Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Higgins, Matthew James

HIGGINS, MATTHEW JAMES (1810–1868), 'Jacob Omnium,' son of Matthew Higgins, by Janette, daughter of James Baillie, second son of Hugh Baillie of Dochfour, Inverness-shire, was born 4 Dec. 1810, at Benown Castle in the county of Meath. His father died soon after his birth. He was educated at a private school near Bath and at Eton. On 22 May 1828 he matriculated at University College, Oxford, but never graduated. At college he preferred hunting to study. He afterwards travelled much in Spain and in Italy, where his three sisters lived in Naples, after their marriage to Italians. In 1838-9 he visited British Guiana, where he had inherited an estate, and repeated the visit in 1846-7. This experience enabled him to keep his estate in good order during the critical period which followed the abolition of slavery, and to write some effective pamphlets upon the difficulties of the sugar-producing colonies. Immediately after his return in March 1847 he offered his services to the relief committee formed on occasion of the Irish famine, and spent several months in Ireland and London in active endeavours to help the sufferers. A letter to the 'Times' of 22 April 1847 (reprinted in his biography) gives a vivid account of the terrible scenes of the time. Higgins, who had been a conservative, followed Peel on the free trade question, and contested Westbury in 1847 on 'Peelite' principles, when he was defeated by James Wilson, afterwards financial minister in India. He never stood again, though he retained a keen interest in politics, and constantly attended debates. He was one of the chief writers in the 'Morning Chronicle,' under John Douglas Cook [q. v.], then the organ of the Peelites.

On 2 July 1850 he married Emily Blanche, daughter of Sir Henry Joseph Tichborne of Tichborne, and widow of the eldest son of Mr. Benett of Pythouse, Wiltshire. He then moved from 1 Lowndes Square to 71 Eaton Square. He was an exceedingly popular member of society. He was a judge of horses as well as a lover of literature and art, a member of the Philobiblon Society, and one of the original and most agreeable members of the Cosmopolitan Club. His advice was sought by many friends, and he spared no trouble in reconciling disputes and settling business. He had been obliged to take the waters at Homburg in later years, but no cause of anxiety appeared until he was taken ill after bathing at Kingston House, near Abingdon, and died six days later, 14 Aug. 1868. He was buried near his younger son in the Roman catholic cemetery at Fulham. He was survived by his widow and three children. Higgins was six feet eight in height, and was a man of noble and amiable presence. Portraits by Sir Francis Grant, in which a toy-terrier was introduced by Landseer, and one by Reginald Cholmondeley are in possession of his family. A photograph of Grant's portrait is prefixed to his memoir.

Higgins was famous for his skill in newspaper correspondence. His talents were, he said, first revealed to him through the impression made on the committee of his club by a letter complaining of a bad dinner which he had drafted for a friend. His first published article, called 'Jacob Omnium, the Merchant Prince,' a satire on mercantile dishonesty, appeared in the 'New Monthly Magazine' for August 1845. He frequently used the name or the initials of his hero, and is generally known by it. His writings brought him the acquaintance of Thackeray, who dedicated to him the 'Adventures of Philip' in 1862. Thackeray's ballad on 'Jacob Omnium's Hoss' commemorates his friend's assault upon the Palace Court, which was abolished in consequence. Higgins's letters to the 'Times,' under various signatures, such as 'Civilian,' 'Paterfamilias,' 'Mother of Six,' 'A Thirsty Soul,' &c., always commanded notice, and exposed many abuses. His connection with the 'Times' was ended by a dispute in 1863. His letters, supported by articles, had led to a court-martial upon Colonel Crawley for oppressive treatment of a sergeant. The colonel was fully acquitted; the 'Times' was converted to his side; made difficulties about admitting a letter of self-defence from Higgins; published a severe reply to it, and then closed the discussion. Higgins privately printed his correspondence with the proprietor of the 'Times' upon the occasion. Higgins wrote other articles in the 'Edinburgh Review,' and especially in the 'Cornhill,' edited by his friend Thackeray. When the 'Pall Mall Gazette' was started, he showed especial skill in writing the 'Occasional Notes,' which were then a comparative novelty. In controversy Higgins had in the highest degree the journalist's faculty of presenting his case tersely and going straight to the main points.

Higgins published:

  1. 'Is Cheap Sugar the Triumph of Free Trade?' a letter to Lord John Russell, by Jacob Omnium, 1847. This was followed in 1848 by a second letter with the same title, and 'a third letter to Lord John Russell … with an appendix.'
  2. 'Cheap Sugar means Cheap Slaves,' 1848.
  3. 'The real bearings of the West India Question,' by Jacob Omnium, 1848.
  4. 'Light Horse,' 1855.
  5. 'A Letter on Administrative Reform,' 1855.
  6. 'Letters on Military Education,' 1855 and 1856.
  7. 'Letters on Army Reform,' 1855 (?) (the last four reprinted from the 'Times,' and described as by Jacob Omnium).
  8. 'Three Letters to the Editor of the "Cornhill Magazine" on Public Education; by Paterfamilias,' 1861; republished in 1865 with essay from the 'Edinburgh Review.'
  9. 'The Story of the Mhow Court-martial … by J. O.' (reprinted from the 'Cornhill' of November 1863), 1864.

In 1856 he printed privately some of his articles as 'Social Sketches.' These were published in 1875 (with some additions) as 'Essays on Social Subjects,' with an excellent memoir by Sir William Stirling-Maxwell.

[Memoir as above.]

L. S.