George Higinbotham’s father, Henry Higinbotham was a prosperous Dublin merchant who owned a small entailed estate in County Cavan. It was known to the Irish as Tullymaglowney and to the Anglo-Irish as Nutfield. When Henry Higinbotham fell into financial ruin following the collapse of an ambitious commercial enterprise, he was forced to sell his assets, including the lease on the property. This happened several months before the birth of George Higinbotham in 1826. Upon Henry’s death the title passed to his eldest son, the Rev. Henry Higinbotham.
Early life in Dublin
Before the financial collapse, the Higinbotham family lived in a leased apartment in Mountjoy Square, Dublin. The apartment was located in a row built around a square enclosing a large park, on elevated land about one km north of central Dublin. Although it has been renowned as an area where famous literary people once lived, including the playwright Sean O’Casey and the poet W.B. Yeats, the area has fallen into disrepair in recent times. However, the Dublin City Council plans to restore the square and the park at its centre to their former glory. After the family’s financial misfortune, George Higinbotham’s parents lived separately; his mother (Sarah) in Bray and his father (Henry) in Dublin and later in England.
The Strand Street Unitarian church
The Strand Street Unitarian Church in Dublin, adjacent to St Stephen’s Green, was built in the 1860s. Approximately half of the cost was donated by George Higinbotham’s uncle, Thomas Wilson. He also donated the large window, known to this day as the ‘Wilson Window,’ although the original window was destroyed by a fire in the adjacent building, and has been replaced. Higinbotham’s mother’s family were prominent members of this congregation, which used to meet in private homes before the building of the church. The Strand Street Congregation welcomed reformers in religion and also in politics. It may have been through attending services with this congregation in the company of his mother and uncle that Higinbotham developed his enthusiasm for reformist ideals in both religion and politics.
Adolescence in Tyrone and Armagh
During his adolescent years Higinbotham attended the Dungannon Royal School in Co. Tyrone. During those years it is likely that he was living at Churchill, the home of his father’s cousin, Colonel Sir William Verner. Verner had served with distinction in the Battle of Waterloo and became the Member for Armagh in the House of Commons and a member of the Conservative party. He was the deputy Grand Master of the Orange Lodge of Armagh. His stately home in Armagh was surrounded by 700 acres (283 hectares) of grounds.
In 1821 Colonel Verner married the heiress Harriet Wingfield, and the couple had two sons and eight daughters. The elegance of the lifestyle at Churchill is captured
in this contemporary silhouette by Auguste Edouart in 1834.
During his time with the Verner family, it is likely that Higinbotham would have known his second cousin Jenny Verner, a niece of Colonel Verner. She was four years older than Higinbotham and also living at Churchill. She caused great embarrassment to the Verner family when she eloped with John Mitchel, who soon rose to national prominence as a fierce opponent of British policy in Ireland, particularly in relation to the famine.
While living with the Verner family and attending the Dungannon Royal School, Higinbotham was exposed to a different set of values, stressing loyalty to the Crown, pride in British military achievement and a conviction that the Protestant religion must be vigorously defended. There are traces of these contrasting sets of values from his childhood and adolescence in Higinbotham’s later political ideals.