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Higgins family


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Part 4: William George Higgins (1872 - 1940)


Early life and education

William George Higgins was born 17 May 1872 in New Street Cottage, Lyonshall, Herefordshire, the son of Eliza Higgins and an unknown father. He was baptised 07 June the same year at St Michael and All Angels Church and admitted to Lyonshall School 27 March 1876, aged just 3 and 10 months. 

There had been a school in Lyonshall since 1836, making William and his relatives more fortunate than many in Great Britain. For many children, it took until the Education Act (1870) to gain access to co-educational, non-denominational education for those aged five to thirteen (although not universally free education as a small fee was required, though poorer families were exempt). A new National School had opened in Lyonshall in 1868 to meet the needs of the increasing school population. The previous school building had been located on the grounds of St Michael and All Angels Church (which meant the children’s playground was amongst the gravestones!). Next to the church were the ruins of the 11th century Lyonshall Castle, no doubt another favourite play spot for the local children! William was part of the newly-regulated infant school stage which was usually for those aged 5-7 (but perhaps his mother wanted him out of the way!). [1]

William stayed at school until 11 March 1885, just shy of his thirteenth birthday. He achieved all the School Standards I-VI during his time, which roughly corresponded to passing one standard a year. They were not age-dependent and certainly did not cater for individual learning. William would have been examined in the ‘Three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) which had been the extent of the English school curriculum since time immemorial. However, from 1875 there had been the option to include geography, history and needlework (the latter provided for girls only). [2]

To meet Standard I (which he achieved when he was eight), William had to write some common words from dictation, copy some writing, read something from a reading book used in the school (that contained more than just monosyllabic words), add and subtract to four digits and know his multiplication tables up to six. After another five years of schooling, William met Standard VI (characterised by reading with fluency and expression, knowing fractions and decimals, and writing a short piece such as a letter) and had completed his elementary school education. William was a rarity in the school: of the twenty other children who were admitted within a couple of months of William (and stayed more than a year), only two others achieved Standard VI and seven Standard V.

The concept of secondary education at the time was still regarded as the domain of the middle-classes and above. There were those involved in drawing up recommendations and reports for the government of the day who advocated that the sons of labourers should have the opportunity to learn sciences that would benefit them in the agricultural world. But for the son of a single mother in Lyonshall, there were almost no options for secondary education for William. Nearby Kington had a grammar school which boys from the Kington parish could attend (for a fee that varied in amount depending on whether they were the sons of the poor, tradesmen or gentlemen). ‘Foreigners’ from other parishes could also attend for a fee, too. [3]


Working life with the railways and attempted military service

Since William’s birth, British agriculture had been suffering a Great Depression caused by falling grain prices – one which would last until the mid-1890s. The rural population of England and Wales had been in decline already as employment opportunities opened up in the newly-industrialised urban areas and demand for agricultural labour fell. The railways and the police force did offer new sources of employment in rural areas but the military, urban railways, domestic service and the construction industry were also enticing to young folk. [4] For William, who seemed to have drive and ambition, here was the opportunity to leave a life of labouring in Lyonshall and make something of himself. 

William followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined Midland Railway 10 November 1886. He was appointed an assistant porter at Whitney Station, to the south-west of Lyonshall. He was 5’6½” (apparently four and a half inches taller than his brother was at the same age!) and would be earning 10 shillings a week. Unfortunately, William had not passed the company’s exam (it is not known what the exam consisted of) and he was called on to resign less than a month later (though it is not known if that was related to the exam).

In June the following year, he tried his luck with the Great Western Railway (GWR) company as a ‘lad porter’ at Lydbrook station, Gloucestershire. His starting wage was 10 shillings, rising by a shilling each year. In May 1888, he was removed to Withington station in Herefordshire. He maintained a good behaviour record and received no cautions. A long-term career in the rail industry like his brother did not seem to interest William and he attempted military service when he turned 18 (and now 6’0½” tall).

He was discharged medically unfit from the 1st Life Guards (one of the most senior regiments in the British army and formed part of the monarch's bodyguards). In September 1890 he tried again as a private with the Scots Guards (another regiment that protected the monarch).  Despite a major in the 4th Shropshire Light Infantry in Hereford declaring William was fit for service the colonel of the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment in Shrewsbury did not approve it. William was quickly discharged three days later as ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’. A final medical examination revealed he had extensive varicocele. This was a vein problem which could have affected William’s fertility (though that might not have been known in medical circles at the time).


