Story: Higgins, Sarah

Page 1 - Biography

Higgins, Sarah

1830–1923

Homemaker, midwife, community leader, writer

This biography was written by Katherine W. Orr and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Sarah Sharp was born on 30 January 1830 and baptised at Lydden, Kent, England. She was the daughter of Mary Ann Emery and her husband, Stephen Sharp, a labourer. Sarah's mother and stepmother both died when she was very young. She attended school, where she learned to sew and possibly to read, but not to write.

On 29 October 1841 Sarah Sharp, her father, two brothers and elder sister left England on the Bolton, arriving at Nelson, New Zealand, on 15 March 1842. Her sister died on board ship, so Sarah was left with no elder female relatives. She inherited the responsibility of keeping house for her father and brothers, and had to master the challenges of housekeeping in extremely primitive conditions. She taught herself to cook by observing a neighbour at work in the kitchen. The Sharp family lived first in Nelson. After the Wairau incident, when work was scarce in Nelson, they moved to the Spring Grove area. Stephen Sharp and his sons worked as farm labourers, sawyers and roadmakers. As a teenager Sarah spent 14 months in service with the Otterson family, who lived in the Richmond area. She also took in sewing to make some extra money.

On 30 July 1849 Sarah Sharp married Sydney Higgins, a sawyer, at the Spring Grove School Room, Waimea South. The couple had 11 children. As a child Sarah had briefly attended a Sunday school in Nelson run by the United Christians and later she taught in a Sunday school organised by the Nelson School Society at Spring Grove. In 1868 she became a committed member of the Spring Grove Church of Christ, and brought up her family in accordance with her Christian faith.

During her married life, which was spent on farms in the Spring Grove area, Sarah Higgins combined child-rearing with activities to boost the family income. At various times she assisted her husband with farming chores, took in sewing, made butter and cheese and cared for invalid boarders. She built herself a large kitchen in her first home and a dairy of mortar and stones in her second. As her daughters began to grow up, Sarah started to go out nursing, at first with Dr Thomas Oldham, later on her own. As a midwife, she claimed to have assisted at the birth of 350 babies.

In her later years, after her husband's death in 1903, Sarah Higgins continued to be an independent and determined person. When the departure of her children from home deprived her of a scribe, she learned to write, writing her first letter to a daughter at the age of 74. In her 83rd year she wrote a history of her life, sometimes misleadingly described as a diary. This history, with some small additions she made later, has been published both in whole and in part. It gives a vivid, unpretentious picture of life in early Nelson.

Sarah Higgins, or Grandma Higgins as she was known latterly, lived to the age of 93. She died on 23 September 1923 at Belgrove, Waimea South, and was buried at Spring Grove. With her courage, innovative spirit, capacity for hard work and devotion to the welfare of her family and neighbours, Sarah Higgins is noteworthy among the women settlers of Nelson.