Monday 18 March 2024

Les Higgins, Forgotten wargamers Four.


Having very kindly been given a couple of beautiful 30mm Les Higgins figures by Iain Macmillan I thought I should put something together about the man who sadly died before he reached his full potential. 




The story of Les Higgins is provided by and with the permisson of, VINTAGE20MIL  a site for all wargamers who enjoy knowing where we came from.

Designer Les Higgins and architect and builder Brian Marlow founded Les Higgins Miniatures in 1967. "I’d been modelling since I was about ten," Marlow recalls, "and in the early sixties I formed a model soldier club in Wellingborough with a few other enthusiasts. That was how I met Les". Higgins, a trained sculptor and patent-maker, was at that time working for the toy company Mettoy.

"I went to Mettoy from Northampton School of Art in 1957 or 58," Tim Richards, who would later design for Les Higgins Miniatures and the company that succeeded it Phoenix Model developments recalls, "I worked in the design studio as Les’s apprentice. We were mainly doing vinyl, squeaky toys. Les was a keen military modeller and he saw the figures that had started to come on the market around that time and thought, "I can do better than that".

Higgins had begun making 20mm figures in the late 1950s. His first efforts were a range of English Civil War soldiers. The figures — which are smaller than the later 20mm ECW range and slightly differently posed and accoutred (the cavalry have no hats, for example) - were drop cast and it was possible for enthusiasts to order armies of them and pay via subscription. A friend of Higgins, George Hanger, helped with administration of the fledgling business.

When Higgins teamed up with Marlow and went full-time he redesigned the 20mm ECW figures for centrifugal casting and they became the nascent company’s opening releases. Critical reaction to them seems to bear out the designer’s opinion that he could do a better job than most. Charles Grant noted "They are splendid types and in the 20mm scale at the moment there is nothing better on the market". John Garratt calls them "exquisite" and even the not so easily impressed John Cross of Scale Models concludes, "The finest 20mm figures it has been my privilege to handle".

The figures justify the plaudits. Beautifully detailed, flattish and noticeably smaller than Hinton Hunt they have a rare dash and charm to them.

The new company was initially based in Higgins’ home village of Hardingstone, Northamptonshire and later moved to Wellingborough. Shortly afterwards they took up residence in Earls Barton in a tiny building nicknamed "the stone caravan".

A 20mm Marlburian range including grenadiers, musketeers, cavalry and artillery was added in 1970. Reviewing these Armchair General magazine noted that they were "definitely not to be excelled in this scale". And Grant waxes enthusiastically, "The [Marlburian] cavalry especially are absolutely exquisite. " Not to be left behind Airfix Magazine waded in with "The standard of all these [Les Higgins figures] is exemplary, better than most we’ve seen".

I only have a few Les Higgins figures, all from his JASON range, all beautiful figures in 30mm and a joy to paint..





 

A 25mm Napoleonic range by Higgins was a 1971 addition. These are "true" 25mm, compatible with early Garrison and Minifigs and just a couple of millimetres taller than Hinton Hunt. Around the same time Marlow, with some help from Higgins, produced a 25mm Sudan War range of five British infantry, five highlanders and a 21st lancer, 2 "fuzzy-wuzzies", 2 dervish infantry and a dervish cavalryman. The figures are up to the usual high standard though, "For some reason all my officers are left-handed," he says.

The 25mm figures have rectangular bases (most of the 20mm are on round ones). The underside of the earlier figures carries the words "Les Higgins. England" in copperplate script. Later figures have PMD and the serial number stamped on them. Originally sold individually, the company soon switched to a packs system.


Les Higgins Miniatures also made the "Jason" range of 30mm English Civil War and Marlburian figures. "The smaller figures were good, but I think the 30mm English Civil War figures were really Les’s finest work," Marlow comments.

Garratt says that Higgins also designed figures for Norman Newton Ltd, including in 56mm a figure of Henry VIII and Lady Jane Grey. Marlow does not believe that is the case, however, "Les did some jewellery and some sculptures for other people but he only did figures for us," he says.

Higgins, who had suffered from long-term health problems, died in 1972, aged 49. "Les’s death came at a time when the company was really starting to take off," Richards says, "They’d struggled with production problems and all sorts at the start, then just when things were beginning to go well…."

In Wargamer’s Newsletter Don Featherstone wrote, "[Les Higgins] was a most likeable person of the greatest integrity whose figures were even admired by his rivals. The wargames world and indeed the world of model soldier collecting has lost a great artist".

Marlow changed the company name to Phoenix Model Developments and Tim Richards who had been moonlighting for the company for some while left Mettoy to become chief designer.

A number of additions, designed by Richards, were made to the 25mm Napoleonic range during this time including British and French heavy cavalry and horse artillery. "I was basically finishing off ranges Les had begun," Richards says, "I think I might have done some of the 20mm English Civil War range as well".

A new Ancient range of Persians and Greeks was also produced, designed by Steve Farmer another Mettoy denizen ("They didn’t pay much at Mettoy," Marlow recalls, "and designing the figures to go with the James Bond Aston Martin wasn’t exactly a challenge. I think everyone was desperate to get out"). This latter range was released in January 1973 and made up of Greeks and Persians. A range of military vehicles in 4mm scale was also issued under the name Renown. The latter were designed by John Hanscomb.

