Godfrey Higgins, Chief Druid, Free Mason and owner of Skellow Grange one time owner of Skellow Grange.
Reprinted with kind permission of Margaret Burns
A preliminary portrait of a “less conventional member of the squirearchy” who was a “political radical, reforming county magistrate and idiosyncratic historian of religions,” 1 and also a freemason, a ‘Chosen Chief‘ of the Druids, 2 and a prolific writer on social, political and historical religious topics.
Godfrey Higgins was baptised in the parish church of All Saints, Owston, on the 30th January 1773, the second child and only son of Godfrey Higgins Esq. of Skellow Grange, near Doncaster. His father purchased the estate situated on the western borders of Burghwallis parish in 1770, 3 possibly at the time of his marriage to Christiana Matterson (of Dunsforth near Borobridge) 4 as their first child, Christiana, was baptised in Owston church on 12 April 1771. A map of Skellow Grange, drawn by Joseph Colbeck in 1763, states that at that date it was the property of William Turber Esq. 5 The Grange changed hands several times over the next 10 years; George Smyth “was of Skellow Grange in 1760. He … conveyed to William Turbett, esq. who sold to John Killingbeck, of Clayton, of whom it was bought by Mr. Higgins. He purchased of the family of Ann the manor of Skellow, and certain lands which lay close to the Grange.” 6 Sketch map of ‘Skellow Grange’ based on a map drawn by Joseph Colbeck in 1763 which shows the property of William Turber Esq. This was purchased by Godfrey Higgins in 1770
The estate comprised the Grange, with formal gardens to the north and a large pond to the south (formed by damming the Skell dyke), and lands bordered on the south-eastern and north-eastern boundaries by the Skell, on the west by the Turnpike Road (now the A1), and on the south-west by the boundary between the parishes of Burghwallis and Owston.
This however was not the only land owned by Godfrey Higgins senior. The bibliography of Godfrey Higgins states that “on his father’s death he succeeded to a considerable estate” and this no doubt referred also to land holdings in the parish of Wadworth
(from ‘Yorkshire: an Historical and Topographical view of the Wapentake of Strafford and Tickhill,’ Wainwright,1826)
Edward Miller tells us that “the old hall (at Wadworth) was formerly inhabited by the families of Copley, Battie, Higgins and Arthur.” The estate at Wadworth came into the hands of the Higgins family through the marriage of Richard Higgins of York, a surgeon, to Ann, the youngest daughter of Lionel Copley of Wadworth and Sprotborough. Her two elder brothers had inherited the Copley estate at Sprotborough through their father, who in turn had inherited from his cousin, several generations removed, the second Baronet Sir Godfrey Copley when he died in 1709 without living male issue. Lionel Copley however had “bound up the estates thus bequeathed in strict settlement to his male issue only, with remainder … to the issue of … the daughter of Sir Godfrey.” 7 As Godfrey Higgins, son of Richard and Ann, was “at his death in 1796 the sole representative of Lionel and Mary Copley” 8 due to the preceding deaths of Ann’s two brothers without issue, and had there not been such a bequeathment in his father-in-law’s will, the Higgins family would have also come into the vast estates at Sprotborough as well.
The house that Richard and Ann inherited must have been the old Hall at Wadworth, as depicted in Wainwright’s “Yorkshire” there was also a considerable estate at Wadworth attached to the property. It is doubtful that Richard and Ann ever resided at the Hall after their marriage in the mid 1730’s. It seems that some portion of land, but not the Old Hall Farm and the major part of the estate, was sold to John Arthur, who appears as a freeholder in Wadworth in 1734. He in turn sold to the Wordsworth family, and “Josias Wordsworth, of Sevenscore in Kent, came to reside at Wadworth, and much improved the house and estate,“9 and “about the mid eighteenth century a new Hall (was) built adjoining to the old one.” 10 This is still standing, although no longer in use as a private residence;
Plan of Wadworth, 1767, based on the inclosure Award Map, showing: 1.Wadworth Hall, built by Wordsworth in 1749/50 (still standing) 2.Wadworth Old Hall, owned by Godfrey Higgins, as shown in Wainwright. This is marked on later maps as Old Hall Farm
The Inclosure Award for Wadworth of 1767 shows Godfrey Higgins senior still in possession of the old Hall and grounds, the plan of the hall indicating that the house shown in the earlier drawing in ‘Wainwright was still standing, and was still probably a residence of the Higgins family. Higgins also owned 177 acres of land which comprised just over ten percent of the total for the parish. The family seat moved to Skellow Grange (or Newsome Grange as it was called in the Rent Rolls for Burghwallis of 1780) shortly after this. They chose however to be buried in the church at Wadworth rather than at Burghwallis, the nearest to Skellow Grange, or at Owston in which parish the Grange lay. There are memorials to several of the Higgins family in the Parish Room (formerly a chapel) of the church at Wadworth:
“Near this place lies interred the remains of Godfrey Higgins of Skellow Grange who died May 27th 1796 Also near this place… Christiana Higgins … died March 27th 1809” “In memory of Godfrey Higgins Esq. of Skellow Grange died August 9th 1833 Also… son Godfrey Higgins … died June 7th 1863”
There are no visible marked tombstones for these, (apart from the carpet, there are unrecorded tombstones under the new stone floor in the chapel) but the memorials seem to infer that the first three mentioned are buried in this chapel; the son, died 1863, and his sister Jane, died 1874, are buried outside the church at the south western corner.
