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Higgins, Patrick (1825–1882)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Patrick Higgins (1825-1882), contractor and pastoralist, was born in Sligo, Connaught, Ireland, son of John Higgins, farmer and tenant of Lord Palmerston, and his wife Margaret, née Lunuy. Educated at the Sligo Academy, he became a successful contractor and, attracted by the gold discoveries, in 1852 migrated to Victoria with his brother John. He followed Palmerston's advice to continue his career and with his brother in 1853 won a contract to make part of the Mount Alexander Road which led to goldfields at Castlemaine, Chewton and Bendigo. He obtained many other road-making contracts from the Public Works Department but in 1857 changed to railway construction and carried out the extensive earthwork of the Melbourne and Suburban Railway Co. He also made part of the Melbourne-Echuca line and engaged in some profitable squatting ventures with Hugh Glass. In 1858 he became a magistrate. By 1866 Higgins was probably the leading public-works entrepreneur in Victoria. In that year he won the contract to construct the Lithgow section of the zigzag railway in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He completed it in 1869 and, assessing the great economic potential of the area, promoted the Lithgow Valley Coal Co. and the Lithgow Pottery. In 1867 he had become a magistrate of New South Wales. He consolidated his wealth with profitable squatting investments on the Lachlan and Murray rivers.

Higgins was not so fortunate in his personal life. In 1855 in Melbourne he married Rose, daughter of John Lynch, of Sligo. Next year she died giving birth to a son. In 1872 Higgins was taking the boy to Europe to finish his education when he was lost overboard between Sydney and Melbourne. Distraught and stricken with heart trouble, Higgins went to Europe and America and proved a discerning and observant traveller. On his return to Sydney in 1876 he determined to enter public life. By then he was recognized as an entrepreneur whose pioneering had benefited both Victoria and New South Wales as well as himself. An associate of other leading industrialists and pastoralists, including the relatively small Irish-Catholic group headed by (Sir) Patrick Jennings, he was a director of the Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Co., the Intercolonial Life Assurance and General Association, the Intercolonial Board of Executors Trustees and Agency Co. and other companies.

His popularity did not enable him to enter the Legislative Assembly. In 1877, despite a progressive and liberal programme, which included enlightened nonsectarian views on education and immigration, he was defeated at Hartley by John Hurley. In 1879, a year of crisis for denominational education, (Sir) Henry Parkes appointed him a commissioner for the International Exhibition in Sydney, and in 1881 a Sydney representative for Melbourne's Exhibition. In accepting Parkes's nomination to the Legislative Council in December 1880 Higgins said he was 'impressed with a full sense of the responsibility which loyalty, duty and independence impose'. The only Catholic member, Higgins was making a worthy mark in the council when he died suddenly from heart disease on 28 January 1882. With Jennings in charge, his body was taken to Melbourne and buried in the general cemetery. £10,000 of his estate of £44,000 was left to his brother, John, and substantial charitable bequests complemented similar gifts he had made when alive.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62 (Melb, 1962)
  • Bulletin, 1 Jan 1881
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan 1882
  • Australasian, 4 Feb 1882
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/591.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Higgins, Patrick (1825–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/higgins-patrick-3764/text5935, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 31 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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