Mary and Percy Higgins: Communists in Tameside

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

Betty Tebbs: “I’ve always been a revolutionary!”

Betty Tebbs joined her first trade union at 14, lost her first husband in WWII and spent her entire life working for rights for women and workers, global peace and justice and nuclear disarmament

Born in 1918, Betty Tebbs started her first job in a paper mill in Radcliffe at the age of 14. Realising that the boys working on the same machine as her were being paid 3 shillings a week more just because they were boys, she complained to a colleague and was told “you want to go upstairs and see this woman who organises the union.”

“So I joined – I still have my badge!” said Betty in 2007.

So I was always active, when I was young, but I didn’t see the political connections,” Betty continued. “But by the time I got into the big East Lancs Paper Mill in Bury, I did. So a while after I got accepted, I started organising. I was there 17 years and at one time we had a time and motion study. They were trying to make us work harder for less, and I brought the women out on strike. There were nearly 300 of us women, but the men who worked on the process side wouldn’t come, so we were on pickets a lot.

They sacked the man who collected the union dues, at a minute’s notice, and that’s why I brought the women out, but after a fortnight it was coming up to Christmas, and he said he weren’t going to see all the women out like that at Christmas, and he wouldn’t go back. I tried to persuade him that it wasn’t right, but he wouldn’t. So the union organiser went to management to tell them, and they said that we all had to apply individually for out jobs and we had this big meeting and I said that we all had to go back as we came out, or not at all, so we hung out for another 4 days, and then they accepted and we all went back. I became Mother of the Chapel then. And I can tell you, we became the best paid paper mill women in Britain. My sister-in-law told me that. She never gave me credit for a lot, because she was Labour Party but very right-wing, but she told me that.”

Betty’s first husband, Ernie, was killed in WWII, by which time they had a young daughter.

“I’d heard on the radio that free train tickets were being sent to the families of men wounded on the front, so when the envelope arrived with the telegram I thought he’d been injured, not killed, and that they were our tickets,” Betty recalls.

But Betty still supported the war against Nazi Germany. Of a newspaper interview which suggested she had been a pacifist, she declared proudly:

“They said I’m a pacifist! I’ve never been a pacifist! I’ve always been a revolutionary! And you know what upset me – was that they assumed that because my husband was killed in the war that I was against the war! I worked on munitions!”

Ernie himself had been in a reserved occupation, but nine months into the war had volunteered, believing that “I shall have to go because fascism has to be fought.”

“So Ernest went and in 1943 he was transferred from the artillery into the King’s Own Scottish Borderers which was like a crack regiment, and after training he was put down on the South Coast and he was on the Second Front. And he got through the second front and fought for 6 weeks till he got the other side of Caen, which was a big battle, I believe, and he was killed the other side of Caen,” Betty describes.

But what did rankle was that within days of hearing that Ernie had been killed in action, Betty got another letter telling her that the money she would receive from the government was to be cut from 28 shillings for herself and 12/6 for their daughter to 18 and 11.

“And when you were still reeling from that, you hadn’t recovered from it, you get another letter saying I was now a single woman and that I would be getting a reduction in the money the government was giving me,” she remembers.

“I was so angry, and his sister was the union organiser and after the war she put up for the local authority in Radcliffe, and she got in but we weren’t accustomed to having Labour in the ward we were in. and I canvassed for her and she got in, and then I became interested in politics.”

But exhausted by working for a living and bringing up a young child, Betty’s mother send her to stay with an aunt in Devon, where Betty met a young soldier called Len:

“One day I’m sat on the beach and there’s a young soldier sat on one side, and Pat [Betty’s daughter] was good at speaking for her age and he got talking to her, and then me. And then he was there pretty often, and I though it was coincidence but apparently not. But I’d never been out with anyone else than my first husband, and I weren’t thinking about anything.

“But he started talking to me politically, and how if we had socialism we could have peace, and if we didn’t have socialism we wouldn’t have peace, and if we didn’t have peace we couldn’t have socialism! He’d been to the William Morris school, he was from Walthamstow, where the teachers were all socialist, so he had a head start you see. And he’d volunteered when he was 18, he was 3 years younger than me. And he was there each afternoon – he had a really good job during the war, he was on a motorbike in the Signals, going from one battery to the other to keep the communications open.

“I went home and he kept writing to me, he’d got my address, and then he asked if he could visit and in those days you didn’t have someone in your house like that, so my sister said he could go to her. And then he wanted to get married and I wasn’t ready for being married, and then he said if I weren’t going to consider it there’s no point in me coming when he was on leave, so I said alright, I would. He was posted to Syria and Lebanon, so he was away about 15 months and when he came back we were married straight away.”

Betty and Len started out as Labour Party members, but after it accepted Marshall Plan aid from the USA they left and joined the Communist Party. Both were active, organising in their workplaces and, in Betty’s case, working hard on the peace agenda and women’s rights within the trade union movement. Betty also recalls “cycling round North Manchester at night after work painting ‘Ban the Bomb’ on railway bridges.”

In the 1950s, with a son as well as daughter Pat, Betty and Len left Manchester for Warrington, where Len had been offered a job in a technical college. They had also left the Communists and rejoined the Labour Party, mainly due to local differences and before the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khruschev’s revelations about Stalin’s purges.

On moving, Betty asked the union which factories in Warrington needed organising and was directed to a paper bag plant where, she says, conditions were ‘appalling.’ The mainly women workers ate at their machines, which was illegal, and the toilets were ‘dreadful.’ Pay was low, there was no protection from chemical glues and management retained the union cards of workers who were members. But Betty stayed there for three years, becoming Mother of the Chapel to the union there.

