STANDING in the shadow of Ibrox, Govan is a part of Glasgow that has undergone intense change. Though traditional sandstone tenements still stand on many streets, smart new housing has sprung up, Govan Cross has been transformed and historic buildings have been converted into imaginative office accommodation and public spaces.
A century ago, however, the area was the definition of an urban slum; and as the First World War raged and shipyard and munitions workers poured into the city, it found itself at the centre of a fight-back against overcrowding and rapacious landlords.
The Glasgow rent strikes, which lasted from April to November 1915, when a regiment of women forced the government to take action, fixing rents at their pre-war rates, have been described by historian James Smyth as possibly “the most successful example of direct action ever undertaken by the working class”. For more than seven months, highly organised committees of women would ambush sheriff officers, hurling flour bombs or other missiles at them if they tried to evict non-payers. Leading the revolt was Mary Barbour, who held neighbours, munitions workers and shipyard bosses in her thrall. Barbour, who lived in Ure Street (now Uist Street), knew only too well the privations of slum dwelling and was determined to put the right to decent housing high on the agenda.
After the rent strikes, she became a councillor and – in the face of great opposition – opened the city’s first family planning centre. Her contribution was recognised by great socialist leaders including Willie Gallacher, who dubbed the rent strikers “Mrs Barbour’s Army”, and John MacLean. And the solidarity displayed by her and other housewives has had an enduring legacy, manifesting itself again when women banded together to stop dawn raids on asylum seekers in the city’s high rises in the Noughties. Yet, until recently, the achievements of those who fought against the landlords’ exploitation have been underplayed. While Gallacher and MacLean are household names, Barbour and the other heroes of the rent strikes faded into relative obscurity.
In the past couple of years, great efforts have been made to remedy this situation. The Remember Mary Barbour Association has been set up to raise money for a statue to be erected in Govan, and efforts are being made to ensure schoolchildren learn about the role she and others played in securing rights to better housing.
And now, as the city prepares to mark the centenary of the rent strikes, a programme of commemorative projects, lectures and film screenings has been launched by a range of organisations, including the Riverside Museum, the Govan Fair and the Glasgow Women’s Library.
The Glasgow rent strikes were a phenomenal example of people power. Between 1908 and 1914, the whole of the UK was in a state of upheaval known as the Great Unrest. In many parts of the country, this unrest dissipated as activists – be they trade unionists or suffragettes – put their grievances on hold for the sake of the war effort. But in Glasgow, the war merely fomented discontent. During the industrial revolution, the city had grown into a chaotic urban sprawl. With its large Irish-Catholic population and history of militancy, Glasgow was probably less susceptible to the jingoism that swept the rest of the country and, as an influx of workers poured into the tenements, tensions rose.
A shortage of workers meant maintenance was not being carried out and conditions declined. Yet, as pressure on housing grew, some landlords spotted an opportunity; believing rising demand would force tenants to pay up, they increased their rents. If they saw the female residents, many of whose husbands were fighting in France, as a soft touch, however, they underestimated the doughtiness of the characters involved and Barbour’s galvanising power.
Barbour was not from Govan. She was born the third of seven children to hand-loom weaver James Rough and his wife Jane Gavin in the village of Kilbarchan. The family later moved to Elderslie, where, at the age of 14, she become a carpet weaver like her father.
Historian Catriona Burness, who has been investigating the rent strikes for the Remembering Mary Barbour Association, says this upbringing meant she would have been surrounded by radicals. “In the early 19th century hand-loom weavers were part of an aristocracy of labour and linked to movements interested in revolutionary ideas: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Thomas Paine and Rights Of Man,” she says. “Later, hand-looming weavers shifted from being better-off members of the working class to being really squeezed out of the labour market through mechanisation, but at the same time there was still the tradition of radicalism and discussion groups.”
Barbour was also influenced by her experiences as a young woman in Dumbarton. When she married her engineer husband David in 1896, she was already pregnant. Their son contracted meningitis and died aged ten months. “The page that shows the death entry for Barbour’s child also shows the death entry for two other children from round about the same street over the same couple of days,” says Burness. “You have a situation where child mortality was high and it was linked to the conditions people were living in.”
By the time the Barbours arrived in Govan with two sons, aged ten and 14, in 1914, Barbour was already politicised. She joined the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and became active in the Socialist Sunday School movement.
Rents had started to rise steeply and in early 1914 the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association had been formed, but it wasn’t until March 1915 that things began to come to a head. A landlord instructed his factor to evict the wife of a soldier who had fallen into rent arrears of £1 in Govan. When the sheriff officer arrived to enact the eviction he was confronted by several hundred angry neighbours headed by John Wheatley, and retreated.