In 1977 Phoenix moved to large new premises in a former shoe factory in Earls Barton. By now the company was becoming well known for its 54mm figures, particularly those of scantily clad women from the Phantasy and Atlantis ranges which delighted teenage readers of Military Modelling (well, this one anyway) and along with dolls house furniture would come to dominate the company’s output.

It was shortly after the move that production of wargames figures ceased. "The problem was that ours were true 25mm and true 20mm. They didn’t fit in with the other ranges that had become popular like Hinchliffe" Marlow says.


For some considerable time the firm of Les Higgins Miniatures has been very well known - and deservedly so - for its series of model figures in the 20mm., 30mm., and 54mm sizes - and frequently one would hear regrets being expressed that there was no extension into periods other than the English Civil War and the wars of Marlborough - I'm speaking of the wargaming size of figure, the first mentioned, of course. My own view was that the Marlborough figures particularly were of an extremely high standard, mounted and foot types as well, and to be honest, on not a few occasions 'Corporal John's' long-coated grenadiers and musketeers found themselves transported half a century or so through time to the later era of the Seven Years War, wherein they fought most doughtily and at the same time performed quite another function, that of showing up the relatively mediocre quality of the other troops with whom they marched. Of course, the Les Higgins figures of the other sizes and periods - with which we are not concerned at the moment - were equally excellent, and in the 54mm range I have an especially high regard for the portrait model of Charles I and for the 16th century French arquebusier. However, as I say, it is not these with which we are at the moment concerned, but rather with the new enterprise undertaken by the firm - a most welcome excursion into a size and periods both quiet new to it - the former being 25mm and the latter not only the ever popular Napoleonic but British Colonial as well. For some reason I cannot quite explain, this size - the 25mm - seems to have been pretty well accepted as a standard size for wargames, or at least as nearly standard as one can expect to get in this: most individualistic of hobbies.


It was to be expected, I suppose, that the new 25mm figures would follow the traditional path into the armies of the Napoleonic Wars, but let us mention first the other line, the types for British Colonial warfare, to be specific, the Sudan in 1898 and the expedition of that year. This period does not seem to be among the most popular among British wargamers, but surprisingly enough - to me, at any rate - it has a very considerable number of devotees in the U.S.A. (where, if I'm not mistaken, Jack Scruby Miniatures first produced figures for colonial warfare some years ago). And this despite what one might imagine are American views of British colonialism in the 'bad old days'.



At the moment, the Les Higgins colonial figures are less numerous than their Napoleonic fellows, and, naturally enough, consist of British troops - horse and foot - and 'Fuzzy Wuzzies' and Dervishes, likewise foot and mounted. The British representatives are line infantry and Highland infantry - both with the typical pith helmet - in what are the firm's standard four attitudes - 'at the ready', 'advancing', standing firing' and 'kneeling firing'. The last two are not of great interest to me personally - it is a simple idiosyncrasy that I don't like figures in violent postures or firing attitudes, but there, that's just me. Officers, again, all seem to be left handed, or at least they are firing pistols with this hand. But these are quite definitely all my 'gripes' - the finish, moulding and general overall appearance of the figures are quite beyond criticism. Quite simply, I have seen nothing better the detail would do credit to very much larger figures and that's a fact. The British cavalryman - a lancer, naturally, with Omdurman in mind - is an admirable action piece. He comes without lance, but one made from piano or florist's wire can easily be fixed in place - no trouble there. The Fuzzy-Wuzzies - running or advancing - with spear and shield, are most aggressive looking characters (and, dare I whisper it, could well figure in certain 'ancient' armies, say the Carthaginian!), while the Dervish' horseman, with huge leaf-bladed sword, looks most impressive.






My latest Les Higgins figures donated by Iain Macmillan, my go to provider of Les Higgins figures.



4 comments:

  1. A really interesting read and what lovely figures, both the ECW and Marlburian are really very nice figures, what a shame he passed so early it would have been interesting to see where he went with his company.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One of the issues, yet again was that the original figures were 20mm. In the early days of wargaming several sculptors copied the Airfix scale which was 20mm ish. But then we got scale creep pretty rapidly from 25mm to 32mm and beyond sometimes. Mini Figs and Hinchliffe became the go to scales.

      Delete
  2. They have that slim look you get with the old 20mm plastics, instead of that 'well-fed' look you get with more modern 28mms! I wonder if they are a touch fragile? Lovely figures.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't recall ever having seen any of those figures, but no doubt for the time they were fine. Times move forward though and tastes change of course and figure design and expectations with them. They strike me now as primitive, rather like Peter Laing 15mm? But, you like them for nostalgic reasons, so my opinion is irrelevant.

    ReplyDelete

My 6mm Napoleonic set up.

My 6mm Napoleonic set up.
Austria 1809.

Austrian Hussars

Austrian Hussars
Hinchliffe figures

Austrian Grenzer

Austrian Grenzer
Austrian Grenzer

Smoggycon 2013

Smoggycon 2013
Smoggycon 2013

Smoggycon 2012

Smoggycon 2012
Smoggycon 2012

Smoogycon 2009

Smoogycon 2009
My French getting another beating