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BAD MARY:1773 – 8

On 13th April 1757 holy water was splashed on her forehead at St. Matthew’s in Walsall, a blessing that didn’t do very much good at all. Squalling, shrieking her rage, Mary Whiston submitted to her brief ablution and was duly anointed, then christened with the first of her several names. It was already too late. Some cosmic clock had been set in motion. For her sins she would be banished, thrashed, imprisoned and thrust into a unique prison at the bottom of the world. Her particular hard labor, indeed her apparent raison d’etre, was to populate Australia with Triffitts – a terrible sentence with dreadful consequences. If she’d known what was coming she would’ve flung herself back into the font and refused to come out.

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In 1773, when she was just sixteen years old, Mary Whiston met a young man in Walsall, took firm hold of his surname and hung on to it for a very long time. From this point on, for the next forty years, she was known only as Mary Higgins.

There are no marriage records, no indication of which Higgins lad donated his name and his time so freely. This episode in Mary’s life is recorded only in the name she carried away with her as a souvenir, the very absence of records pointing to events that may have been, to put it mildly, ‘out of the ordinary’.

There weren’t all that many Higgins families in the whole of Great Britain but, between 1740 and 1760 – the period when Mary’s mystery Higgins was likely born, six of them were in Walsall. Luckily the church records of St. Matthew’s provide a particularly comprehensive coverage of the Higgins tribe over this period and a process of elimination leads us to just one available man. It’s not really rocket-science; in a remarkable feat of genetic co-ordination – of the twenty children born to the combined families in this time – eighteen were girls.

Mary had a choice of only two eligible Higgins lads in Walsall, both, as it turns out, with the same name. The first Samuel Higgins was born in 1746 and stranded in a sea of little girls for thirteen long years until, to everybody’s great relief, another boy arrived in 1758. Logic would suggest the older of the two was Mary’s companion but one of them married Elizabeth Taylor in St. Matthews in June 1770 and I don’t think it was a twelve year old boy.

The younger Sam Higgins was Mary’s man. He was christened on 29th May 1758 and that made him exactly fourteen months her junior. Like most other fifteen year old lads he was not thinking with his brain when he met her.

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Not too far in the future his sweetheart will reveal herself as a very spirited young lady indeed. There is no reason to think these qualities emerged overnight – she was likely just as aggressive, just as headstrong and raucous a girl as she was a woman. At sixteen she was in full hormonal flight and probably at constant war with those around her who disagreed with her chosen course of life – which was probably to run away with Sam Higgins. All parties involved, except for Sam and Mary, must have been horrified.

The torrid course of adolescent passion hasn’t changed much over the centuries; that it was forbidden only added to the drama. Such an infatuation had an inevitable physical conclusion. The domestic scenes that ensued in the cottages of Walsall in 1773 were probably little different to those of today; a blank wall of silence erected around the scandal; the participants split apart – the elephant in the corner dutifully ignored. When she became visibly with child she would have been moved out of town, away from prying eyes and disapproving neighbors, the subject never discussed. He was probably sent straight off to war.

There are no records of the union save for one bleak reference that may or may not be her. In 1774 a Mrs. Mary Higgins gave birth to an unnamed child in Bilston, just four miles away from Walsall. Mary would have been seventeen. There were no other Higgins families in Bilston, no marriage records or any mention of a father.

The baby was stillborn – which in one way, was probably a blessing in disguise.

But she kept that name as a souvenir for the next thirty-seven years. Maybe Sam Higgins stayed close to her heart.

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When history next throws up the Whiston clan they have decamped to London. Mary’s disgrace seems to have been the catalyst for a tidal shift in the affairs of the family.

A move from Walsall to London was no minor undertaking; then, as now, the alteration to their lifestyles was extreme. Whatever the reason, it must have been compelling; Father was fifty years old, his wife forty-five, with only one of their four daughters off their hands. The only witness to the change in the family fortunes is Isaac Ganden, a jeweler and family friend.  When the inevitable occurred and one of the girls found herself in trouble, Isaac was called as a character witness at the Old Bailey.

‘I have known her nearly ever since she was born,’ he said in court, ‘I lived near her father and mother in the country and I lived in the house with them in town.’

Mary Field, another character witness, met them in London when they arrived. ‘I have known her about six years,’ she said in court in January 1780.  From that useful neighbor we can infer that the family made the move in 1774, the same time as their wayward daughter’s shame.

It’s impossible to believe that a ripe country peach of eighteen could arrive on the streets of London without attracting a great deal of male attention. Of her private life during this period there are precious few clues. It’s not hard to hazard a guess.

In late 1779 she was still known as Mary Higgins, twenty-four, living with her sister in a garret in Holborn. She was obviously pretty wayward by then, turning tricks on the side, a petty thief and part-time predator. The life of crime she had chosen was harmless enough; she bullied, bluffed and bullshat her way through the world and if, perhaps, she found a penny or two in her pocket after a dalliance with a gullible young man, then more fool him. Her life was spent in a self-contained sub-stratum of petty criminals, a world in which she evidently felt completely at home.

Then, in events we’ll soon get to, in March 1784 a shoplifter with an infant in her arms is recorded as Mary [wife of Harrold] Higgins. Clearly, her mystery Harrold/Herrald was more than a good friend.

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The Harrolds of London have existed in an unbroken line since 1240. They were city folk, not rapacious breeders like their country cousins and by the time Mary came to town in 1775, there were only half a dozen families producing offspring in Greater London. During the 1740’s and particularly mid-50’s, when Mary’s mystery Harrold was likely born, there were just ten male births recorded.

Was one of these Mary’s man? Probably – but with only a surname, a general location and some rough dates any conclusions as to which one have to be speculation – but I’ve got a hunch his name was Thomas.  

Thomas Harrold was christened on 13th January 1758 in St Botolph Without Aldgate and was in a known relationship with a girl called Mary. There was no wedding; certainly none is recorded anywhere in the British Isles – perhaps because Mary really was married to the absent Sam Higgins after all – or maybe because nobody cared very much either way.

If this is our headstrong Mary – and hours of bum-numbing research suggest it is – she slept with him in late March 1778. We know about her intimate life because young William was born on 28th Apr the following year. He’s christened eighteen days later – a much longer gap than normal – I suspect they didn’t live in Finsbury but returned to the family church for grand occasions.

The relationship clearly lasted – they were still happy enough to conceive a girl child on his birthday four years later. Harriet Anne was born on 10th September 1783 and christened eleven days later at St. Luke Old Street in Finsbury. Her parents are recorded as Thomas Harrold and Mary Anne.

Can I be sure? No.

But every detail fits.

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