Police career

William returned to his work as a railway porter and in 1891 he was known to be boarding in Abergavenny. But it was clear a career in the railway (or the army) was not to be William’s destiny. There was another option for an ambitious 21-year-old from the country: join the police force. There had been county and borough forces established throughout the 19th century but it is not known why William eschewed them in favour of joining the Metropolitan Police Force (‘the Met’), which had been established in 1829. He joined 24 July 1893 at Gipsy Hill, Lambeth, part of ‘P’ Division (Camberwell). In the early years of the Met, the requirements to join were: be under 35, stand at least 5’7”, be literate and of good character. Men from outside London were looked favourably upon as they were deemed healthier and more honest! By the time William joined, new recruits had to be aged 21 to 27 and be 5’9” (without wearing socks or shoes) and not suffer from: flat foot, narrow chest or joint stiffness. William managed to grow half an inch in the three years since he was last thoroughly examined. He also declared he was not a member of any illegal society! [5]

He transferred to the 3rd Division (Devonport Docks) 09 March 1894. Since 1860, the Met had been responsible for policing the various naval dockyards in England and Wales. It was while he was in Devonport that Police Constable Higgins met Rose Mason (1878 - 1978), a native of Devonport whose father worked at the Naval Hospital as a civil servant. (More information about Rose appears in the Mason section.)

William and Rose married 13 October 1898 at Stoke Damerel Registry Office. They had eight children, half of whom were born in and around London where William was later transferred: Violet Ernestine, William George, William, Arthur Edwin, Elsie Rose, Frank, Cecelia May and Leonard. The family lived at 10 St Aubyn Street, Devonport (the house is no longer standing) until William was promoted to Sergeant and transferred to ‘J’ Division (Bethnal Green) 11 October 1902. They lived in Leytonstone and Wanstead before William was again promoted, this time to Station Sergeant 06 November 1909 and transferred to ‘N’ Division (Islington). They lived at 71 Greyhound Road, Tottenham for over five years, the longest William and Rose had lived at any address since they were first married (the terraced house is still standing today).

It is at this address that William appears to have had qualifying property to entitle him to vote. William’s generation was almost certainly the first Higginses to have enjoyed male suffrage. Prior to the 19th century, Parliament was not representative and few people had the right to vote (it was estimated that only 3% of the 8 million people living in England and Wales in 1780 could vote). Voters could also be bribed and intimidated as secret ballots were not made law until 1872.

There were three Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 and all three were based on property qualifications: the ability to occupy a property which could be valued at or rented for £10 or more per annum (£450-500 today). The two earlier Acts had only enfranchised urban-dwelling men, with some concessions for rural landowners and tenants. The 1884 Act allowed more rural men to vote so that there were now about 5 million male voters (which represented 70% of the total adult male population of England and Wales, and 29% of the total adult population). By 1918, all men aged 21 or over who were resident were entitled to vote, regardless of property (extended to all women in 1928). [6]



William’s final transfer was to ‘V’ Division (Wandsworth) 20 May 1916 and their house at 11 Valnay Street, Tooting, would remain the family residence for almost 60 years. Very little is known about William’s time in the Met as he was never fortunate enough to have had any arrests or escapades written up in the ‘Illustrated Police News’ or similar publications! He was never injured in the course of his service (although he had a deformed nail on the second finger of his left hand). After almost 27 years’ service, William resigned from the Met 03 May 1920 and began receiving an annual pension of £208 14s (about £4400 today). Compared to his physical description given at 21, in the intervening years William’s hair had turned grey (from ‘dark’) and his eyes had changed from brown to hazel!

A decade after retirement, William was working as a factory inspector. He died 05 August 1940 at St James Hospital, Balham, from congestive heart failure, aged 68. Some of William’s grandchildren fondly remember him and recall he was a very large man: 6 feet high and 6 feet wide! The first thing that could be seen when he came around the corner was his stomach! Rose in comparison was very small. William was said to look like King George V – according to one of his children!


Children of William and Rose

Violet Ernestine (1899 - 1980) was born 16 March 1899 in Devonport. She was baptised the following month 13 April at St John’s Parish Church in Devonport (long since demolished, perhaps due to damage sustained in WWII bombing raids). It is not known what she did after she finished her schooling. She married navvy William George Plastow (1898 - 1967) in 1923. Violet died in 25 November 1980, aged 81.


William George (1900-1900) was born 09 April 1900 and baptised the following month, 31 May at St John’s Parish Church. Sadly he died within a few months.


William (1901 - 1948) was born 29 July 1901 in Devonport and baptised 26 September the same year at St John’s Parish Church. He worked as a labourer and married Florence Ivy Pharoah (1905 - ?) in 1926. William died in 1948, aged 47. It is not known when Florence died.