The fuse had been lit: as rent rises continued to be imposed, the women – led by Barbour and fellow radicals Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan – began to get organised. Tenants, while continuing to pay the rent, refused to pay the rises, and cards reading: “Rent Rises: We are not Removing” started appearing in people’s windows.
As tenants began to fall into arrears, the landlords moved to evict them, but the women were one step ahead; they posted a sentry armed with a bell or football rattle at every close. At the first hint of trouble, the alarm would sound and the women would pour out of their homes and pelt the sheriff officers with flour and wet clothes. The rent strikes quickly spread from Govan and Partick to the rest of Glasgow until, by November, 20,000 tenants were in arrears. Meetings were often held in closes, kitchens and back courts and there were large-scale demonstrations such as the one in October 1915 in Glasgow Green.
Then, in mid-November, one factor decided to prosecute 18 tenants in the small claims court to try to secure a wages arrestment order. One of those targeted was an engineer from the Dalmuir shipyard so angry workers downed tools and joined the protest. Ten thousand men and women marched to the city centre bringing the roads to a standstill. The Govan Press newspaper described “astonishing” scenes. “Headed by a band of improvised instruments, including tin whistles, hooters, and a huge drum, the procession aroused a good deal of interest,” it said. John MacLean demanded that the prime minister, HH Asquith, introduce legislation preventing any increase in rents for the duration of the war and warned that a failure to do so would result in a general strike.
In the circumstances, a general strike was unthinkable. As the place descended into chaos, the then chancellor, Lloyd George, agreed to a new law fixing rents at pre-war prices – the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act – which came into force before the end of the year.
“If the court had found against the tenants, they would have had to pay court costs out of their wages, so it was hugely courageous to take this on,” says Maggie Craig, author of When The Clyde Ran Red.
After the war, landlords tried to raise rents again and there were further strikes and disputes, but what the 1915 protests did was to establish a precedent for rent controls which continued to be applied to some rental agreements right up until 1989. After the war, with housing still scarce, Westminster passed the Addison Act 1919 which began the 20th century tradition of council houses.
One of the keys to the success of the Glasgow rent strikes was in the way it managed to combine domestic and industrial weight. But it was also due, in no small part, to Barbour’s personality: she was not only forceful, she was shrewd, understanding the importance of retaining an aura of respectability.
And she was able to command respect from men and women from diverse backgrounds. When rumours started circulating that John Dickson, managing director of Harland and Wolff, had been asking factors to look for empty properties for shipyard workers, Barbour persuaded him to write a letter quashing the speculation and expressing his support for the strike.
Later as councillor and Baillie, Barbour campaigned for steamies, public bath-houses and play parks, things that affected everyone’s quality of life but had never been priorities for male members. “She found the majority wanted to spend money on bowling greens not play parks,” says former MP Maria Fyfe, the chair of the association, who has been instrumental in raising Barbour’s profile. “I think of how, when I was in the House of Commons, I had to fight a campaign to get a children’s room, though there were umpteen bars. We eventually got it – the struggle goes on.”
As well as being shrewd, Barbour was also practical. Fyfe tells how, on hearing fish merchants were demanding that the corporation pay for the destruction of fish too small to be sold, she exclaimed: “There are people starving in this city and you are throwing away perfectly eatable fish.” Fyfe says: “She took a couple of boxes of fish down and put them on a trestle table in Govan and sold it for pennies. She came back the next day – [the merchants] gave her ten times what she asked for and it was still all taken up.”
Barbour’s most controversial act was the setting up of the family planning centre. Though intended for married women only, it was opposed by some within the ILP, which depended on the support of working class Irish-Catholics. “This was a crucial step to improving women’s health,” says Craig. “Many working class women had a baby every year and a lot of them had TB and shouldn’t have been having any more.”
Today, women are still making their presence felt politically, banding together in groups such as Women For Independence and campaigning for more affordable childcare and equal representation through the 50:50 campaign or against a super-prison and pay-day loan companies. And with much of the council house stock sold off (and a failure to invest in other social housing), the lack of affordable homes is once again high up the agenda. The bedroom tax was greeted by a grassroots uprising while, in London, landlords have raised rents sky-high, forcing local workers out.
Those involved in the campaign to commemorate Mary Barbour are careful not to be too political. They have raised around £25,000 towards the statue – including £10,000 from Glasgow Housing Association and £5,000 from Sir Alex Ferguson – but they need at least a further £60,000.
But on International Women’s Day, those behind the drive to mark her achievements are convinced she has much to teach 21st century rebels. “I was standing outside Oran Mor after Mrs Barbour’s Daughters [a play about her impact on succeeding generations] with my collecting bucket a while back, and the people coming out were all talking about how she was an inspiration for any struggle women are engaged in,” says Fyfe. “They were saying, ‘There are so many injustices in the world to address: let’s put some welly into it’.”
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