Richard Foord Higgins was one of two of my GGGG Grandfathers transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 for his part in the gang of smugglers based in the Kentish village of Aldington. Richard’s wife, Rhoda Bailey, was also strongly connected with the gang – her sister Elizabeth was married to the gang’s leader, George Ransley; and her brother Samuel is said to have been the gang’s second-in-command, responsible for handling firearms and training the gang’s members.
Richard was born around 1795 to John Higgins and Martha Foord. He was baptised in the local church of St Rumwold’s on 8 November 1795. Richard had at least eight siblings; unfortunately I have very little information about most of them. John and Martha’s headstone suggests that their children were Ann, Richard, John, Elizabeth, Maria, Huggins, Martha, Mary and Daniel. The headstone was erected some time after June 1856 and records the deaths of two of those children – Richard, who had died in Van Diemen’s Land more than a decade earlier, and youngest son, Daniel, who died in 1832 aged only 19. Presumably, then, the other children were still alive in 1856. However, I have not been able to locate any further information about Ann who, unlike the other children, has no baptism recorded in St Rumwold’s register.
The first record of Richard’s siblings to appear in the church register at Bonnington is that of John Ford Higgins. He was baptised on 16 June 1793. There is a marriage registration in 1826 for a John Ford Higgins and Catherine Brenchley, but I haven’t yet located any Census records or baptisms of children to provide any further clues about John’s life. This may be the John Foord Higgins who died in the East Ashford District in the last quarter of 1877. If so, John lived to the ripe old age of 84.
Richard was born next and I will come back to his story shortly. Two sisters, Elizabeth and Maria followed, baptised on 15 February 1798 and 8 June 1800 respectively. So far I have been unable to learn anything more of them. When Richard was eight years old his brother Huggins was born. In November 1827 Huggins married Jane Gurr. Census records indicate that Huggins worked as a musician and an agricultural labourer. It seems that he died, aged 56, in July 1859. Beyond this, the only other piece of information that I have gleaned about Huggins is that he was to play a part in the downfall of one of the men who was instrumental in convicting Richard Higgins and the other Aldington gang smugglers who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 – but more of that later. Three more siblings were born and baptised in the years that followed – Martha in 1805, Mary in 1811 and Daniel in 1813. Again, I would be delighted to learn more about these people and their lives.
Returning now to Richard, it would seem that he spent his youth in the small parish of Bonnington, on the northern edge of Romney Marsh. Bonnington comprised just a few scattered cottages and, about a mile distant, the simple Church of St Rumwold’s, thought to be the oldest on the Marsh. In 1811, 165 people (just 27 families), chiefly employed in agriculture, occupied 27 houses in the parish. In 1841, there were 155 people in 34 houses, the Census indicating that with the exception of a single carpenter and publican, the men were all employed as agricultural labourers and farmers.
The publican, Huckstead, ran the The Royal Oak which was described by a contemporary as ‘an outlandish, quiet sort of place’ where smugglers would stop on their way out of the Marsh, thinking themselves safe. In evidence he provided against the Aldington Gang, Edward Horne recalled how, following a run in March 1826, the smuggling party
‘… proceeded on their way home to the Royal Oak, Huckstead’s, where they procured what is called their allowance, vizt. Bread and Cheese and Beer. It was then about sun rise. They drew up near the House, sat in a circle round the Tubs and Ransley went into the House and brought out their provisions, the Bread and Cheese and Beer, the latter in pails. The party here might be about 50 or 60. Huckstead the Landlord came to the door, but he does not recollect seeing any of the Family. They remained there about half an hour and then proceeded on towards Aldington and deposited the Tubs in a wood near Ransley’s house …’
Richard and Rhoda
When Richard was twenty three years old, a Bastardy Order was made out against him for the support of a male child born to the unmarried Rhoda Bailey at Mersham on 1 October 1818. Edward Higgins was baptised at Mersham on 25 October. An earlier entry in the Poor Law records suggest that Rhoda, ‘great with child’ had moved from Aldington (where her parents may have been living) to Mersham in August 1818. Sadly it seems that baby Edward’s life was brief as there is no record of him sailing to Van Diemen’s Land with his mother and there is a burial record for a four-month old Edward Bailey at Mersham in January 1819.
Mersham Poor Law records seem to indicate that, while Richard and Rhoda continued their relationship, they also continued to live apart. A second Bastardy Order, this time for a daughter, was made against Richard, a labourer of Bonnington, in May 1821. Jane was born at Mersham on 28 March 1821 and baptised there on 22 April.
Three years later, Richard and Rhoda married in Bilsington. My GGG Grandmother, Mary Ann Higgins, was born two years later. The evidence given at the trial of Aldington Gang members suggests that the Gang was very active at this time, so Richard would have spent many late nights out on the marshes seeking to earn some extra money to support his growing family. During the day, Richard is said to have worked as a gamekeeper for a gentleman but I am yet to discover who that might have been.
