Joseph Higginson (1790-1848)

by Jennifer Sherwood, 2005

“for thirty-seven years surgeon of this borough”

Grave of Joseph Higginson
Tewkesbury Abbey Churchyard
Grave of Joseph Higginson
Tewkesbury Abbey ChurchyardClick Image
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My great, great grandfather, Joseph Higginson, “for thirty-seven years surgeon of this borough”,[1] was born not in Tewkesbury but in the little village of Severn Stoke, Worcestershire. The third of six children of Nathaniel Higginson and Ann Roberts, he was baptised in the church of St. Denys, Severn Stoke, on 3 October 1790.[2]

Rumours, passed down through descendants of Joseph’s younger sister, Mary, that the Higginsons were rich merchants from Liverpool have not yet been substantiated. The more romantic story, also from that side of the family, that Nathaniel ran off with the family governess, might have some basis in fact, but was unknown to my branch of the family. Perhaps a mother might have confided in her younger daughter, Mary, rather than in either of her sons?[3]

Ann and Nathaniel were married by licence in Severn Stoke on 1 January 1784. “Nathaniel Higginson of the Precincts of the Cathedral Church of Worcester, a batchelor (sic), and Ann Roberts of this parish, a spinster, were married in this Church by Licence by me, John Boulter on 1st January 1784”. Both Nathaniel and Ann signed their names.[4]

In his declaration for the licence (30 December 1783) Nathaniel is described as ‘Servant’.  Since Nathaniel later became a substantial tenant of the Earls of Coventry on their estate at Croome d’Abitot, it would appear that he was a ‘servant’ of some standing, perhaps a younger son of a well-to-do family.[5] 

Nathaniel died in June 1823.[6] In his will, he described himself as ‘Victualler’.  From the chance discovery of a little notebook in the Gloucestershire Record Office, I learned that he had been the licensee of the Coventry Arms, Croome.  Inside the front cover are the words “I, Mrs. Higginson, Coventry Arms, Croome.”  Entries in the book list the rooms and contents, fixtures and effects of the inn.  It is apparently a valuation prior to a sale.[7]

Three at least of the four surviving children of Nathaniel and Ann did well for themselves. The eldest, George, became an Attorney at Law in the town of Ledbury, Herefordshire, dying in 1829, apparently childless, leaving his estate to his wife, Elizabeth.[8]

Of the elder daughter, Sarah, I know nothing. The second son, Joseph, from whom I am descended, became a surgeon in Tewkesbury, and so started the family connection with the town. The youngest child, Mary, married Thomas Woollams Cox,[9] of his Majesty’s Customs and a native of Tewkesbury, by whom she had a daughter, Mary.[10] The link with Tewkesbury was continued when Mrs. Cox, having been left a widow in 1829, married Edward Gould Edgell, a Tewkesbury banker, on 12 January 1832,[11] by whom she had a further three children.[12]
Tankard presented to him in 1828
Tankard presented to him in 1828Click Image
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It is likely that Joseph Higginson was apprenticed in his teens to a surgeon, possibly in the Birmingham area, although this remains supposition.  He married Sophia Peacey, a native of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire,[13] on 26 February 1810 in St. Martin’s Church, Birmingham.[14]  Joseph Higginson completed his training soon after, being admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (M.R.C.S.) in 1811, and set up practice at 120/121 High Street, Tewkesbury.[15]  The Medical Directory of 1847, the first Directory to list doctors practising outside London, lists him as a ‘Surgeon in General Practice’. From 1816, he was additionally surgeon to the Gloucester Dispensary, as well as Medical Referee to the Medical and Clerical, Atlas and Crown Life Assurance Companies.[16] On the formation of the Board of Health in connection with the Cholera epidemic of 1832, he was appointed as one of the surgeons.  In 1835, after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act that established workhouses, he was also appointed as surgeon for the 3rd district to the Tewkesbury Union Guardians at a salary of £80.[17]

For a year’s undertaking, 1824-1825, to tend the “sick and the poor of and residing in the said Parish (Tewkesbury) or any that may reside within three miles of the boro’ of Tewkesbury” he was to be paid 12 guineas. Midwifery cases were to be paid separately, “one guinea when ordered”. The sum was to include “journeys and medicines necessary on such cases.”[18]

Joseph Higginson played a prominent part in the medical history of Tewkesbury and beyond and was seemingly liked and respected.  We still have a silver tankard, dated 1828, “Presented to Joseph Higginson, Esq. (SURGEON) by Mr. Roberts of Stourbridge to perpetuate the high opinion he entertains of his MEDICAL SKILL and the gratitude he feels for his generous hospitality.”

