Mrs Barbour’s army

FLORENCE BOYLE

This year marks the centenary of a series of rent strikes in Govan which resulted in one of Europe’s first rent restriction acts becoming law. A regular contributor to Open House recounts the life and times of the woman behind the rent strikes and highlights the campaign to have a memorial erected in her memory.

There are only three public statues of women in Glasgow; Queen Victoria (predictably) in George Square, Lady Elder (erected by her husband in Elder Park) and the wild card: La Pasionaria standing on the Broomielaw, overlooking the Clyde. These facts may be from a reservoir of trivia useful only on quiz nights but it is more than that. Public memorials speak to future generations about the people we value and the contributions we remember. So in Glasgow today, there are no female artists or writers or teachers or a representatives of what Glasgow has been most historically associated with, political activism.

A Govan based community group hopes to change all that by memorialising one of the city’s most famous community politicians, Govan’s Mary Barbour. The campaign’s public profile got a well-publicised boost in the last few weeks with a donation from one of Govan’s most famous sons, Alex Ferguson. Who was Mary Barbour and why should we remember her in this public way?

Mary Barbour was born in Ayrshire in 1875. Her family moved to Renfrewshire when she was 12 and by the time she was 14 she had left school and entered the workforce. By her early twenties Mary, like many of her contemporaries was married with children. After a brief residence in Dumbarton, where her infant son David contracted meningitis and died, Mary, her husband and surviving son moved to Govan where David began working in Fairfield’s shipyard as a fitter.

Soon after her arrival in Govan around 1899, Mary, although denied the franchise, became involved in local politics, first joining the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild and then the Independent Labour Party where she received her political education from many of the famous names of Red Clydeside. Twenty years later in 1915 Mary Barbour became famous herself as the focal point of one of the most famous social protests in the First World War period when she led the Glasgow Rent Strikes.

In the immediate pre-war period Glasgow’s housing in the inner city tenement areas like Govan and Partick was already described as congested. The situation was exacerbated by a pre-war influx of around 70,000 from the Highlands and Ireland and as war began, even more people gravitated towards Glasgow, attracted by the promise of work in the munitions factories and engineering works which had ramped up production to support the war effort.

House building could not keep pace with the demand and inevitably rents rose. Public unrest about housing conditions grew as landlords increased rent with little or no notice and summarily evicted any tenants who fell into arrears, however small they were. Power and the law were on the side of the landlords, comfortable in the certainty that they could rent to a queue of other tenants desperate to house their families.

Frustration at these injustices increased and matters came to a head in March 1915 with the eviction a serving, wounded soldier and his family in John Wheatley’s ward in Shettleston for rent arrears totalling no more than a pound. When the factors arrived to evict the family they were met by hundreds of supporters, led by Wheatley, who turned the factors away. This episode and many others like it were turned into propaganda by the protestors who characterised the landlords and their henchmen, the despised factors, as the enemy at home.

The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association was formed in 1914 in response to large rent increases in the first few months of World War 1. Other tenant protest groups formed, among them the South Govan Women’s Housing Association which Mary Barbour was instrumental in founding in 1915 with the specific aim to protect tenants from rent increases. These groups were predominantly female. Those men who had not left to fight in the war worked in industries where wartime legislation had restricted their rights to protest and strike.

The first of the strikes began in April 1915. Led by Mary, the tenants met in kitchens, tenement closes and backcourts and got organised. Supported by other leading figures like Agnes Dollan, Jessie Stevens and Helen Crawfurd, Mary organised the protesters so effectively that they were described as ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’. For more than seven months the predominantly female demonstrators set out to hijack the work of the sheriff officers, creating noise which attracted attention to their presence, flour bombing them from the upper floors of the tenement buildings, and all with one purpose in mind: to prevent families being evicted.

Committed as she was to direct action, Mary Barbour also recognised the value of public opinion and encouraged protesters during public marches to put their best foot forward. Protestors – men, women and children – arrived for marches on their best behaviour wearing their Sunday best, carrying placards which rammed home the message that the behaviour of landlords towards their tenants during wartime was akin to treason.

The strikes spread. By November 1915 twenty thousand households across Glasgow were on rent strike. Often centred on the main munitions centres of Partick, Govan, Shettleston, Ibrox and Parkhead, the authorities recognised that what had started as a protest against housing conditions had now changed into something more significant which represented a threat to the war effort itself.

In the same month, in an attempt to bring the strike to an end the authorities served 49 of the strikers with court citations. They turned up for Court accompanied by thousands of supporters who demonstrated in George Square. Support for the rent strikers had also spread to include the Trades Unions who threatened to take direct action to prevent the evictions and to ‘influence Parliament by every means in their power’. Faced with a classic standoff and a reluctant Sheriff, the authorities blinked first, withdrew the writs and dropped legal action against the rent strikers.

By the end of November Parliament passed one of Europe’s first rent restriction acts which restricted the level of rent increases landlords could impose. By December 1915 the legislation was law. Mary Barbour and her army had won.

Mary continued with her political activism, campaigning against the war itself. After the war she entered ‘official’ politics when she was elected Labour Councillor for the Fairfield ward. For the remainder of her public life she continued to fight for causes which most affected women and children including free school milk, children’s playgrounds, municipal washhouses and an end to slum housing.

When she died in 1958 her obituary in the Govan Press said that ‘there was never a more revered and loved local leader than she was in the heyday of her active life’. Sounds like someone who deserves a memorial.

You can contribute the Remember Mary Barbour campaign by donating via https://www.justgiving.com/r-m-b-a/

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