A third memorial is to Jane, wife of G Higgins II, who died and was interred in the abbey church at Bath in 1822, and to Charlotte her youngest daughter who was interred in the Protestant cemetery in France in 1823.
According to his bibliography Godfrey Higgins “kept terms as a pensioner at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, … and studied law in London, but took no degree, and was not called to the bar.” 11 (due to the limitation of family funds)12 He inherited the family estates in 1796, at the age of 23 and no doubt led the life of the country gentry of that time, marrying Jane, daughter of Richard Thorpe of Milnethorpe in 1800. His contemporaries were Bryan Cooke Esq. of Owston Hall, (who became MP for Malton), George Cooke of Streetthorpe, Doncaster, John Cooke-Yarborough of Campsmount, Campsall, and Sir George Cooke Bart. of Wheatley Hall. All were in the 3rd West York Militia when the threat of invasion by Napoleon arose in 1802/3; Godfrey Higgins became a major.
The 3rd West York Militia do not appear to have seen any active service, but were stationed at various towns around the country before being sent to Ireland. In 1803 they were “reviewed on the Town Moor by the Right Honourable the Earl FitzWilliam. The Regiment marched on the 27th May to York.“13 Later in the year they were at the Coxheath Encampment, being reviewed on Thursday 30th August by the Earl of Chatham; “the leisure hours allowed the men were employed in the various amusements of cricket, balls, races etc. On Friday August 31st … a grand Cricket Match.“14 In 1806 they were stationed at Hull, marching from there on April 29th on route for Darlington and Durham. By Friday October 3rd they were leaving Newcastle for Sunderland. They appear to have been stationed here for a year, marching on Monday October 12th 1807 on their route to Liverpool. In November 1808 they were quartered at Norman Cross Barracks. Ireland seems to have been the next destination, and in 1813 “The 3rd West York Militia were inspected at Cove, and forts in Cork Harbour … before the departure from Ireland.“15 Godfrey Higgins resigned his commission in 1813, still suffering from the effects of a bad fever seized at Harwich, and from which effects he never apparently recovered. One wonders whether families moved around the country with the regiment; Godfrey’s third child was baptised privately at Faversham in Kent in February 1805, and this was followed by a public baptism at Skellow Grange the August following.
After resigning his commission (in his 40th year) Godfrey Higgins “devoted himself entirely to an unbiased investigation into the history of religious beliefs.“16 This was not entirely true, as he also gave much time to public issues of the day. His obituary in the Doncaster Gazette of August 16th 1833 describes him as a “much esteemed and respected gentleman … cheerful and kind-hearted … an assiduous and able magistrate, quick to discover the right, and firm and fearless to promote and to maintain it … his indefatigable exertions in the detection and correction of the great abuses then existing in the management of the York Lunatic asylum, and the formation of another and very extensive establishment for the care and protection of pauper lunatics at Wakefield, will be monuments of his humble spirit and perseverance and philanthropy.”
After retiring from magisterial duties he then devoted much of his time to antiquarian research, travelling abroad frequently, learning other languages (notably Hebrew) and studying in foreign libraries. His family apparently joined him on some of these tours, his daughter dying in France in 1823.
He became a prolific writer, not only producing books on his researches and theories, but also on subjects of public and political interest; from 1814 onwards he wrote many letters to newspapers and people of eminence stating his opinion on matters of concern.