Arthur Edwin (1903 - 1953) was born 18 May 1903 in Leytonstone, Essex. As a teenager he worked as a jeweller’s assistant then joined the navy in January 1919, aged 15. Official pre-sea training of boys within the Royal Navy had started in the mid-19th century in Devonport. The requirements were: parental permission, able to read and write, and have a character reference. To pass the medical they had to be of a certain height and build: he was 5’3½” (161cm) and had a 32” (81cm) chest at the time. He began his training as others had for many years as a Boy Seaman 2nd Class on HMS Impregnable, the training ship moored at Devonport. He completed his training within nine months which was the minimum time required so he probably was not ill during the time. Arthur was very fortunate as ten of his fellow trainees died as a result of illness between March and June 1919. The illness was not specified but it was very likely to have been Spanish Flu, the pandemic that killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide at the close of and following World War I. [7]

Arthur was promoted to Boy 1st Class and within two months was sent to HMS Ramillies (the same first ship that Prince Phillip was sent to upon completion of his training in 1940). Not all boys were sent straight to a ship – some were sent to another training ship until they had turned 18. As customary, when Arthur turned 18 he was ‘rated up’ to Ordinary Seaman. Less than a year later he was an Able Seaman. From 1922 to 1927 he served on a variety of ships: HMS Vulcan, HMS Diligence, fleet repair ship HMS Sandhurst, HMS Yarmouth, HMS Vernon (the Torpedo School which had been operating at Portsmouth since 1879), HMS Castor and HMS Hermes (the first purpose built aircraft carrier) with short spells in between at HMS Pembroke I (the naval shore barracks at Chatham, Kent).

By January 1927, Arthur was a Seaman Torpedoman. In the interwar years the Torpedo Branch became responsible for anti-submarine weapons, such as depth charges and surface-laid mines. Arthur’s character since his training days had almost always been described as ‘very good’ and his ability ‘satisfactory’. After three years’ service in the navy (calculated from age 18) he received his first good conduct chevron, and then a second after five years’ service. After another five years, he would have received a third chevron. It is not known what ships he served on after 1927 but he was frequently absent from England during the 1930s (as evidenced by the number of times he appeared as an ‘absent voter’ in the electoral roll). He used to take very good photos of places he had been to, such as the Arctic. It is not known what he did during World War II but afterwards he worked as a civilian electrician. [8]

Arthur married Ann ‘Annie’ Florence Abel (1900 - 1971) in 1946. At the start of the war, Annie had been a box stripper (which might have involved taking boxes apart). They never had any children, having married later in life, and were said to be devoted to each other. Arthur died 21 January 1953 at St James Hospital, Balham, aged 48. Tragically Annie was killed after a collision with a bus in Tooting in 1971, aged 70.


Elsie Rose (1906 - 1983) was born 04 August 1905 in Leytonstone, Essex. She married window cleaner Daniel John ‘Jack’ Witney (1905 - 1982) c1929. Jack died in 1982, aged 77, and Elsie died a year later, aged 77.


Frank (1908 - 1964 ) was born 11 March 1908 in Wanstead, Essex. He lived with his parents until his marriage to Ellen ‘Nell’ Blanche Kendrick (1907 - 1993) in 1938.  Frank worked as a house painter and he and Nell were both members of the St John’s Ambulance. During the Blitz a handful of bombs were dropped near their street so they may have been called upon to render first aid. Frank died in 1964, aged 55. Nell died c1993, aged 85.


Cecelia May (1909 - 1982) was born 17 May 1909 in Wanstead, Essex. She worked as a factory hand (a machinist) and married window cleaner Walter Wallace Tijou (1905 - 1955). She died in 1982, aged 73.


Leonard ‘Len’ (1910 - 1985) was born 06 September 1910 in Tottenham, London. He lived with his parents until he married Winifred ‘Winn’ P Brown (1915 - ?) c1937.  Len worked as a money collector for window cleaning. They later moved to Berkshire to run a pub. Len died in 1985, aged 74 and Winifred died in 2011, aged 96.


Next: Higgins Descendants


[1] Lyonshall Parish website (

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

[3] ‘The history of Kington, by a member of the Mechanics Institute of Kington’ by R. Parry (1845)

[4] The Agrarian History of England and Wales Vol VII, 1850-1914, Part II’ edited by Edward John T. Collins, Joan Thirsk (2000), Cambridge University Press

[5] Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection (

[6] History of British suffrage (;; History of Parliamentary Franchise House of Commons Research Paper 13/14 (; census population statistics ( 

[7] Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, researched and compiled by Don Kindell (; 1918 influenza pandemic information (

[8] Naval information: training (,

badges (,

torpedo branch (