement their income selling newspapers or coal. [7]

By 1898, Robert was station master at Ashwell, Rutland, but within three years was in Boulton, Derby, now employed as a railways parcels clerk at Derby Station. This position of responsibility earned him £75 per annum (although a senior parcels clerk could earn double that). Robert resigned from this position 27 December 1901 though it is not known why. It is quite possible he left Midland Railways after some seventeen years of loyal service. The family moved to Glamorganshire, Wales, for a few years but by 1907 had settled in Hereford. In 1911 Robert was known to be working as a branch manager for an insurance company in Hereford but there is no confirmed record of him after this date. Anne died sometime after 1911.


More information about William George (1872 – 1940) appears in Part 4.


Next: William George Higgins


[1] Voluntary Hospitals Database website (

[2] Herefordshire Through Time website (

[3] ibid

[4] ‘The Life and Times of the Station Master’ by David Holmes (2007), Silver Link Publishing Ltd.

[5] The Wreck Site database (

[6] ‘The Loneliest Man on the Railway – The Victorian Signalman’, blog posted by David Turner 08 July 2011 (

[7] ‘100 years of station master memories’, blog posted by Sally Sculthorpe 16 January 2013 (