In 1826 his books on the archaeology of religion began to be published. ‘Horae Sabbaticae, or an attempt to correct certain superstitious and vulgar errors respecting the Sabbath’in 1826; ‘The Celtic Druids.’in 1827 and ‘An Apology for … Mohammed,’ in 1929. ‘The Celtic Druids’ classed as “his most important work,” contains in Hunter’s opinion “a most valuable collection of prints;” Hunter has been proved correct, as the prints contain information about prehistoric monuments which are still of great significance to researchers today, and have recently been reprinted to meet current demand.17 His last and best known work is ‘Anacalypsis, an Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis; or, an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions’; the first volume of this was printed in 1833 but the book was not published until 1836, three years after his death.
In his own words, “This led me to extend my inquiry into the origin of all religions, and this again led to an enquiry into the origin of nations and languages; and ultimately I came to a resolution to devote six hours a day to this pursuit for ten years. Instead of six hours daily for ten years, I believe I have, upon the average, applied myself to it for nearly ten hours daily for almost twenty years. In the first ten years of my search I may fairly say, I found nothing which I sought for; in the latter part of the twenty, the quantity of matter has so crowded in upon me, that I scarcely know how to dispose of it “.
His untimely death in his 62nd year meant that he was unable to fulfil all he set out to accomplish. He hoped to travel to the Near East, but world conditions, the death of his selected travelling companion, and his own failing health made the journey an impossibility.
He also gave indications in his writings that he was a Freemason. In the preface to Vol. I of ‘Anacalypsis‘ he says “… there are more passages than one in the book, which are of that nature, which will be perfectly understood by my Masonic friends, but which my engagements prevent me explaining to the world at large. My Masonic friends will find their craft very often referred to. I believe, however that they will not find any of their secrets betrayed; but I trust they will find it proved, that their art is the remains of a very fine ancient system, or, perhaps, more properly, a branch of the fine and beautiful system of WISDOM which, in this work, I have developed.” This statement may refer to the fact that, according to Ross Nichols, he was a ‘Chosen Chief’ of the Order of Druids supposedly founded by John Toland in 1717; Godfrey Higgins followed William Blake as the Chosen Chief in 1827, a position that was traditionally held for life. In ‘TheBook of Druidry” 1990, he is described as “a learned and original writer, with his own contributory ideas. He was a Freemason and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and specialised in the history of religions. He went deeply into Egyptology … He designed a massive work in three parts … ‘Celtic Druids’ … and the two volumes of ‘Anacalypsis.’ … He was largely influenced by ideas of phallic worship.“
He intended as a final part to have dealt with Christianity; it is a great pity that we do not have his thoughts on this to complete what is a very controversial study of the history of religions.
His choice of unorthodox subjects on which to write meant that he inevitably became involved in both spirited and spiritual controversies. The same applied to his political life and career. In 1832 he was asked if he would be willing to stand for election as a member of Parliament; his reply was polite but direct, leaving no doubt upon the mind as to how he would act if elected. In a letter dated 14 December 1832 which was circulated in the town (Doncaster) and later printed in the Gazette, he states that he has considered “the acceptance of a seat in parliament and the acceptance of a sacred trust, which no man can with propriety refuse.” He says he will accept if elected, but follows with “although you have a right to appoint me to the office … yet you have no right to expect me either to spend money to forward the election or to cheat any man’s vote, and I shall do neither … a seat in the House can never bring me either honours or emoluments, nothing, in short, but labour and trouble – you cannot expect from me, so will not, in fact, receive from me, either flatteries, treats or bribes.” He then gives his opinions on various current matters concerning the Government, such as the Corn Laws, slavery and the Irish Church. Two days later a letter addressed to the secretaries of the Political Unions of Barnsley, Wakefield, Mirfield, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds says that “Having consulted with several of the electors who have wished me to become the representative of the Riding, it has been considered not expedient to bring me forwards at this time. On a future occasion, when there may be a probability of success, if my countrymen choose to call on me, I shall be proud to answer to the call. I remain, Gentlemen, Your humble servant, GodfreyHiggins.“
copy of Gofrey Higgins signature
He was never again to be called upon, being stricken ill while attending The British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge in 1833. He died at Skellow Grange on August 9th, and was buried at Wadworth Church, the burial place of his parents, on August 15th.
2 Ross Nichols, ‘The Book of Druidry.’ 1990
3 Hunter: ‘South Yorkshire’1830
4 DZ Syk
5 Doncaster Archives
6 Hunter: ob.sit.
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10 Gordon Smith, “Country Houses No. 1”
11 Hall, M P: ‘The Celtic Druids’1977
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16 Godfrey Higgins: ‘The Celtic Druids’ Facsimile reprint 1977
Reprinted with kind permission of Margaret Burns (Margaret L Pidcock-Burns ©1995)