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Higgins, Frances Georgina (Ina) (1860–1948)

by Colin Choat

Frances Georgina Watts Higgins (usually known as Ina), was the daughter of John and Anne (née Bournes) Higgins. She was born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1860 and arrived in Melbourne, from Ireland, in the Eurynome on 12 February 1870 with her mother and four siblings: Henry Bournes (1851-1929), Samuel Ormsby (1858-1887), George (d.1943) and Anna Maria (d.1950). A brother, Charlie, aged 6 years, died on the voyage out, a few days before they reached Port Phillip, and another brother, James, had died in Ireland in June 1869. A son, John (d.1929), remained with his father in Ireland.

The Reverend John Higgins, a Methodist Minister of thirty years standing, felt obliged to remain in Ireland in his position as minister until the current circuit year ended in July 1870, though he and his wife, Anne, felt that it was imperative that Anne should take the children Australia as soon as possible on account of the delicate health of some members of the family.

Both Ina and her younger sister, Anna, attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College and, in 1881, exhibitions at matriculation for history, geography, English and French were awarded by the University of Melbourne to Ina's younger sister, Anna. Ina did "creditably."

About this time Ina's brother, Henry Bournes Higgins, who went on to become president of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration and later a justice of the High Court of Australia, began to prosper as a barrister at the equity Bar. With his financial assistance John became an accountant, George an engineer, Samuel a doctor, and Anna was among the first women to enter the university. Ina studied at the Burnley Horticultural College and later practised as a landscape gardener.

In 1891 a petition signed by approximately 30,000 women was presented to the Victorian parliament to urge the Government of the day to grant women the right to vote. Although that right was not won until 1908, the petition is an indication of the strength of the women's suffrage movement in Victoria. Ina Higgins signed the petition and, from 1894, was the honorary secretary of the United Council for Woman suffrage and sat on its executive committee from 1900.

In 1890 Ina lived at the family home, "Killenna," Malvern. She never married and continued to live there until the time of her death in 1948.

In 1899 Ina Higgins and Henrietta Irvine were elected to the Malvern Board of Advice, an advisory body to advise the municipal council on local matters. The fact that two women were contesting the election, with five of the six contestants to be elected, created much interest. In the event, the women placed third and fourth, both receiving the same number of votes. They were obviously well organised and were well supported.

During the First World War, Ina Higgins, now in her fifties, was active in her profession of landscape gardening and also in political activity. In 1914, she was invited by the New South Wales Government Commission of Irrigation, to assist with the planting plans for the two new model townships which were being made in the Murrumbidgee irrigation districts of New South Wales. In 1915 when a co-operative women's farm, The Women's Rural Industries Co. Ltd., was started at Mordialloc, those who identified themselves with the venture included Cecilia Annie John, Adela Pankhurst, Vida Goldstein, Mary Eliza Fullerton, Bertha Merfield, Mabel Singleton, Lily E. Dickens, and Ina Higgins. A number of the women were members of the Women's Political Association.

A contemporary newspaper report noted that Ina Higgins was "accountable for some particularly fine gardens, and has always maintained that the profession offered good chances for the right kind of woman." The farm was worked on the share system, with vegetables, small fruits and flowers being providing the principal output, under the supervision of Ina Higgins. There were no men employed. Later, training in the care and management of horses was introduced.

In 1917 a meeting of the Women Horticulturists' Association of Victoria was held at the Burnley Gardens. A feature of the meeting was a small show of flowers and apples, brought by members and associates. These exhibits were judged by Mrs. Arthur Tuckett and Miss Ina Higgins, who were patronesses of the association.

Nettie Palmer, writer and critic, was the daughter of Ina's brother, John. In 1914 she married Vance Palmer, writer and journalist, who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1918. By that time the Palmers had two small children. During Vance's absence in Europe Nettie lived with her aunt Ina and taught privately. Palmer, in her private papers, now held by the National Library of Australia, described Ina Higgins as a "great feminist," an observation supported by the fact that Ina was a friend and colleague of Vida Goldstein, a prominent suffragist, and Alice Henty, a labour reformer.

The town of Portland is the site of the earliest European settlement in what is now the state of Victoria. In 1934, activities to celebrate the centenary of the establishment of the settlement included the production, by women, of a Centenary Gift Book. Frances Fraser conceived the idea of "placing on record the story of the part which women have played through the century in the life of the State, not only as its home-makers and home keepers, but in its art, its literature, its music, and in its social and public life." Fraser and Nettie Palmer were editors. The book consisted of contributions of articles, stories, sketches, poems, plays, verse and illustrations, by more than sixty women, including work by Mary Grant Bruce, Anna T. Brennan, Henrietta C. Walker, Jeanie Gunn (Mrs. Aeneas Gunn), Frances Fraser, Henry Handel Richardson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Mary E. Fullerton, Edna Walling and Ina Higgins.

Higgins was 74 years old at this time. Her contribution, probably submitted at the invitation of Nettie Palmer, was titled Women and Horticulture. It provided a brief history of training provided for women in Victoria from the introduction of women into the Burnley School of Horticulture in 1899, when Ina had studied there, and noted that in 1934 "in garden designing, which is perhaps the highest branch of horticulture, women have already attained conspicuous success in England, America and Australia."

In 1938, the Presbyterian Ladies' College purchased the property, "Heatherset," in Burwood. At a garden party held there after the acquisition, the president of the Old Collegians' Association, Mrs. Lex Rentoul, noted that "an old collegian, Miss Ina Higgins, the first woman landscape gardener in Victoria, had laid out the lovely grounds."

In 1943, Ina Higgins and her sister, Anna, recorded in a newspaper the death of George Higgins, their "dear last surviving brother." Then, in 1947, their last link with an earlier generation was broken with the death of Mary Greenwood, their "aunt," who died at the age of 105 years and twelve weeks.

Ina Higgins died in 1948. Her parents and all of her brothers had died before her. Her sister, Anna, the last surviving child of John and Ann Higgins, died in early 1950.

Original publication

  • unpublished, 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Colin Choat, 'Higgins, Frances Georgina (Ina) (1860–1948)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/higgins-frances-georgina-ina-14248/text25293, accessed 1 October 2014.

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