Memorial quilt for Terry Higgins – the UK’s first named person to die from AIDS-related illnesses – unveiled at The Festival of Quilts

Graham Robson August 3, 2023

A new memorial quilt paying tribute to Terrence (Terry) Higgins – the UK’s first named person to die of AIDS-related illnesses – is to be revealed today (Thursday, August 3) for the very first time at The Festival of Quilts in Birmingham’s NEC – four decades on from his death.

When Terrence Higgins (known as Terry) died at London’s St Thomas’ Hospital on 4 July 1982, his death sparked the creation of a charity in his name – Terrence Higgins Trust – that would alter the course of the HIV epidemic and save countless lives.

Making quilts to remember those lost to the AIDS epidemic became popular in both America and the UK in the 1980s and 1990s to ensure the dead were never forgotten and to help those left behind come to terms with their loss.

There are quilts for activist Mark Ashton, filmmaker Derek Jarman, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and writer Bruce Chatwin, as well as panels without a name because of intensity of stigma at the time. But until now there has never been a memorial quilt to remember Terry Higgins and the man he was.

That’s why, as part of a year’s worth of celebration to mark 40 years since its namesake’s death and incredible legacy, Terrence Higgins Trust has worked with The Quilters’ Guild to create a brand new eight-panel memorial quilt.

The project to create the Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt has been overseen by the charity’s co-founders Rupert Whitaker (who was Terry’s partner) and Martyn Butler, as well as Terry’s close friends Linda Payan and Maxine Saunders, who worked closely with talented quilters from across the UK.

Those visiting The Festival of Quilts will get to know Terry better than ever before through each of the eight panels celebrating different aspects of his character, including as a Welshman, gay man and his time in the Royal Navy. While two of the panels explore his working life as a Hansard reporter in Parliament by day and his evenings spent as a barman and DJ in London’s Heaven nightclub.

The final panel was made by service users, volunteers and staff from Terrence Higgins Trust to celebrate the huge progress made in the fight against HIV in the last 40 years. It features in blue stitching the stigma-busting message Can’t Pass It On, meaning that someone living with HIV and on effective treatment can’t pass it on to partners.

Each panel contains part of the heart motif which features in the charity’s logo – shared by Heaven nightclub where Terry collapsed and taken to hospital with an unknown illness back in 1982. When joined together, the heart is visible as a tribute to the love, compassion and care that has been integral to the HIV response – in the face of fear, hysteria and discrimination when activists and charities were left to fight for action, progress and people’s lives.

Four decades on Terrence Higgins Trust is the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity. Its life-changing work includes supporting people living with HIV, ensuring sexual and reproductive health is the national priority it needs to be and fighting to make the UK the first country in the world to end new HIV cases by the Government’s 2030 target.

The Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt is on display at The Festival of Quilts at Birmingham’s NEC from 3-6 August, 2023.

Richard Angell, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “The Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt has surpassed all of our expectations. It is a fittingly stunning tribute to Terry as a friend, lover, Welshman, gay man, activist and to his incredible legacy through our charity Terrence Higgins Trust.

“As well as celebrating Terry and the past 40 years, the quilt also celebrates how much progress has been made because of those who acted, including our co-founders Rupert Whitaker and Martyn Butler. We stand on their shoulders and today we’re fighting hard to ensure that the UK becomes the first country in the world to end new HIV cases – and, as always, doing so in Terry’s name.”

Rupert Whitaker OBE, co-founder of Terrence Higgins Trust, worked with quilter Paula Doyle on a panel with his tribute to Terry. He said: “This panel contains images of some of the most meaningful things connected with Terry: my favourite photo of him, his letters to me at uni, some song titles we used to dance to in Heaven, the clock he gave me for Christmas and the note he put in the back of it (which always makes me smile), my grandmother’s cottage in Boscastle where we stayed in the autumn and made crumble from freshly picked blackberries, and where, the following summer, I scattered his ashes in the Valency river nearby. It contains a sad, but beautiful, set of memories that bring him right back to me. I’m so grateful for the kindness and artistry of Paula, the quilter.”

Sarah Ashford, who worked on the quilt, said: “I feel so privileged to have been a small part of the quilt’s creation. There is something so powerful about being a small cog in a much bigger wheel. To be working collectively on a shared goal, and to create something that is so deeply personal to so many people can only be described as an honour.

“I have been so moved by the depth of feeling that people have towards Terry, Terrence Higgins Trust and the staff who do such important work to support those who need it the most.”