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Higgins family


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Part 1: James Higgins Sr (c1777 - 1859)


Early life and marriage to Jane Burgwyn

The earliest known Higgins was James Higgins. He was born c1777 in Herefordshire, England. He married Jane Burgwyn (c1778 - ?) 05 May 1805 at St Mary’s Parish Church, Byton [1], a village near the Welsh border. Jane was born c1778. It is not known who her family were – there were three Burgwyn families living in the northwest of Herefordshire. James and Jane lived in nearby Kington after their marriage and had four children: Ann, James, Jane and John. The children were most likely baptised in St Mary’s Church in a font that dated back 900 years to Norman times.


Working life as an agricultural labourer

By 1841, James was working as an ‘ag lab’ – the well-known census abbreviation for ‘agricultural labourer’. The life of an agricultural labourer was very hard and James was living through a time when agricultural life was changing drastically. [2] His forebears would have either worked for the same farmer for most of their life or been hired on an annual (or shorter) basis. Low wages and high costs were frequently a fact of life. To supplement their income (or during times of unemployment) the family would have been able to access common land to grow crops, graze some animals, collect fuel and hunt for game.

However, from the mid-1700s onwards (and throughout James' lifetime), hundreds of Enclosure Acts were passed to ‘enclose’ scattered strips of land with fences and hedges. The land, which had for hundreds of years been farmed piecemeal by families who rotated different crops and incorporated fallow periods, was given over to more productive (and therefore profitable) methods. Although the concept of ‘enclosure’ had been happening since the Norman invasion, the process was now becoming more widespread and formalised ownership of the land (often to a few wealthy elite).

The deprivation of ‘free’ land access, coupled with the new agricultural machinery being invented which reduced the need for labour, meant more agricultural labourers were in dire straits. There was inevitably a rise in crime and poverty, as well as unrest and rioting (although Herefordshire was spared the ‘Swing Riots’ that dominated the southern counties in the 1830s).

It cannot be known for certain what work James did but this part of Herefordshire was known for cattle and sheep (the wool was considered good quality), and some crops such as barley, oats and wheat. James may have been involved in crop cultivation and harvesting or animal husbandry. [3] The Higgins family probably lived in a small, damp and draughty cottage. The children possibly shared makeshift beds in a single bedroom (or a curtained-off part of a room used by the rest of the family). If they were fortunate, there may have been a garden to grow vegetables and raise a pig. Agricultural labourers’ cottages were a by-word for poor conditions and sanitation and legislative changes to improve labourers’ circumstances were slow. Despite this, James and his family were likely to be quite healthy – compared to those who lived in urban environments (according to a report written in 1842 about the labouring population).

Later life

In 1841, agricultural labourers received an average annual wage of about £31 (about £1350). This varied from county to county – wages in the south were sometimes 25% lower. James and Jane were now living in Redonslot, which does not exist on any known maps but was most likely an area off Jack’s Ditch Lane, which was halfway between Kington and Lyonshall. 

By 1851, they were living at Next End Farm, about one mile north of Lyonshall, and were categorised as ‘agricultural paupers’ and either deaf, dumb or blind (most likely the latter). How they made ends meet is not known but they probably received some form of parish relief (although after 1834, parishes were discouraged from giving relief as they had done for centuries and instead the workhouse was the place people had to go). James died 25 October 1859, aged 82, from ‘general decay’. It is not known when Jane died but it was probably within the same decade.

Children of James and Jane

Ann (c1808 - ?) was baptised 21 February 1808. It is not known what happened to her.


More information about James (c1810 - 1896) appears in Part 2.


Jane (c1812 - ?) was baptised 01 November 1812. She married wheelwright John Lloyd (c1811 - ?) 25 October 1838 in Lyonshall. It is not known where they lived in the early years of their marriage but by 1851 they were in Adforton, Radnorshire, Wales (now part of Herefordshire). It is likely they were living very close to John’s parents. Jane worked as a seamstress and John progressed to being a master wheelwright. John would have needed to produce a ‘masterpiece’ to demonstrate his technical prowess to obtain his ‘master’ title but then could establish his own workshop and train apprentices [4]. It seems Jane and John never had any children and there is no confirmed record of them after 1861.


John (c1815 - c1884) was baptised 28 November 1815. He married Mary Williams (c1817 - 1856) in Lyonshall 21 December 1827 and they had two children: John (1840 - ?) and Ann (c1846 - ?). The family lived in and around Lyonshall where John worked as an agricultural labourer, like his father. John Jr and Ann went to a day school (as opposed to a boarding school) but it is not known what they would have learned there beyond the basic reading, writing and arithmetic that was typical of the time. [5]

In 1855, the family gained unwanted attention from their neighbours when John Jr was arrested for a crime that at the time was a capital offence. John pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia. It is very likely the family never saw him again. (More information about John Jr appears in a separate section.)

The family stayed living in Lyonshall but they must have suffered some notoriety. Just over a year after John’s sentencing, it seems Mary died, aged about 39. Although the cause is not known, the stress of John’s trial and the outcome may have taken its toll. Ann was probably teased about her brother at school. There was a report p10 in ‘The Hereford Times’ 09 April 1859, of Ann being assaulted by a classmate after quarrelling with him on the way to school (though the subject matter was not stated). Ann later married agricultural labourer William Watkins and stayed living in the village. John came to live with them and he died c1884, aged 69.


Next: James Higgins Jr


[1] Some transcriptions state 09 May 1805.

[2] Information about the life and working conditions of agricultural labourers comes from My Ancestor was an Agricultural Labourer’, by Ian H Waller (2010), Society of Genealogists Enterprises Limited

[3] Hertfordshire Through Time website (; Enclosure Acts (

[4] Encyclopædia Britannica website (

[5] ‘Education in England: a brief history’ by Derek Gillard (2011) (