He took an active part in the life of the town, as did his wife also, supporting numerous good causes, subscribing to the Mythe Bridge in 1823, the reparation of the Abbey in 1828 and to a celebration of the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.  In 1833, he was elected as a member of the Old Corporation that preceded the establishment of the Tewkesbury Council under the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act and was additionally a member of the Blue Club.[19] As a freeholder he was entitled to vote and in 1832 voted for William Dowdeswell (Tory).[20]

Top of tankard
Top of tankard

Croome d’Abitot remained dear to him.  Elizabeth Mary, the fourth child of Joseph and Sophia was baptised there in 1815.  When the book An Historical and Descriptive Account of Croome d’Abitot…to which are annexed an Hortus Croomensis was produced in 1824, “Joseph Higginson, Esq., Tewkesbury” appears on the list of subscribers, headed by H.R.H. Duke of Gloucester, together with Mrs. Cox, Tewkesbury, Mr. T. W. Cox, Waterford, Ireland and Mr. Higginson, Attorney, Ledbury.[22]

Joseph and Sophia had six children. Sadly only two survived into adulthood, Maria Sophia[23],  baptised 18 September 1812 and Annie Louisa[24],  baptised 1823[25].   Joseph Higginson died 2 July 1848 and is buried in the Abbey Churchyard near to the West Door, together with his wife, Sophia, who survived until 21 March 1868. The inscription on Joseph’s grave bears testimony to his contribution to the life of Tewkesbury: 

“Sacred to the memory of Joseph Higginson for 37 years surgeon of this borough. Likewise for upwards of 32 years performing the medical duties of the dispensary. Departed this life July 2nd 1848 in the fifty-eighth year of his age. Also Sophia relict of the above who died March 21st 1868 aged 78”.

Two documents relating to Sophia’s funeral are in my possession. The first is a letter headed “Whitehall”, and is addressed to the “Incumbent & Churchwardens of Tewkesbury”. It grants permission, with certain stipulations, for the family grave to be opened to inter Sophia’s remains. The second, outlines the “order of the procession of funeral of the late Mrs. Sophia Higginson”, headed by the Rev. C.E. Davis. The occupants of the first and second mourning coaches show the Higginson link to three Tewkesbury families, all of which left their mark on nineteenth century Tewkesbury – the Allards, the Edgells and the Barnards.


  1. Part of the inscription from Joseph’s grave, Abbey Churchyard, Tewkesbury.
  2. Parish registers, Severn Stoke.
  3. Letter written by Edward Oswald Buckle Edgell, 1938, to cousin in New South Wales.
  4. Documents, Worcestershire Record Office.
  5. The Parish Registers of St. Mary Magdalene, Croome d’Abitot, indicate that Nathaniel became a tenant on the estate in 1796 or 1797. In the Rent Rolls for 1797, held by the Croome Estate Trust at Severn Stoke, he was paying one of the largest rents. The Land Tax records for 1798 held in the Worcestershire Record Office reveal that he was again paying a substantial tax.
  6. Burial Register, Croome d’Abitot.
  7. Valuation of fixtures at Coventry Arms Inn, Croome d’Abitot from Mrs. Higginson to Mr. Hough, 28 September 1824.
  8. George’s will and as subscriber to Hortus Croomensis. Copy at Society of Genealogists.
  9. Parish register Croome d’Abitot.
  10. Will of Thomas Woollams Cox.
  11. Tewkesbury Register (THS Woodard Database).
  12. Will of Edward Gould Edgell. The eldest of these children, Edward Higginson Edgell was the father of Beatrice Edgell, first female Professor of Psychology, whose biography appeared in T.H.S. Vol.11 pp 27-29
  13. Census of 1861, in household of son-in-law, William Allard, surgeon.
  14. Parish Register of St. Martin’s Church, Birmingham.
  15. Bob Woodard established this property at this location but the 1841 census does not specify this.  If so, today this property, which extended a long way down Trinity Street, comprises ‘Dough Boys’ Bakery and ‘Rajshahi’ Restaurant.  
  16. Medical Directory 1847, Wellcome Medical Library. Prior to this date, Directories only listed doctors practising in London. Joseph also appears in 1820 and 1822 editions of Gell and Bradshaw Gloucester Directory.
  17. J. Bennett Register & Magazine.  In modern values, this was worth about £3,700.  (Editor)
  18. Document of agreement, signed by Joseph Higginson, Gloucester Record Office.  12 guineas is £12.60p, worth about £584 today.  1 guinea is £1.05p (£49 today)
  19. Later known as the ‘Conservative Benefit Society’ & the ‘Independent Englishman's Friendly Society’, respectable citizens subscribed in return for an annual dinner to encourage working people to save for old age and their funeral. Founded in 1835, it was still functioning in 1922.  (Editor)
  20. J.  Bennett  Register & Magazine.
  21. Croome d’Abitot Parish Register.
  22. A copy of this book is available in Library of Society of Genealogists.
  23. She married Joseph Barnard of Oldfield Cottage 29 January 1831.
  24. She married my great grandfather, William Allard, F.R.C.S., on 7 December 1848.
  25. The four children who predeceased their parents, Nathaniel, John Henry, Emily and Elizabeth Mary are all buried in the Abbey Churchyard close to the grave of their parents.
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