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A person of remarkable energy

Geoffrey Higham

Higham, Geoffrey 2005, 'A person of remarkable energy', Fremantle Studies, 4: 8-21.

Fremantle in the1850s was a small port town, although it had recently received a fillip as the location of the convict establishment.

As might be expected in a port, importers and merchants were among the most visible business people. However, one of these was noticeably different — she was a woman.

This paper reviews Mary Higham’s life, considers how she may have faced disadvantages as a woman in business in a period when ladies were generally seen but not heard, and tells what is known of her in a personal and family context.


One hundred and fifty years ago Western Australia was a very sparsely settled colony and Fremantle a small village. People must then have been either very brave or very desperate to emigrate from England to Western Australia. One family which did so, and must ultimately have been pleased with the fruit of their labours, was that of Mary Higham.


John Higham married Mary Phipps on 11 November 1845 in the village of Gayton, in Northamptonshire. The groom gave his occupation as ‘grocer and baker’. A family tree of this period is shown in Figure 1; the following points being relevant to later discussion:

In the 1830s John’s father, Henry Higham, judging by electoral rolls and census records, was an owner of significant property but by the 1850s appears to have lost that security. 1

Mary’s father was an innkeeper, however, he died in 1825 after which his wife continued the business and supported their young family, including Mary.

The gap between Mary’s first and second child was long and she may have borne other children in England who did not survive.

The newlyweds settled in the nearby village of Eydon, where John traded as a baker and grocer. 2 Eight years later, however, they would put all this behind them and set sail for the other side of the world, never to return.

John and Mary sailed from Liverpool on 13 March 1853 on board the ship Sabrina 3 with daughter Mary Ann aged one, and a son Edward aged seven. The journey would take exactly three months. They were embarked by the British Government’s Emigration Commissioners, 4 who would have paid part or all of the fare.

John and Mary’s reasons for emigrating to Western Australia are not recorded. John is shown on the shipping papers as an agricultural labourer, rather than as a grocer or baker. Family recollections, passed down through youngest son Harry, indicate that John Higham had fallen in with what Mary called ‘bad people’. As we also have a suggestion that J ohn’s father had suffered a reversal of fortune, it seems likely that hard times had caught up with the family, and migration perhaps offered a chance to start again.

The passengers included, in cabin class, the Reverend Joseph Johnston with his family, and 320 emigrants in steerage, or the cheapest class, generally crowded between decks, in a ship just 46 metres long (for comparison, the sail training ship Leeuwin is 40 metres long). The Reverend Johnston embarked for Australia as minister designate of a Congregational Chapel in Fremantle. The family background of John Higham was also nonconformist, and it seems Johnston made a strong impression on the Highams, as they were to become life-long members of his flock. Johnston fortunately kept diaries, many of which have survived and provide a wealth of information.

The overall impression of Fremantle gained by the new arrivals must have been of the small size of the town. The buildings were mostly simple cottages and single storey stores, and sand was everywhere. Even a decade later, after considerable building had been done, Fremantle would still be described as ‘a small unpretending little town’. 5

Advertisements soon appeared in the newspaper indicating that imports by the Sabrina included soap, brandy, butter, hats, flour, boots, candles, etc. The infant colony was dependent on Mother England for everything.

The family’s early years in Fremantle

When the emigrants disembarked from the Sabrina in June 1853, their first temporary home would most likely have been one of the colonial government’s immigrant depots. However, it appears that the Highams were able to obtain employment, or to make their own, almost immediately. 6 They may have brought some small capital with them, although their ’capital’ probably was not money but tools of trade.

Very little information is recorded on these early years, but in an obituary for son Edward many years later we read that the father, John ‘commenced business in High Street, Fremantle, at first in a very small way but by the aid of his wife, a person of remarkable energy and decision of character, he soon overcame the first difficulties incident to settlers in a new country.’ 7

John Higham appears to have started his bakery in rented premises on the north-west corner (lot 105) of High and Pakenham Streets. 8

As well as the problems confronted by all pioneer settlers, the Highams suffered the loss of their little daughter before the end of the same year. Another girl was born in June 1854. Named Johanna, she would be their only surviving daughter.

