TRIBUTE TO HERBIE HIGGINS MBE
Diverse Magazine is honoured to present this tribute to Herbie Higgins MBE, one of the greatest pioneers of social justice and voluntary community work in the UK, who passed away on Wednesday November 9, 2011. He was a dad, granddad, great granddad, friend, mentor, a people’s champion, a true servant of the people who delighted in serving communities and we join his family and friends in mourning his loss.
Herbie (as he was affectionately known) immigrated to Liverpool from Jamaica in 1951, having been invited by his uncle Charlie Higgins who himself immigrated to England as a qualified engineer during the World War in 1941. Uncle Charlie went back to Jamaica in 1947, two years after the war ended but was again tempted to return to England onboard the ‘Empire Windrush’, which had visited the West Indies in 1948 to recruit ‘able bodied men and women’ to help rebuild Britain.
At that time Herbie was serving an apprenticeship as a Moulder and promised his Uncle Charlie that he would indeed join him in England as soon as he completed his apprenticeship to meet the country’s huge demand for Moulders and Welders.
True to his word, Herbie tried to book a passage to England after qualifying as a Moulder but all the ships were fully-booked for twelve months. So as not to waste time waiting for a booking Herbie flew to USA on May 1st 1951 where he boarded a ship and arrived in England on May 11th 1951.
He found work as a Moulder, the highest paid industry in the country at the time. Moulders were in particularly high demand due to the mass infrastructural destruction caused by the War. However, most of the 12 foundries on Merseyside refused to employ black people. Herbie eventually found work at a foundry on Stanhope Street but was fired on the first day of his employment career because his co-workers threatened to walk-out if the company insisted on employing Herbie.
Herbie was to later spend 29 years at Manganese Bronze and Brass Ltd, a propeller factory in Birkenhead. In addition to his Moulder duties he played an active role in the workers union as shop steward and conveyor of the shop steward committee after realising that the Trade Union was the only vehicle for workers’ rights to be protected. He had many successes over this period and the young man who had been rejected by his co-workers due to the colour of his skin became the man who transformed their working conditions.
During that period he also embarked on various initiatives to improve the social infrastructure in the black community. These included:
- securing the first cultural centre for the West Indian population in Liverpool – Stanley House (1962);
- setting up the Liverpool branch of ‘The Community Relations Council’, which later became known as ‘The Commission for Racial Equality’ (1969);
- fundraising and lobbying for the building and opening the Merseyside Carib bean Centre(1977);
- creating and launching the first ‘Merseyside Caribbean Carnival’ (1978);
- forming the first ‘lay visitors scheme’ in Britain, following the 1981 Toxteth Riots, to monitor the treatment of young people being held in police custody at stations across Merseyside (1981);
- forming ‘The National Independent Lay Visitors Scheme’ for prisons and was a member of prisons ‘National Monitoring Committee’. He remained a dedicated lay visitor both locally and nationally for the rest of his life. (1982)
- Being instrumental in setting up Steve Biko Housing Association, specialist in providing housing for elderly black and ethnic groups. He served as its Treasurer and Vice Chair. (1985)
He retired from Manganese Bronze and Brass Ltd in 1985 and threw himself into a wide range of more community work, purely on a voluntary basis. He further served in numerous voluntary roles, including Founder and Chair, Jamaica Merseyside Association; Board member, Independent Monitoring Board, Walton Prison; Race Discrimination and Employment Tribunal Member; President, Merseyside Caribbean Council; Treasurer, Merseyside Racial Equality Council; Chair, Comtechsa.
Herbie devised and launched, in 1991, the Afro Caribbean and Friends Lunch Club, a much appreciated luncheon club for senior citizens. This twice weekly club is run by volunteers and provides highly nutritious meals to senior citizens from across Merseyside.
In 1993 he received a Merit Award from the Federation of Black Housing Associations and wasawarded an MBE in 1996 for outstanding community services. He was presented with a Social Housing Lifetime Achievement Award In 2003 and was listed in the Diverse Magazine top 50 most influential black Merseysiders in 2008. In 2010 Steve Biko Housing named their new housing development on Mulgrave Street, Toxteth ‘Herbie Higgins Court’ in his honour.
The list of achievements prove that the world has lost a tireless fighter for social justice; we have lost an endlessly loyal champion of decent values. We have lost a man of selfless dedication to the people of Merseyside and beyond.
He was a man of immense wisdom. Even greater was his sensitivity to the needs of people, and he showed the greatest of courage, both throughout his public service and facing his illness. It was only fitting that he was awarded the Lifetime and Legacy Award at the 2011 Black Achievers Awards by the Merseyside Black History Month Group.
In the poem praise of a man we find words that speak to us about Herbie Higgins MBE:
The lights dim
but don’t vanish.
The razor edges dull,
But still cut.
but you can see
his tracks still,
In the snow of the world
Farewell Herbie Higgins MBE: 13th May 1929 – 9th November 2011