Charles Frederick Higham, the eldest of three sons of Charles Higham (1851–1885), a solicitor's clerk, and his wife, Emily Trigg Higham, was born at Walthamstow, on 17th January 1876. His father died when he was nine years old and soon afterwards his family emigrated to America. Higham left home at thirteen and after a series of different jobs he returned to England and found work with W. H. Smith, the newsagents.
According to his friend, Ethel Mannin: "At twenty-four he was a salesman earning three pounds a week; within two months he was earning ten pounds a week writing advertisements; within two years he was earning a thousand pounds a year as manager of one of America's largest department stores. By the time he was thirty he had had twenty-nine jobs. His own explanation of this was that he could never endure to stay long enough in one job to risk getting into a rut." Higham also claimed he was "sacked into success."
Higham eventually established his own advertising agency, Charles F. Higham Ltd. Nothing is known of his first marriage but he was described as a widower on his second marriage to Jessie Munro (1882–1925) on 15th December 1911. According to his biographer, Gordon Phillips: "Higham was a rumbustious, fiercely energetic, and indefatigable self-publicist, but though he understood the power of advertising, he failed to accept the growing trend for sophisticated market research." A friend claimed that "without that dynamic personality, that consuming egotism, that colossal faith in himself, he could not have risen from literally nothing to his present position."
During the First World War Higham was appointed to a government committee on recruiting, dedicated to encouraging patriotism. This included the production of posters such as Your Country Needs You by Alfred Leete. As director of the National War Savings Committee helped organize the victory loan campaign of 1917. Ethel Mannin has claimed: "The secret of Higham's success, of course, lies in the fact that he has always known what he wanted and gone straight for it; never been afraid of taking a risk, never minded starting over and over again at the bottom, and never lost courage or faith in himself when things have gone badly."
Higham became a member of the Conservative Party and in the 1918 General Election he was elected to represent South Islington in the House of Commons. He was awarded a knighthood for his war-work in 1921. He decided not to stand in the 1922 General Election. In 1924 Higham led a campaign in America to popularize tea-drinking. According to Gordon Phillips "It took that country by storm, and within weeks tea-shops were opening across the continent." In 1926 he helped establish the Advertising Association.
Ethel Mannin wrote in her autobiography Confessions and Impressions (1930): "Fifteen years ago Charles Higham made out a list of the things he wanted in life. There were five of them. A Rolls-Royce, a title, a seat in the House of Commons, a flat in Albany, and enough money to buy the comforts of life. In less than ten years he made all these dreams come true. Today he is left with nothing more to want. I think he was happier before he had everything. Today he gets what he wants without wanting it very much."
After the death of Jessie Higham he married Eloise Rowe Ellis (born 1895) on 20th August 1925. This marriage was dissolved and on 17th July 1930 he married Josephine Janet Keuchenius (born 1903). They had one son. This marriage was dissolved in April 1934, and he married Ruth Agnes Marian Neligan (born 1910) on 30th July 1936 and soon afterwards she gave birth to a daughter.
Charles Higham comes first in my gallery of full-length portraits of people who have interested me, for two reasons; one, because he represents the first striking personality I ever met, and two, because for force of personality I have never met anyone to equal him; for sheer individuality he stands head and shoulders above all the others. He has a dynamic quality which I have never found in the same degree of intensity in anyone else. When the first of my novels to attract attention, Sounding Brass, appeared, Fleet Street and the advertising world immediately fastened on it as a portrait of Higham. Higham himself used to go about saying, "Of course everyone knows it's me." Well, in some respects the personality of James Rickard and Charles Higham are one; Rickard forcing his way to success in life is Higham; and the Rickard storming up and down the office in the process of getting things done, but the analogy goes no farther.
Some aspects of the advertising world amused me, and in that book I deliberately satirized it - for the hot-air in the advertising world I have an amused contempt, but for the most outstanding figure in the advertising world I have nothing but the most sincere respect and admiration and affection. In many ways I think I admire Higham more than anyone I know. We are in some respects very much the same kind of people. I do not mean that we share the same aesthetic tastes, or that I believe in all this Better Spirit in Business and Hands-Across-the-Sea stuff which is the breath of life to him, but we are alike in that we both know what we want of life and set out to get it by the most direct route and with unfaltering determination. We are alike in our singleness of purpose, in the lowliness of our beginnings, and in our pride in being self-made. We both began at zero and had to work our way to where we each stand today in our respective professions.
Fifteen years ago Charles Higham made out a list of the things he wanted in life. There were five of them. A Rolls-Royce, a title, a seat in the House of Commons, a flat in Albany, and enough money to buy the comforts of life. In less than ten years he made all these dreams come true. Today he is left with nothing more to want. I think he was happier before he had everything. Today he gets what he wants without wanting it very much.
I know of nobody who has had a more remarkable career. He has done "everything," from standing on street-corners without money, food, or lodgings, to serving in the American Army during the Spanish-American war, despite the fact that he was British born. His whole life-story has been one of violent contrasts. When he was eleven he wore a little velvet suit and presented a bouquet to royalty at Euston; when he was thirteen he was cleaning the windows of a chemist's shop in America. The first time he went to America he went steerage, and the second time he travelled in a suite-deluxe on the fastest ocean liner afloat.
He was born in London within sound of Bow Bells, left school at eleven, and went with his parents to America when he was thirteen. He wanted to be an actor and became a book-keeper. It is typical of Higham's audacity that he once accepted a job which involved touring America on a bicycle without being able to ride a bicycle. At twenty-four he was a salesman earning three pounds a week; within two months he was earning ten pounds a week writing advertisements; within two years he was earning a thousand pounds a year as manager of one of America's largest department stores. By the time he was thirty he had had twenty-nine jobs. His own explanation of this was that he could never endure to stay long enough in one job to risk getting into a rut....
At the age of thirty the vicissitudes of his life - a story in itself - found him back in London with precisely twelve pounds between himself and the next twist of circumstance. Characteristically he put up at one of the best hotels in town. He had to do it, he says, lest he lose faith in himself. It is part of his psychology that he thinks in terms of success. He did not in the least know what his next move was to be. He had no influence, no capital beyond his twelve pounds, a magnetic personality, a brain quick with ideas, and a terrific belief in himself and his potentialities. He had the germ of power within him, and he knew it, but it had to find an outlet. He believed then as now that the world is run by ideas ; then as now he saw the press as the most potent power in civilization. He had this knowledge, this realization, and twelve pounds....
In the Strand that day, wandering, wondering what to do, looking for work-any kind of a job that would tide him over-he encountered the late James Murray Allison, who invited him to dinner with a few other young men who were later to become forces in Fleet Street. The party was a late one - so late that it wound up, at Higham's suggestion, with a breakfast party at his expensive hotel. This breakfast party cost the host eleven pounds, four shillings and sixpence - so that out of his precious twelve pounds he had fifteen shillings and sixpence left.
As a result of this party he had an introduction to the manager of an advertising agency. He went along and applied for a job; he asked for ten pounds a week - and was refused. At parting he told the manager that in a year's time he would offer him, Higham, not ten pounds a week, but twenty. And one year later he did.
It all sounds incredible, but then the whole of Higham's amazing career is incredible. The day after that breakfast party and that "turn-down" he applied for another job, with another advertising agency, and this time he was taken on - at five pounds a week. At the end of six weeks he was discharged. His chief said he was "no salesman." Two days later he applied to the same chief for a job as manager - and got it.
The secret of Higham's success, of course, lies in the fact that he has always known what he wanted and gone straight for it; never been afraid of taking a risk, never minded starting over and over again at the bottom, and never lost courage or faith in himself when things have gone badly.