When Mary recorded this birth, a curiosity is that she gave her maiden name as Mary Ann Phipps — her baptism and marriage certificates do not suggest the second Christian name. Perhaps she had always harboured a desire for another name, or wrhaps it was in memory of the sad loss of the infant daughter the previous year?

Two more children were born to John and Mary, John Joseph in 1856, followed by Harry James William in 1858. John spoke of being born at High Street, probably in the house attached to the bakery.

The 1850s were a decade of some growth for the infant colony. It was not like the boom of the 1890s gold rushes, but at least better than the stagnation of the late 1840s. Figure 2 shows the population of the colony in the 1800s and is an indicator of the growth period. This followed the introduction of transportation of convicts from England in 1850, at which time WA’s settler population was less than 6000. In the next twenty years it grew to more than 25 000, but of that growth some 9700 were convicts.


Population totals from Statistical Register of Western Australia, Government Statistician, Perth (annual), and Chate, AH et al: Date It! A Western Australian chronology to 1929, Friends of Battye Library. Notthbridge, 1991

The 1850s saw Fremantle first take on an air of solidity. This was mainly due to the availability of convict labour and the Imperial government funds that came to support them. This decade saw construction of the commissariat buildings in Cliff Street, the Comptroller’s residence and of course the new gaol. 9

At the end of 1856 John Higham placed a substantial advertisement in the local newspaper for his business, now named the ‘Shipping Bread Store’, describing himself as a pastry-cook, grocer, confectioner and general storekeeper, with a variety of wares on offer.

An early resident of Fremantle recounted a custom of the time from which we can imagine every Sunday a parade to the Shipping Bread Store of

the poorer classes  sending their Sunday joint and potatoes to the bakers to be roasted, the charge for which was 2d. All the dinners were put into a huge oven together and when they came out there were often squabbles among the children waiting to receive them, as to the ownership of some particular dish. 10

During this period the family were part of Johnston’s congregation, and his diary records young Harry’s baptism. In March 1855, Johnston offered the populace of Fremantle a break from everyday routines with a ‘festival in the bush’ half a mile from town. Over 150 people came along, young and old, and enjoyed the cake, tea, and sandwiches. Probably Mary, as a keen member of the congregation and also being the baker’s wife, helped make these. 11

John Higham died on 22 November 1858, at the age of 41. There is no death registration to provide official cause details, however family recollections suggest drinking too much and falling asleep on the beach, resulting in pneumonia.

Mary swore the necessary deposition that her husband had left no will, and completed the court processes to gain administration of his estate. 12 To be granted this, a bond had to be lodged and Mary deposited £200, while Harry Carter and Edward Newman committed a further £100 each. Both these men were Fremantle merchants. The process and the size of the bond were not then common, suggesting John had not only died intestate but with significant assets. Most likely the ongoing bakery business was the principal asset, as no land purchases before that time are recorded.

There is little record of Mary during this initial period from 1853 to 1858, but four young children would have kept her busy. Given the drive which she later demonstrated, it is impossible to believe that she was not involved in the business. This is also to be inferred from the obituary for Edward, quoted previously.

Mary on her own

There must have been a temptation for a widow to have taken her young brood back to Northamptonshire. But that was not the choice for a woman of ‘decision of character’ and she stayed. There may also have been some consideration to marry again, but this did not happen. Perhaps she was too busy.

It is reported that Edward left school the following year, his thirteenth, to help his mother. She turned to trading in clothing, footwear and groceries, and soon moved to bigger premises.

By the end of 1861 Mary appears in a directory of Fremantle in her own name, but as a general dealer.13 Through the early 1860s Mary built up her business, despite having three young children to raise.

Mary now also steadily bought property, an immediate difference from her late husband, so much so that when she drew up her last will, she listed 70 separate parcels of land. In December 1860 Mary purchased her first piece of land, lot 297 in Queen Victoria Street, for £30. The next year, 1861, she paid £120 for lot 41714 on the southwest comer of High and Market Streets. It proved an astute choice of location. Whilst Fremantle in its earliest days was mainly built near the jetties, the expansion of the 1860s and 70s was to the east and lot 417 was soon on the busiest corner. It formed the base for the family business for three decades.

