Les Higgins
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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".

  Line drawing of the Marlburian Command Group taken from the 1971 catalogue.  

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.

The company traded from the same premises in Earls Barton throughout the 1990s. Tim Richards left by mutual agreement in 1992 and in 2000 Brian Marlow decided to retire. Phoenix’s entire catalogue, including the 25mm ranges, was sold off to Jim Robinson of Rose Military Miniatures, Littlehampton (see also Rose Miniatures article). The figures are not currently in production but the company say they will be available again "at some point".

The 20mm ECW and Marlburian ranges meanwhile had been sold off ten years earlier to Keith Dennison at Rosedale Figurines (see also the John Niblett feature). "Though as far as I know they never did anything with them," Marlow says.

In the spring of 2003 we here at Vintage20Mil along with a trio of like-minded individuals bought the masters and the rights to produce both ranges. The original Marlburian figures along with a couple of new additions should be available sometime in 2004.

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