A People’s History of Scotland

In this final extract from A People’s History of Scotland, Chris Bambery reveals the range of protests during and opposition to the First World War that erupted in Scotland

Chris Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland (Verso), 320pp.

My paternal grandfather volunteered in 1915, lying about his age, alongside his two brothers; one lies still outside Ypres. As shale miners anything might have seemed better than what they were doing, and anyone who’s been to Tarbrax in Midlothian, where they lived, would understand the wish to escape. He would regret his youthful enthusiasm and was bitter about what he experienced. (My other grandfather objected to the war on religious grounds but when conscripted agreed to be a stretcher-bearer – he never talked about what he saw.) In the main, the workers’ organisation in Glasgow was anti-war but many felt the pressure of the jingoist agitation. Forward, despite its anti-war stance, was compelled to print a prowar column.[6] Yet it would not take long for social and economic issues to resurface.

Glasgow was notorious for its housing conditions, but a fresh influx of workers to fuel its armament factories added to the pressure. Rents were higher than elsewhere in the UK and, with accommodation in demand, landlords raised rents. Existing tenants, who could not afford the increase, faced eviction – even the families of those away a fighting in the trenches.

The government found in October 1915 that a third of rents had increased by 5 percent, while in ‘Govan and Fairfield, the centre of the storm, all the houses . . . suffered rent increases ranging from 11.67% to 23.08%’.[7] Across Glasgow and the west of Scotland a network of Independent Labour Party branches, tenants groups,

Co-operative Society branches, the Govan and Glasgow Trades Councils, trade union activists and socialists were able to organise a rising groundswell of discontent.[8] The Partick and Maryhill Press reported the 1915 May Day rally in Glasgow thus: ‘Over 165 labour and socialist organisations took part . . . and Glasgow Green was crowded with thousands of spectators. There were twelve platforms. Among those represented were those of the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children’s School and Women Trade Unionists.’[9]

Women took the lead in winning the single greatest victory notched up on Red Clydeside. One of the organisers of the rent strike, Helen Crawfurd, had been a radical suffragette jailed three times before the war for actions that included smashing the windows of the Ministry of Education in London and an army recruitment office in Glasgow. Seán Damer notes: ‘The Glasgow suffragettes had a tradition of militancy which included blowing up all the telegraph and telephone cables, cutting the wires around the city.’[10]

By October 1915, 15,000 refused to pay rent increases, and a month later it was 20,000. That month a factor took eighteen tenants to court, providing a focus for the movement, as Mrs Barbour’s women marched on the City Chambers. Tom Bell would write that en route: ‘The women marched in a body to the shipyard and got the men to leave work and join them in a demonstration to the Court.’[20] Forward estimated the crowd outside the City Chambers as being 4,000 strong.[21] John Maclean was among those who spoke, denouncing the evils of capitalism.[22] His arrival was unusual: ‘On their way from Govan one contingent marched to the school where John Maclean, already under notice of dismissal from Govan School Board, was teaching. He was taken out and carried shoulder high through the streets to the court.’[23]

Helen Crawfurd would remember: ‘I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men [from the shipyards]. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets to the Sheriff Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John Maclean . . . was one of the speakers, who from barrels and up-turned boxes, addressed the crowds.’[24]

The government in London was worried by the scale of the protests and that the eviction of rent strikers might be the spark for a walkout in the Clyde yards.[25] It responded quickly, hurrying through the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, which returned rents to pre-war levels. This was a major victory for working-class people of Britain, won by the working women and men of Glasgow.


[6] Gordon Brown, Maxton, Collins Fontana, 1988, pp. 58–59
[7] Iain McLean, The Legend of the Red Clydeside, John Donald, 1983, pp. 21–22
[8] Rob Duncan, ‘Independent Working Class Education and the Formation of the Labour College Movement in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, 1915– 1922’, in Robert Duncan and Arthur McIvor (eds), Militant Workers: Labour and Class Conflict on the Clyde 1900–1950, Essays in Honour of Harry McShane 1891–1988, John Donald, 1992, p. 107
[9] Ann and Vincent Flynn, ‘We Shall Not Be Removed’, in Laurie Flynn (ed.), We Shall Be All, Bookmarks, 1978, p. 22
[10] Seán Damer, ‘State Class and Housing: Glasgow 1885–1919’, in Joseph Melling (ed.), Housing, Social Policy and the State, Taylor and Francis, 1980, p. 104
[20] Gordon Brown, Maxton, pp. 145–46
[21] William Knox, ‘“Ours Is Not an Ordinary Parliamentary Movement”: 1922– 1926’, p. 159
[22] Ibid., p. 161
[23] Gordon Brown, Maxton, p. 154
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., p. 161

This article is an extract from A People’s History of Scotland  (pp.143-6)

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: