Mary and Percy Higgins, a couple from Tameside, were active politically on the left, first in the Labour Party and then in the Communist Party, from the early 1930s to the end of their respective lives.
Mary was born Mary Boardman on 22 August 1914 in Failsworth, of working-class parents. Her mother ran a hardware and china shop. Politics ran in the family: her parents were members of the Failsworth Secular Society and founders of the Independent Labour Party, whilst on her mother’s side her grandparents had been Chartists. Mary herself joined the Labour Party at the age of 16 and was elected to the executive the next year. She also became active in the Labour League of Youth (LLY, which in the 1930s had 30,000 members) and was elected as a delegate to the Manchester Federation.
She attended a national LLY conference in Leeds but came back disillusioned because, she felt, the young people attending were not allowed to discuss matters of real importance. As well as being active in Failsworth she also helped out at Mossley Labour Party (very likely because she had met Percy Higgins, her future husband, who lived in Mossley). By the late 1930s she was becoming disillusioned with the Labour Party and began reading the Daily Worker. Mary joined the Communist Party in Oldham in 1940, at first it seems as a paper member, because she carried on working in the Labour Party. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil and hearing Harry Pollitt (the national secretary of the Communist Party ) she made the final break with Labourism and become an active member of the CP in Oldham. She later said that: “I found that I could not reconcile pacifism with a belief that, should the time come for the working class to defend their rights, I would fight for those rights.”
Within months Mary had become the Party Secretary in Oldham. That same year she got married to Percy Higgins. At this time they were living on Dacres Estate, Greenfield.
Percy was born in Mossley on 3 January 1910, one of a large family, and attended St George’s Elementary School. “I learned very early in life what it means to be one of a big working class family in wartime and slump. There were nine of us in the family, but a sister died at the age of three and my father became estranged and separated from the family as a result of the 1914 war.” From a young age Percy had shown an aptitude for painting and drawing but with his father gone and family on the breadline Percy had to be sent to work in a mill at the age of 14 to earn money for the family, instead of going to art school, as both he and his mother had dreamed of. “I shall never forget the heartbreak it occasioned my mother, never shall I ever forget the way she wept when I went off on my first day to work in a cotton factory at the age of fourteen, instead of art school as she had always hoped for.”
Starting as a learner piecer at 10/- a week, Percy rose to become a big piecer by the age of 17, earning 25/- a week, enough for him to afford evening classes in art in Ashton-under-Lyne where he won prizes and improved his technique. Percy was thrown out of work in 1928 but after a few months got another job with a commercial firm in Rochdale.
Whilst unemployed, Percy heard a speaker on the Market Ground in Mossley proclaiming how Socialism could solve the problems of poverty and ignorance. “I thought it over and read some books.” These included the Socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As a result he almost immediately joined the local Labour Party in which he became very active, assisting with the election of Herbert Gibson as the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Mossley at the general election in 1929. “I decided to give all the time I could to working for Socialism.” He started a Labour League of Youth and helped set up the Manchester Federation of Labour League of Youth (which is probably where he met Mary). In 1932 Percy organised a large demonstration by thousands of young people in Mossley against the Means Test and also stood for Mossley Council, but was defeated by 65 votes.
Percy realised his life’s ambition when he set up business as a freelance commercial artist in 1934. Though now a small businessman he did not abandon his Socialism and was Secretary of the Mossley Labour Party from 1933 to 1939 as well as Propaganda Secretary for the Lancashire District Clarion Youth Committee. In 1935 he assisted workers at Mossley Woolcombing to fight and win a strike over pay and conditions. At the same time Percy was also elected Secretary of Mossley Smalltraders Association, organizing a shopping week that same year to mark Mossley’s 50 years as a borough. He was also active in Aid Spain during the Spanish Civil War and in the Left Book Club. He took the 12 month correspondence course for Labour Party election agents, but left the Labour Party and joined the Communist Party in 1940.
In 1941 he joined the RAF and during his time at Padgate camp led a successful deputation to protest at the inept training and the food. After a brief spell in the Shetlands (where he established a Communist Party branch in Lerwick along with Peter Jamieson), he was eventually posted to Allahabad in India in 1943. He remained politically active, organising a Daily Worker reading classes and making contact with the Indian Communist Party. He met Indian Nationalists, including the son of Gandhi. Percy also served in Burma. His activities led him being moved to Nagpur, though this did not dampen his fervour for he made contact with local Communist Party and organized a Daily Worker reading group. He was posted again to Burma where he organized a Forces parliament.
Percy was demobbed in 1946. According to biographical notes submitted for a CP National School in January 1946 the Higgins were living back in Greenfield and Mary was working as a short-hand typist at R Radcliffe in Mossley. In 1947 they moved to Wales, where Percy worked as a full-time organiser and election agent for Harry Pollitt who stood as Communist Party candidate in the Rhondda East constituency several times, though was not elected. They lived in Penygraig, near Tonypandy, at this time.
Percy attended a National CP School in May 1950. The assessment of him noted that that he was very co-operative and ready to tackle problems and contributed well to group and class discussions, “though he has rather a tendency to leap into discussion without sufficiently thinking out his points.”
By the early 1950s Mary and Percy were back in Lancashire. Percy was now organising sales of the Daily Worker in Lancashire, quite successfully, according to a report in the CP archives. Mary worked as a medical secretary at Manchester Royal Infirmary.
They were very active members of CND formed in 1958, and took part in the Aldermaston marches and also marches to Holy Loch where nuclear submarines were based. Mary was involved with the Women’s Peace Caravan which crossed Europe to Moscow. In their spare time (what there was of it) they enjoyed walking in the Pennines and Lake District and also spent time at Dent in the Yorkshire Dales. Percy painted landscapes of their beloved lakes.
Percy died on 7 November 1977 and Mary died on 20 March 1995. The Working Class Movement Library has a tape of Mary taking about her life and politics.
Article by Michael Herbert