In late October 1826, Richard Higgins, along with Paul Pierce, John Bailey and Edward Pantry were arrested for their part in a smuggling operation that had resulted in the death of an officer of the Coast Blockade. Their arrests followed the arrests, about a fortnight earlier, of George Ransley, Thomas Gilham, Rhoda’s brother Samuel Bailey, Thomas Dennard and the Wire brothers, William and Richard. Edward Pantry turned King’s Evidence and, along with Edward Horne, was instrumental in the conviction of gang members. Committal hearings were held on 27 October and the trial was conducted on 6 January 1827. Richard and his comrades all pleaded guilty to smuggling offences in a form of plea-bargaining that effectively resulted in the murder charges being dropped. Nevertheless the fourteen gang members were sentenced to death by execution on 5 February. When that day came, it was revealed to the public that the sentences had been commuted to transportation for life. Richard Higgins, along with Thomas Gilham, Denard, Pierce, Smeed and the Baileys were taken to the York at Gosport, while the other prisoners were taken to the Levaithan at Portsmouth.
Unlike many of the convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land, Richard and his companions did not have to wait long on the hulks. In early April they boarded the Governor Ready and set sail for Hobart Town. Richard’s brief convict record states that he was ‘very orderly and correct’ on the York and ‘Good’ on the journey to Van Diemen’s Land. The Governor Ready arrived at Hobart Town on 31 July 1827, just short of three months after leaving Portsmouth.
Amongst the ship’s papers is a list of ‘farmers and ploughmen’ that includes Richard and some of his mates. It indicates that Richard was assigned to Samuel Hill. This was Samuel Hill Esq., JP who had a land grant near Campbell Town where he established his property, Gadesden, and performed the role of local magistrate. From 1829 to 1832 he also served as Port Officer and Superintendent of Government Vessels.
Less than a year after his arrival, in April 1828, Richard forwarded a petition to the Governor seeking reunion with his wife and family. I have not seen the petition or the paper trail that followed, but in any event only a few months later, on 13 September, the Harmony departed Gravesend carrying Richard’s wife Rhoda and their two daughters, seven-year old Jane and two-year old Mary. Also on board were the families of other Aldington gang smugglers, Thomas Gilham, George Ransley, Paul Pierce, John Bailey and Charles Giles.
Interestingly, the Surgeon Superintendent, William Clifford, described Rhoda Higgins as a 34 year old free woman of a thin yellowish habit, who had had many children. A couple of weeks into the voyage she presented with dysentry and was described as having ‘much debility, thirst, fever and a quickened pulse’. Among other treatments, she had a flannel roller applied to her abdomen, was given warm baths and tea to drink. Calomel with opium was prescribed. Ten days later she was recovered and discharged.
Rhoda Higgins and Frances Gilham, and their children (eight in total), were among the last to leave the ship. On 24 January 1829 the Surgeon Superintendent wrote to the Colonial Secretary noting that the women were still on board. A subsequent file note states that the women’s husbands are in the service of Samuel Hill, near Campbell Town, and William Lyttleton, at Norfolk Plains. Later correspondence indicates that Rhoda and her children had disembarked by 5th February (while Thomas took a little longer to collect his family). The documents also indicate that the Government covered the costs of their passage to Van Diemen’s Land.
The next record that I have of Richard is the 1830 Muster. This shows that Richard was assigned to his wife, as does the 1832 Muster. By 1833 Richard held a Ticket of Leave and by 1841 a Conditional Pardon. However, things did not run entirely smoothly for the Higgins family. In October 1837, Richard was arrested on suspicion of sheep stealing. While he was pardoned, he was also ‘sent to reside in Morven District’. On 2 May 1839, Richard was fined for drunkenness but otherwise his convict record is remarkably clear. Indeed less than a fortnight later, he was granted a Conditional Pardon.
In the meantime, Richard and Rhoda’s family grew. Martha Ford Higgins was born about 1829, Richard Daniel was born at Oatlands on 10 October 1832, Elizabeth followed in 1834, and John Henry was born at Green Ponds on 17 November 1836.
I still need to confirm the date of Richard’s death but it seems that he may have been run over by a cart and killed at Tea Tree (between Richmond and Brighton) some time around 1841-1842; on the other hand, another researcher says he died of bronchitis. I have been able to establish very little about Richard’s life in Tasmania. It would seem that the family was not very well off. The only mention I have found of Richard in the colonial newspapers refers to the auction of ten acres in Campbell Town resulting from defaulting on mortgage payments. The first such notice appears in November 1841, so possibly shortly after Richard’s death.
A few years after Richard’s death, Rhoda married John Poole. She died on 24 October 1862 at Oatlands.
If you discover any mistakes above or have any information to share please email.
[Updated 19 May 2012]
Tasmanian Archives: Richard’s convict conduct record
Richard Ford Higgins’ Death Registration
Richard Higgins on my Ancestry tree
Richard Higgins on Founders and Survivors
The header image at the top of this page is of St Rumwold’s Church, just outside Bonnington