Over the next year, she mortgaged this property for £600, then a further £400. The most plausible explanation is that she started construction of a substantial building I this time. These were large sums of money for the time and the lenders were establishment people. Mary must have been able to convince them of her ability to repay the substantial borrowings and that her new structure would be worthwhile collateral. One thousand pounds would buy a sizeable building, and the resulting two-storey store and residence, with basement below, was one of the larger structures in the town.

She was active as both borrower and lender. Presumably, if you had cash coming in, it made good sense to lend to customers who might well spend some of it in your shop. As early as September 1861, for example, she advanced £20 to Owen Connor, taking the deeds of his lot in North Fremantle as security. 15

By the late 1860s Mary offered a wide range of goods in her store. Her first known newspaper advertisement appeared in 1868. This offered drapery, millinery, ladies and children’s boots and hosiery, as well as groceries. 16 In this notice Mary thanks the public for their support over fifteen years, confirming her involvement in ltusiness since the family’s arrival in 1853.

adReference to figure 3 reveals two other interesting aspects:

The offer of private board recalls the fact that her mother ran a public house in England, after being widowed.

Like most colonial stores at the time, Higham’s would accept colonial produce in barter.

An early writer recalled that in 1869, Mary’s store

was one of the most extensive buildings of the time ...  I refer to the store with residence attached of Mrs M. Higham. Here a large retail business was done with the pensioners and prison officials, with whom Mrs Higham was very popular. 17

The ‘pensioners’ referred to here were the pensioned soldiers sent out with the convicts as guards.

Another reference came from Robert Heppingstone, farming near Brunswick Junction in the 1870s, who told his descendants how he bought all his supplies from M Higham as he considered them honest dealers. 18

Mary’s business appears to have continued to grow ever larger. In 1870 she placed long advertisements in the paper, calling herself an importer of foreign and English merchandise.

Further evidence of the wide range offered by Mary comes from the minutes of the Fremantle Town Council - they paid her bills for office funiiture, lamps, timber, blasting powder and fuses. The newspaper shipping reports recorded cases or other freight for M Higham off almost every inbound ship, mostly from the eastern colonies in the early years, but by the 1880s much of it direct from London.

In the 1870s Mary won significant business as a supplier to the Colonial Government, starting in 1872 with annual supplies for the government offices in Fremantle. One of the first government tenders won was for supply of 20,500 sheoak shingles for the Police Quarters and the Lunatic Asylum (now the Fremantle Art Centre). Having by now taken son Edward into partnership and trading as M Higham & Son, the business continued to win the annual supplies tenders for some years. However the client was becoming more fussy, and in 1877 her bid for annual supplies was accepted with the exception of coffee for the Imperial Service, whose officers apparently preferred W D Moore’s blend for their morning drink. The supply of barley or corn as forage for horses was also a regular business. 19

Of course things did not always go well, and on the night of 6 February 1871 disaster came close. About 11pm some men talking in High Street noticed smoke issuing from Mary’s premises. They awoke Mary and family ‘and the inmates’ (presumably boarders). Son Edward led the volunteers in forming bucket brigades and fortunately the fire was brought under control before an explosion could occur in the kerosene stored in the basement. Mary used the newspaper columns for a notice ‘to offer her sincere thanks to every person who kindly assisted’. 20

Mary in the family context

Mary was obviously a great believer in property. In 1866 she secured a small nest-egg for each son, buying Fremantle lots and registering young Jack and Harry respectively as owners.

On Boxing Day 1866, Mary signed the deeds for another substantial purchase, lot 416 on the north corner of High and Market Streets, opposite the store. Son John would later convert the building on this site to the National Hotel. In 1867 she paid £100 for 200 acres known as ‘Bicton’ and now part of the modern suburb of that name. When her descendants had this land subdivided in the 1920s, family names given to the streets included Phipps and Malsbury.

Second son John enjoyed an extended education, as by the 1860s Mary had successfully established her family in the colony and there was no need for John to leave school early as Edward had been forced to. His education moved ‘up market’ to Bishop Hale’s School in Perth. In 1871 and 1872 Mary Higham appeared in the schoo1’s ledgers paying £12-10-0 per quarter for tuition and boarding for him. Until the railway was opened in 1881 Fremantle students had to board in Perth. Sending John off, Mary presented him with a small Bible. Although Mary is known to have written regularly to her sister in England, the inscription in this is one of few surviving examples of Mary’s handwriting - ‘John Joseph Higham The Gift of His Affectionate Mother January 31st 1869’.

