Knutsford has many stories to tell for such a small town, including one story which does not bring joy but is well worth telling.

The story of Dick Turpin, the highwayman, is quite well known. Then there was the fictional ‘Gentleman Thief’ Raffles, with the persona of an upper-class gentleman who sustained his lifestyle by crime.

But Knutsford had its own man who fitted both descriptions.

In 1756 a seemingly well to do member of the gentry moved to Knutsford with enough cash to purchase a large house in Heathside, now Gaskell Avenue, named after Mrs Gaskell, the author who later lived there.

This so-called gentleman went by the name of Edward Higgins. He had with him the usual accoutrements of a gentleman of standing; he then renovated the house, added stables and purchased horses upon which he was adept at riding. He rode with the hunt and mixed with the local gentry, who soon accepted him as one of their own, and his title became Squire Higgins. A year later, he married a local lady named Katherine Birtles.

His friends believed that he owned many properties around the country and would make long excursions to collect their rent. He omitted to tell them that he was, in fact, a ruthless murderer, burglar, and highwayman.

He had, in 1754, been transported for seven years to the American Colonies for housebreaking in Worcester. On arrival in Boston, he robbed a house and stole a large amount of money. This and other criminal ventures made him wealthy enough to buy his passage home. He had enough of his ill-gotten gains left on arrival to take a room at the George and Dragon in King Street, Knutsford (renamed Royal George Hotel in 1832 when the Duchess of Kent stayed with a young Princess Victoria, who in five years would become Queen).

Every week Higgins would set off from the hotel housebreaking and highway robbing across the country.

Eventually, he had acquired enough funds to purchase his Heathside house – from there, he continued with his nefarious business purporting to be a wealthy squire.

Another of his tricks was to accept the hospitality of the local gentry, including social visits to Tatton Hall, Oulton Hall at Little Budworth and others around Cheshire.

While there he would, steal from his host and other guests. At night he would set off with muffled hooves on his horse to rob coaches on the Chester Road, which was a turnpike.

During his limited free time as a professional burglar, highwayman, and murderer, he sired five children with Katherine.

After a botched burglary and double murder in Gloucester, he became a wanted man. The local Knutsford policeman arrested him but allowed him to go up the stairs. He never came down, escaped, and took a house in Bristol.

He had left Knutsford, but not his lucrative occupation and soon came unstuck.

In 1767, he was arrested while burgling the home of Lady Maud and Madam Bevan’s at Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, but that was not the end.

He was sentenced to death, but on the November 3, 1767, a reprieve arrived from the Under Sheriff’s office. This was a fake set up by his friends, and the handwriting on the reprieve was a forgery purporting to be Lord Shelburne’s.

As a result, Higgins was to be executed the following morning.

Crowds gathered outside the gaol in Carmarthen and on the route to the gallows at Pensarn.

He prayed for a while at the scaffold and then handed a letter to the Under Sherriff. In it, he admitted to the offence and the murder of a woman and maidservant in Bristol.

He at least left some money for his wife; he had already sold the rights to his body for educational purposes to a Dr Cruikshank in London. Because of this, his body was not allowed to hang for the relevant period but was immediately taken down and carried away for a post mortem.

On arrival, he was found to be still alive and had to be ‘switched off’ on the table.

Later, he was featured in Mrs Gaskell’s book ‘The Squire’s Story’.

Paul Hurley has a successful Facebook group called Mid Cheshire Through Time. He has three books coming out in a few months, including his autobiography.