Mary Higgs: What a Woman!

Oldham Local Studies and Archives are celebrating International Women’s Day. They hold the amazing stories of many women who graced the streets of Oldham during their lifetime. Some were just ‘ordinary’ women, others were middle-class women, but the one thing they had in common was their ability, vision, and determination  to make a difference not only to their lives, but the lives of the people they knew and worked with, the people of Oldham and in some cases, they made a difference to the entire country and possibly beyond!

One such woman is the amazing Mary Higgs. Described as  a ‘Student, Pioneer, Wife and Mother, Undercover Tramp and Social Reformer’ Mary’s story is an astonishing tale of philanthropy and vision. Born in 1854 in Wiltshire, she came to Oldham in 1891 when her husband the Reverend Thomas Higgs became the minister at Greenacres Congregational Church. Even before her arrival Mary was not a typical wife and mother having already become the first woman to study science to degree level, completing her studies in 1874.

Portrait black and white photograph of Mary Higgs seated wearing a lace scarf.
Portrait of Mary Higgs

When Mary arrived in Oldham there was a serious slump in trade and industrial disputes led to lengthy lockouts. Mary saw how easy it was for women to lose their homes through loss of work and began to help those she could. She became friends with Sarah and Marjory Lees and when Sarah’s husband died, Mary persuaded her to set up a home for homeless women and their children. The house was in Esther Street, Greenacres.

As Mary continued to work with these women, she learned of the conditions many had to endure when staying in common lodging houses or casual wards which were usually run for profit and unregulated. So distressed was Mary by what she learnt,  in 1903 she took the unprecedented step of deciding to see first hand what these women had to endure. To do this, she and her friend Annie Lee dressed as tramps and went ‘undercover’ in West Yorkshire to gather information. They endured  five nights in tramp wards and common lodging houses and Mary subsequently published an anonymous report on her findings. The report caused uproar and in 1904 Mary was called to give evidence before a government enquiry. Mary later extended her investigations to Manchester and London and published a booklet called ‘How to Start a Women’s Lodging Home’. Her vivid accounts of the dirt and degradation which she encountered and of the downward spiral of destitution in which homeless women found themselves helped to fuel demands for more and better regulated women’s lodgings, and for lodgings geared to the needs of migrant workers She even persuaded Sarah and Marjory Lees to buy a 15-room house in West Street which became a lodging house for women.

Mary was also instrumental in improving Oldham’s rather grim environment and in 1901 she wrote a letter to the Oldham Chronicle called ‘Beautiful Oldham-Why Not?’ and contained the suggestion that the then smoke filled Lancashire Town could be turned into a beautiful city.  Why not indeed, because the following year saw the founding of the Beautiful Oldham Society which encouraged children, through schools to grow and care for plants and Individuals were encouraged to plant window boxes.

Tree lined road in Oldham.

The Garden City movement had already started to gain momentum in England and Mary who had been impressed by Hampstead Garden Suburb in London went on to propose the building of a ‘Garden Suburb’ in Oldham. Designed by Ebenezer Howard, Oldham Garden Suburbs was officially opened in 1909 with a gala ceremony.

All of Mary’s pioneering work was officially rewarded when she was presented with the OBE in 1937. Only a few days after receiving her award, Mary died at the age of 83.

To find out more about Mary, her work and her legacy you could have a look at our online catalogue at or contact us at or you can come and visit us at 84 Union Street, Oldham

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