Finally John was sent to the Camden College School in Sydney and was joined for some of the time by his younger brother Harry. In 1876 the boys returned to WA and John joined his mother and Edward in the family business. Harry almost immediately went off to the Pilbara, seeing opportunity there. Being only 18 years old, he presumably had to convince his mother and brothers to invest, and he seems to have been able to do so quickly. Harry’s station ‘Nanutarra’, was greater than the total area of the county of Northamptonshire.

Throughout Mary’s years in Fremantle she and her family were supporters of the Reverend J ohnston’s Congregational Church. In 1867 Edward, although not quite 21 years, was elected to the Chapel Committee. 21 His election seems likely to have been related to his mother’s role in the church, and her generous donations. A surviving subscription list for 1874 shows that Mary’s family were then the biggest donors.

In 1869 Johnston’s Congregationalists drew up a constitution and formed themselves into a formal church. Mary Higham was one of those entered onto the Church Roll as an inaugural member on 2 April.

Mary’s four surviving children prospered and before she passed away, all became engaged, three had married, and the first six of her grandchildren had arrived. No doubt Mary was as proud as any new grandmother.

The first two marriages were to the offspring of Perth business families — Johanna to Henry Saw, and Edward to Alice Glyde. Mary’s two younger sons married sisters, the daughters of fellow Fremantle merchant John Bateman.

Mary’s daughter Johanna took an active role in the Fremantle social scene and was possibly a proxy for her mother. For example, although single, she sat among the married ladies at the annual prize-giving ceremony of the Fremantle Girls School in 1876.

Johanna was the first of Mary’s children to marry, and the newspaper report of the wedding reception mentions the attendance of two members of the Legislative Council. The transition in class was almost complete - from emigrants in steerage, to a wedding reception including parliamentarians. Perhaps it simply illustrates the greater relevance of business success in colonial society.

A woman in business

There is an apparent dichotomy between the degree to which a woman could then be involved in business, and her role in official life.

It was obviously possible for a woman to run a business. Mary Higham was accepted in that capacity, as witness the men prepared to share in her administration bond, her numerous land dealings with men, and the growth of her business where many of her clients and suppliers were men. Mary was not the only female business owner in Fremantle at the time - Mrs Charlotte Marmion continued to run the port’s largest hotel, the ‘Emerald Isle’, after her husband died in 1856.

There was also no bar to a woman employing ticket of leave men, and Mary was recorded many times in this capacity in the 1860s. 22

On the other hand, valuable information about businesspeople can usually be gleaned from quotes in the newspapers, minutes of meetings of the Town Trust or Chamber of Commerce, attendance at functions, etc. But these were men — coeval women are conspicuously absent from all these sources. Interestingly, at one time in 1870. Mary actually appears to have signed a petition calling for a meeting of the Town Trust, which seems almost radical as the signatories to other notices sighted were all men. However, she did not attend the resulting meeting, that was left to Edward. 23

Son Edward became involved in most Fremantle public bodies in his time, in early cases possibly as a surrogate for his mother. For example, he was a member of the inaugural committee of the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce in 1873, having signed on his mother’s behalf the requisition calling the meeting to set up that body.

He was also elected an inaugural member of the Fremantle District Roads Board, a forerunner of the Cockbum City Council. He served there until 1876,24 and throughout that period all the Board’s committee meetings were held at Mary’s home. 25

As the economy of Western Australia gained strength, so did Mary Higham’s business. Whilst eldest son Edward had worked for Mary for many years, he now became a partner, as did the second son John in turn. The family expanded their interests into shipping, the pastoral industry and even guano mining. Mary also built up interests outside Fremantle. She was no doubt the financier of youngest son Harry’s bold drive into the Ashburton, but she had some other dealings there, apparently including a herd of cattle in 1881. 16

lmprovements to the store were also effected. In 1880 the newspaper reported ‘M Higham & Sons are also erecting a very large and beautiful store, being a continuation of their well-known premises in High and Market Streets’. 27 The store, like most, was open long hours and six days per week, although from 1880 Fremantle observed a half-day on Wednesdays.

