Drew Clode was privileged to spend some time earlier this month talking to Ted Higgins, former director of social services for the LB of Wandsworth, who has just turned 100 years old. He talked about the characters he worked with; the politicians he worked for; the struggles of the day, and the clients he served. Read the interview below and download an autobiography here. 

 

TED HIGGINS OBE GOES back a long way. A very long way. A hundred years back in fact, and if you’re one of those who thinks that life begins at 50 and ends at 80, meet him, and prepare to have your opinion seriously challenged!

As he crosses the threshold into his second century, this former director of social services for the London Borough of Wandsworth shows few, if any, signs of that great age. His eyes and wit sparkle; his memory is firm, and his experience and wisdom permeate every moment you spend with him.

Let him take you back to his early years in north west London’s Willesden when a visit to the doctor cost a shilling (2/6 if he had to visit you), and having a tooth pulled by a dentist a shilling as well (2/6 if you wanted anaesthetic!).

His first job in local government with the old London County Council in 1932 was as an `overconfident’ (“There are other words for it!”) junior clerk. 

He saw service in the navy during the war, returned to the LCC, took Bar examinations and was called to Bar in 1955 by Hartley Shawcross. As it happened, this coincided with the day his ultimate successor in Wandsworth, Leo Goodman, was called as well, though they didn’t meet until Leo became clerk of the local juvenile court.

He was appointed as the first Seebohm director of social services in 1971 after serving as the council’s children’s officer since 1965. Seebohm is a name that crops up frequently when you talk to Ted. The battle for Seebohm and the intense determination to carve a separate, distinctive local authority department focused pretty well exclusively on the care and welfare of children.

Some of the town clerks – chief executives of their day – were fixed on absorbing that focus in with the education and health functions. Was it a battle they won 40 years later with the re-birth of the children’s department? If the death of the Seebohm experiment occurred then, anyone studying its birth needs to listen to Ted! “They were trying to bung children’s education and health all into one enormous dept. I wanted an organisation that was mainly concerned with children and social work.”

He got it in the end.

In those early years Ted represented London directors and their views on how the fledgling service should develop. And as the early ADSS emerged from the 1968 report and the 1971 legislation (See http://bit.ly/1C4rvfR) Ted’s fate, and the future of social work, were forged alongside such luminaries as John Rea Price (LB Islington) and Wally Harbert (LB Hackney then Avon) both of whom he knew. Nationally he was aware of the battle Tom White (Coventry’s first Seebohm director) was fighting on behalf of the new Department, and the new Association. He was also a contemporary of Dennis Allen whose experiences in East Sussex with the Maria Colwell case was to transform radically the context in which the emerging departments were to practise social work.

He pursued no higher office in the Association: “I was the chairman of the London branch. If you wanted to be President it involved the council paying for considerable hospitality. I knew Wandsworth wouldn’t put the money in. So I kept out of the national scene.”

His chair at Wandsworth was Joan (later Lady) Lestor and his first deputy was Mary Sugden. When she moved ultimately to take over LB Hackney she was replaced by Peter Westland who served as Ted’s deputy until moving on to the LB Hammersmith and Fulham, and thence to even greater things at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, one of the three forerunners of today’s Local Government Association.

Ted and Peter are still friends: Ted laughs: “Nowadays he’s hired by media training people to go and disrupt meetings. Mind you - he’s always been good at that, but now he gets paid for it!”

Ted retired in 1977 to spend a good 15 years involved in voluntary organisations, not keeping too close to his former borough (who, incidentally, are honouring his centenary by giving him tea in the mayoral parlour…). Looking back to his directorial years: “I’ve been appalled at the growth of a tick-box mentality and the gradual whittling away of discretion.  A social worker I recruited in 1967 was the daughter of one of the first people ever trained in the profession. She told me that she’d never encourage any of her own children to go into social work now.”

Another of his regrets is that maybe directors today don’t have the time to keep in close touch with their staff. “I went to an ex-colleague’s retirement party, and when I arrived he announced me as `the nation’s last shop-walking director’. My door was always open and I spent a lot of time visiting establishments. The staff knew me, and would stop me in the corridor and talk to me about the work they were doing.”

He respected his councillors, but “I don’t think they fully understood what we were doing. After all, we were looking after a minority group in the community with few votes. Councillors always have to look to the next election and on their election prospects.”

He lived through the period when London began to receive growing numbers of immigrants from the West Indies and the difficulties that the community’s differing views of child care sometimes led to. “Their family arrangements were quite different. If difficulties arose there was always someone else in the extended family ready to take care of the baby. Here, it was the local authority’s responsibility. This threatened to lead to a lot of problems in those early days.”

Would he do it all again? He smiles: a particularly twinkly smile. And says: “I never came home tearing my hair out. I had a fairly happy life.”

“That’s a yes then?

“Oh yes. I’d do it again given the same circumstances. You had to keep fighting against restrictions all the time. You had to fight your corner; keep on your toes. But it was always worth it in the end…”