In the late 1960s, Betty also ended up on the teatime TV news after a scandalous speech she made, declaring that “I’m sick of being a kept women” despite being married – her argument being that pay inequalities meant that however hard she worked, a woman would always be dependent on her husband’s income for their standard of living.

But after anti-communism in her trade union meant that Betty’s shot at election to its Executive was sabotaged, she left the job and and got work driving bread trucks for the Co-operative. Reluctantly she started collecting union dues here as well and, finding to her surprise that few Co-op workers were union members, encouraged people to join.

Then, Betty recalls, “I went and got a nice job going round the Polycell factory selling dinner tickets, and I was getting them nicely organised when it closed down.”

At the age of 57, in the mid 1970s, Betty spotted an advert in the Morning Star for a trade union organisers’ course at Middlesex Polytechnic. Encouraged by Len, who said that everyone should have the chance at some further education, she applied. Despite her terror at the interview, she was accepted straight away, recalling that “I think I went through some red lights! So I went there for 12 months, and it were smashing.”

Being in London at this time, Betty joined in with the pickets at the Grunwick dispute, a strike by mainly women workers of South Asian origin at a photo processing plant with appallingly oppressive conditions. The mainstream trade union movement failed to support the workers, and demonstrations at the site were met with police brutality.

On finishing her course, almost at legal retirement age, Betty stopped paid work, but remained an active organiser. Bringing together a coalition of middle-class feminists and working class women in Warrington, she helped found the town’s first battered women’s refuge, despite being told by the head of the Council’s Housing Committee that “We don’t have battered women in Warrington.”

“What made him think Warrington were different from anywhere else?” recalled Betty. “So we tried to raise some money and we weren’t so good at it, and a Women’s Aid group was set up and they were like middle-class women and they did a good job, so we joined them and I became chair of that, and they were good at raising money – I mean they even got Warrington Rugby Club to do a sponsorship – I bet half of them beat their bloody wives up!”

During the 1980s Betty also became chair of the National Assembly of Women, regularly visiting East Germany for international women’s conferences.

“I met some wonderful women – they came from all over the world,” she remembers. “Valentina Tereshkova was the chair, the fist woman in space – she’s lovely. It were very nice having friendships like that. I remember when I was in the factory in Radcliffe and they said this woman had gone up in space. And then one day I was in this conference and it was the break time and she came up to me and said Betty, tell me what they’re doing at Greenham. And I told her and the bell went for the next session and she said Betty, you’ve not drunk your coffee, I’ll get you another one and I though ‘struth, I never thought she’d be getting me a coffee!” She also met with Warsaw Pact and NATO negotiators on the subject of nuclear disarmament, recalling that senior Warsaw Pact officials met them with courtesy and interest, while junior NATO representatives made them wait and were rude and dismissive. As Betty recalls:

“I said to them, why will you not sign a No First Strike agreement? And one them said, oh America will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. I was astounded, and I said, well you bloody well have, haven’t you? Do you not remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We’ve just had a poll in Britain and 64% of the people don’t want American bases. He said, ‘well Britain’s never satisfied – we didn’t come into the first WW soon enough, we didn’t come into the second WW soon enough,and then when we’re there and ready you don’t want us.’ So I said, ‘you never came into the Second WW for us – you came into because Pearl Harbour was attacked.’ I’ve never understood whether they were stupid or just ignorant.

“So we got nowhere with them, and so we ended up at Greenham – thousands of women. It were wonderful. I camped at Greenham, but not like my friends who were there for weeks on end.”

In the wake of the USA’s use of British bases to bomb Libya after a bomb brought down a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, killing 243 passengers and 16 crew, Betty also led a delegation of 150 British peace activists to Libya.

Just as he retired and they bought a new home near one of their children in Rawtenstall, Len tragically died of a heart condition at the age of just 61. So Betty returned to a flat in North Manchester.

Despite her age, Betty has remained active, particularly on nuclear disarmament issues. In October 2007, at the age of 89, she was arrested for blocking an access road at the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland by locking herself to fellow protestors using thumb cuffs.

“It makes me feel awful,” says Betty. “When they were bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we saw pictures of little children with their skin hanging off them, and I’ve talked to people who were there, people who saw people just burning and who were there one minute and a shadow the next – you can’t think why human beings would do things like that to each other. So for me, it’s a fight for the future, for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchild.”

The state of the world today is still one of Betty Tebb’s big concerns at 91. “Well, now I sometimes wonder what it was all for, the way things are now. In the Middle East, especially – the backing that Europe and the USA have given Israel is the cause of so much trouble, but it’s worked, hasn’t it? It’s like with the union work – if the management can get workers fighting each other they’ve won, haven’t they? And that’s what they’ve done in Palestine. And climate change. The environment is a class issue too – it’s the poor that are affected when heating prices go up or factories are dangerous. When we were near Runcorn in the 1960s Len used to look at the power stations and comment on the waste of heat – he said ‘we could grow tomatoes on that.’ We had a compost heap and solar panels then, to take the chill off the water and use less gas to heat it up properly.”

But despite a world which is far from perfect, Betty Tebbs still has a positive outlook on the decades of work she’s put into the causes she’s believed in:

“It’s not all grind – what you get back from it are life long friendships and understanding, and I feel privileged – that I met Len and he told me how things worked together and how things worked out. He once said to me, ‘I’d not have married you if I didn’t think that you’d be good behind the barricades’! I think I’ve had a good life – and it keeps you going! I’ve often said I don’t know what I’d do if peace broke out! But it’d be lovely, wouldn’t it?”

Links
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Faslane 365
National Assembly of Women
‘Enemy Within,’ Francis Beckett’s very readable history of the British Communist Party
Introduction to the Grunwick Dispute

Article by Sarah Irving