The firm had agents in London, so on one occasion a street roller was ordered for the Fremantle Town Council through ‘M Higham & Sons, agents in London for the Council’. 28

By the early 1880s Mary had two sons whom she could have allowed to run the business, given the male-dominated nature of society and commerce at that time. However, it is clear from her obituary, from surviving letters and other evidence, that she was active in and controlled the family firm up until her death.

A detailed insight into the family’s business arrangements is provided by a partnership agreement dated 188129 between Mary and two of her sons, Edward and John, to carry on the business of M Higham & Sons. But the next year, in 1882, Mary and John persuaded Edward to leave the business, as they believed he was devoting too little time to it, and he had also developed an alcohol problem. It is clear from the agreement and subsequent family correspondence that Mary was in command of the situation at this stage. Only a year later, however, the arrangements were turned on their head when she passed away suddenly.

Mary died on 21 April 1883, aged 65. Her passing drew notices in all four newspapers then extant in Perth and Fremantle. The West Australian reported -

On Saturday last, after a short illness, a much-respected citizen, Mrs Higham, breathed her last at the residence of her son-in-law, where she had gone for a few days rest. Her death was very sudden for, only a week previous to the sad event, she was attending to her business as usual. It is seldom we find an instance of a woman devoting her life to business in the energetic manner Mrs Higham did. 30

The Inquirer described Mary as ‘a most industrious tradeswoman and a firm and liberal supporter of the Congregational church’. The paper also said that about 200 people attended the funeral on the Monday morning. The Herald listed the pallbearers: Messrs Sutherland, Pearse, Mannion, Manning, Congdon and Holman, some of the main Fremantle businessmen of the time. Many Fremantle businesses were said to have closed for the morning.

Mary built a large and financially successful business. There is, however, evidence that being a woman would have been a disadvantage. Could it have been made easier for Mary in some way?

For example, had her husband made the success before he died, and left Mary to merely continue? The business did start well during John’s short time here, but Mary changed and grew the business and secured the longer term future by buying land and building the store.

Was success gained by her sons, with Mary merely a figurehead? Mary appears to have established her new business in the early 1860s when Edward was still only a teenager. We should also note the 1885 obituary where the subject is Edward but the writer seems to go out of his way to talk about Mary.

One writer has argued that Mary was a member of a Fremantle élite, with an entrenched position of power from which they imposed on other classes to further their own purposes. 31 This proposition makes much of the premise that wealth and power bring success and privilege, but such evidence as is presented relates mainly to a following generation. The more noteworthy feature of Mary’s life in Fremantle is that she succeeded from a position of neither wealth nor power. The argument appears to be developed without appreciation of the realities of surviving in business in a harsh and competitive environment. My own view, from what evidence we have, is that Mary achieved what she did primarily through her own hard work and attention to customers.

As far as can be seen, none of the Sabrina ’s other passengers set their children up with a foundation like Mary Higham. 32 Of the 320 migrants on board, only one appears to have achieved in his or her own lifetime what must have appeared impossible in the Old Country, owning both town and country lands, giving children the benefit of secondary schooling, supporting their church, owning a thriving business, and even seeing their sons Edward and John Joseph enter State Parliament.

Those are the material achievements. Given the time that has passed, what can we tell of Mary herself?

What did the family think of Mary? Fortunately letters from the two younger sons survive, and these indicate a very warm relationship. Hearing of her death, Harry wrote to then fiancee Maud Bateman that he had lost ‘the best of mothers’. Six years later when John visited England, he wrote to wife Edith and expressed his delight at finding a photo of his late mother that had been sent back to her sister, and he took the trouble to have it copied in London to bring home.

We also know that Mary corresponded regularly with her sister Sarah in England, not wishing to lose track of her relations there. John was encouraged from an early age to correspond with his cousin, Sarah’s son, in England. These two would meet much later when John visited England. 33

Her involvement with the Congregational Church seems to have been sincere and lasting. Further (and perhaps more telling by today’s standards), she was able to involve her children who carried on this tradition.

