The tale of Highwayman Higgins
Cheshire 'gentleman' who added notoriety to Knutsford

Visitors to Knutsford often pause to look at the plaque on the wall of the house in Gaskell Avenue which announces that Elizabeth Gaskell, famous Victorian novelist, lived here. Not everyone continues a few doors further on where there is another plaque.

This one tells us that here was the residence of Highwayman Higgins. "Squire" Higgins, as he was known to his friends of the local gentry, appears to have been of good birth, although much of his origin is obscure. He seems to have arrived to take up residence in Knutsford about 1756 and was accepted by the community as a gentleman of reasonable means.

In the parish church the register records the marriage of Edward Higgins, Yeoman, and Katherine Birtles, spinster, dated April 21, 1757. The lady actually signed her name as “Kathrune”. Whether this was a normal spelling at the time or whether she was not very literate is uncertain. Wives were not expected to be unduly inquisitive about their husband's business affairs, and Katherine was probably satisfied to be told that Edward owned property in various parts of the country and lived on the rents.

A fit and athletic man, he rode to hounds with the gentry and owned several horses of his own. As time went by there were five children to add to the household of Squire Higgins, and he was reputedly very fond of his growing family. It was fortunate that the folk of Knutsford did not know of his past activities, how, in 1754, he had been convicted of housebreaking in Worcester and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

But the American colonies could not hold our Edward for long. Shortly after arrival in Boston he stole a large amount of money from the house of a rich merchant and bought himself a passage home. He was back in England a few months after being transported. For a while he lived in Manchester, and then moved to Knutsford where he bought number 19 in what is now Gaskell Avenue. He was evidently not short of money by that time.

Situated opposite the Common, on which the May Day Fair is held, the house was at this time covered in ivy and known as the Cann office, on account of it having once been the place in which scales and weights were tested. Life in the genteel society of Knutsford (to be described in the next century by Mrs. Gaskell in her novel Cranford) was placid and orderly.

Higgins and his wife dined with their neighbours and he hunted, fished and shot with them. Such a life enabled him to become familiar with the layout of the houses of his hosts so that at a later date he was able to sneak back for a spot of burglary.

On one occasion Mr. and Mrs. Higgins were guests of the Egertons, that famous Cheshire family, in their house at Oulton Park. While playing whist after dinner, Higgins took a fancy to Mr. Egerton's jewelled snuff box lying on the table.

The Higginses were staying the night; to travel back to Knutsford along dark and dangerous roads was out of the question, so, while the household slept, the guest's crept into the host's dressing room and found the snuff box. He then hid it outdoors for later recovery. In the morning, on the theft being discovered, he earned much approval by summoning all the servants together and having their rooms searched.

Mr. Egerton was grateful for such prompt action, even though the box was not found. Higgins would probably have been safe enough in having kept the box in his own room, since there was no question of searching the guests. Ladies and gentlemen did not do such things! But he took no chances. Higgins was never one to resist an impulse.

On one occasion, wandering along the Rows in Chester late at night, he saw a ladder that some workman had left against the wall of a house in Stanley Street. He climbed up and into a bedroom where a young woman lay asleep. She had returned from a ball and her jewellery was scattered on the dressing table. Higgins calmly pocketed his good fortune, held his breath when the girl turned over in bed, and then made his escape.

Years later, relating this in his confession, he said "Had she awaked I would have had no choice but to murder her." Besides burgling the homes of his friends in Knutsford, Higgins also went out some nights, muffling the hooves of his horse so as not to disturb the neighbours (he was a considerate person) and held up a coach or two on the Chester Road.

The stretch of this road between Knutsford and Chester had recently been improved by turnpiking; that meant handing it over to a private company which was allowed to charge a toll in return for repairing the road and maintaining it in good order. This "privatisation" of the highway was resulting in a great improvement in the old muddy wagon tracks that had for long passed for roads in most of Britain.

Traffic on the turnpiked carriageways was increasing - and so were the activities of the highwaymen who preyed on the coaches. The authorities could do little about it. The area between the towns in the 18th century was largely "Indian country" in which the law could not be enforced. Higgins found it easier to hold up a coach than to burgle a house.

Passengers usually kept a few guineas handy to surrender to the first "gentleman of the road" who stopped them. The end came in 1767. He had taken a journey into Wales, telling his wife that he would be away "collecting the rents."

Luck ran out at last. He was caught breaking into a house in Carmarthen. Once identified as an escaped prisoner his fate was sealed. After being sentenced to death he wrote "I beg you will have compassion on my poor disconsolate widow and fatherless infants, as undoubtedly you will hear my widow upbraided with my past misconduct. I beg you will vindicate her as not being guilty of knowing about my villany."

Squire Higgins died on the gallows at Carmarthen on 7 November, 1767.The plaque on his house is now part of Knutsford's many tourist attractions, along with Mrs Gaskell and the town's exotic architecture.