It is both disappointing and frustrating that none of the letters actually written by Mary have been preserved. However, the existing sources mentioned give a picture of a woman with a no-nonsense approach, a warm relationship to her family both here and back in England, close involvement with her church, and well accepted by her mostly-male peers and clients. As the obituary writer said, a woman of ‘decision of character’.


Mary Higham, thought to be taken 1860s. Photo courtesy I. Leggoe

Fremantle Studies Day, October 2003


I wish to record my gratitude to the many descendants of Mary Higham who have assisted me over the years with recollections, photographs and interviews. I also wish to thank my very patient wife, and the staff of the Battye Library (Perth) and of the Fremantle Library Local History Collection.


1 Details of the electoral rolls and census records concerned will be found in the book by GJ Higham; A most industrious tradeswoman, Winthrop, The Gayton Squirrel Trust, 1994, at pp 2,3,5 & 7

2 Kelly’s Directory, Northamptonshire, 1847

3 Liverpool Mercury, 18 March 1853

4 Government Gazette, 19 July 1853

5 E Millett, An Australian parsonage, or the settler and the savage in Western Australia, Edward Stanford, London, 1872: facsimile edition by University of Westem Australia Press, Nedlands, 1980

6 Advertisement in 1868 thanks the public for 15 years patronage, suggesting that the family started business in the year they arrived. See the Fremantle newspaper The Era, 12 October 1868

7 West Australian 22 April 1885 p 3

8 Royal WA Historical Society Journal Vol I Pt IX p 47

9 J .K. Ewers, The western gateway, a history of Fremantle, University of Western Australia Press, 1971, pp41-42

10 JK ‘Hitchcock, Memories of early Fremantle’ in Fremantle Times, 2 May 1919

11 Johnston diaries, Battye Library Acc. 565A, 1 March 1855

12 Inquirer; 12 January 1859 p2

13 WA Almanack 1857, published by Stirling at the Inquirer and Commercial News

14 Register of Memorials, Battye Library, Acc.l800/6

15 Battye Library, Deed 6/1143 of 26 September 1861, Accession 1801/6

16 The Era, 12 October 1868

17 J.K.Hitchcock in Fremantle Times, 11 April 1919

18 Personal communication, grandson I Heppingstone to M I Higham (interviewed by GJ Higham September 2003)

19 Government Gazette 1878 pl0,l2; 1879 p333

20 The Herald, ll February 1871 pp 2-3

21 Johnston Memorial Church records, Battye Library, Acc 1565A/14

22 ‘Employers of ticket of leave labour’, Microform, Battye Library

23 Minutes of Fremantle Town Trust, 18 February 1870 Fremantle Library Local History Collection

24 Michael, Berson, Cockburn, the making of a community, Town of Cockbum, 1978, pp44-46

25 Minutes of the Fremantle District Roads Board, Battye Library, Acc.1 151/ 1

26 Higham letters, 1881-4, Battye Library Acc 244A

27 The Herald, 14 February 1880 p3

28 AJ Hillman, The Hillman Diaries 1877-1884, FV Bentley Hillman, Applecross, 1990, p966, and Minutes of the Fremantle Town Council 24 February 1882, Fremantle Library Local History Collection

29 Indenture made on 24 May 1881 between M, EH& JJ Higham. Mss. Courtesy of RE Higham

30 The West Australian, 27 April 1883, p 3

31 PM Brown, The merchant princes of Fremantle, Perth, The University of WA Press 1996, and a previous thesis by the same author

32 See GJ Higham A most industrious tradeswoman p 26

33 Correspondence from JJ Higham in England 1889 to his wife, held by family. See also relevant sections quoted in GJ Higham, A most industrious tradeswoman.

Geoffrey Higham

Geoffrey Higham is a land surveyor and mapping consultant in professional life. He was able to apply his professional training to his interest in history to produce ‘An historical gazetteer of Western Australia.’

A lifelong interest in railways has seen him write several monographs, including Robb’s Railway on the line from Fremantle to Guildford, while Geoffrey is researching and writing the history of the railway to Kalgoorlie for his next book.

He has also chronicled his Higham ancestors, and 1994 saw publication of his book on that subject, especially recording their emigration and their life and times in early Fremantle.

Geoffrey is a great-great-grandson of the subject of his paper in this volume.

Garry Gillard | New: 11 February, 2018 | Now: 16 December, 2018