Trish Caird looks at the life of Mary Barbour, leader of the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike - a movement that was principally led, organised and executed by women
From April this year, one hundred thousand Scottish people living in social housing will be affected by what Nicola Sturgeon describes as ‘one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation introduced in Scotland since the poll tax’. This legislation – the bedroom tax as it is becoming known – means that from the first of that month, people on Housing Benefit who live in a property with more bedrooms than they need for their household will have their benefit cut by 14 percent for one spare bedroom and 25 per cent for two. Throughout Scotland there is a groundswell of protest rising against this latest in a long line of iniquitous assaults to what most people regard as a social right and entitlement: the right to adequate housing. For the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society this basic human right is provided by low rent municipal housing.
Such rights have not always been codified in legislation. Before the First World War housing conditions for people were seen as a commodity rather than a necessary right and members of the working-class lived in overcrowded, dilapidated, damp and squalid conditions. As early as 1885 Glasgow militants were campaigning for decent municipal housing in the city and by 1914 the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association – whose aims were the improvement of tenement homes – was formed. But it took the anvil and hammer of the onset of war and its consequence of the need for more workers into the munitions industry, the loss of workers who joined the army and the influx of thousands of immigrants into already overpopulated, crumbling areas to foment social tensions among the working class to breaking point. Additionally, financial stresses of increased costs of living were felt by working class families but it was the actions of rapacious landlords, who saw an opportunity to increase their rents more often, that caused latent indignation to rise. Evictions for arrears of rents – especially for the families of men who ‘took the King’s shilling’ – provided additional sources of moral outrage, especially when the rhetoric from the Conservative/Liberal coalition Government of the day was that everyone had to make sacrifices.
Although not alone in the struggle for social justice and decent social housing, Glasgow became the most overcrowded city in Britain and a centre of class conflict where many figures came to political prominence. Men such as William Gallacher, John Wheately and John MacLean, but also women such as Agnes Dollan, Jessie Stevens and Helen Crawfurd, all Marxists and members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP).
In the three years before 1915, Glasgow’s population increased by just fewer than seventy thousand; – mainly with Irish and Highlander immigrants – but less than two thousand tenements were built. The landlords found themselves in a situation where demand far exceeded supply and they reacted to the glut of potential new renters in the most callous fashion: increasing rents at little notice and evicting anyone who fell into arrears in the sure knowledge that the space would be re-rented instantly. In a renowned incident in March 1915, a landlord instructed his henchman factor to evict a woman: a wife of a soldier who had fallen into rent arrears totalling one pound. When the henchmen arrived to enact the eviction (or poinding as it is known in Scotland) they were confronted by several hundred angry neighbours headed by John Wheately. The factors withdrew in disarray but events like these were used in the propaganda war by the activists who portrayed the landlords and their accessories as unpatriotic ‘spies’: the ‘Hun at home’.
Soon after arriving in Govan in 1896, a newly married Engineer’s wife, Mary Barbour became active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) where she met those other activists noted above and who were collectively to become known as the ‘Red Clydesiders’. By April 1915, she had become the focal point of arguably one of the most important social protest movements in the history in Britain: the Glasgow rent strikes. Having previously become leader of the Tenants Defence Association, Mary Barbour, charismatic and skilled organiser as she undoubtedly was, and knowing that the men working in the yards were unable to strike due to wartime legislation, then turned to the ordinary working class women in Linthouse in Glasgow to raise the standard against the horrendous living conditions and heinous rent increases imposed by the shameless landlords.
The first of the strikes began in the April of that year and Govan was to become and remain the bastion of the struggle. Mary became a well known figure calling her ‘troops’ to her meetings: large and small, in kitchens, in closes, and in backcourts by creating a raucous clatter with her football rattle. In every window of every house there were 1/d notices which read: ‘We are not removing.’ Within weeks thousands of notices were displayed in street after street. Soon all of Glasgow was involved: from Parkhead to Govan, Pollokshaws to Calton.
Demonstrations were organised. Mrs Barbour understood the importance of respectability and decorum during these marches. Demonstrators – men, women and children – all presented themselves in good order, wearing their best ‘Sunday’ clothes, many carrying homespun placards declaring, for example:
Partick Tenants’ Strike
Our Husbands, Sons and
Brothers are fighting the
Prussians of Germany
We are fighting the Prussians of Partick
The threat of a poinding notice and eviction was a constant concern and strategies to prevent them were put into place. A single woman who lived in the close was posted as sentry, allowing everyone else to go about their normal daily business. When the Factor was spotted the sentry would give warning by ringing a bell. Immediately everyone within the building would run to defend their neighbour against the Factor carrying their weapons of choice: flour, peasemeal, wet clothes, rotting food; whatever they had to hand. Mary Barbour and her other comrades organised the women so effectively that Willie Gallacher coined the protesters ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’. The Factors were not above attempting their own ploys of divide and rule to fool the women into paying the increases. On one occasion where they were successful in their bluffs Mrs Barbour rounded up the men from the yards, and led them to the factor’s office and demanded the money be returned. On being presented with a large crowd of angry shipbuilders the Factor decided that retreat was the better part of valour and returned the money forthwith.
By November 1915 twenty thousand households throughout Glasgow were on rent strike. The situation came to a head when forty-nine strikers were served with court citations on the 17th of November. Accompanying them were thousands of marchers who demonstrated outside the City Chambers in George Square and at the Courthouse. The trade unions had become officially involved by this point stating that,
“The temper of the men was such that, in the event of wholesale evictions taking place… they would not hesitate not only to prevent evictions, but to influence Parliament by every other means in their power” (William Reid, shop steward and tenants’ leader)
By this, they meant strike action. It was this coordinated community action between industry and home that was the real strength of the Rent Strike’s success, but it was a movement that was principally led, organised and executed by women: women like Mary Barbour.
By the end of the demonstration that day, the landlords’ court actions lay in tatters and all legal actions against the striker tenants collapsed. Rents were frozen at pre-war levels and on 25th November, a Rent and Mortgage Interest Restriction Bill was introduced by Parliament. Royal Assent was quickly given on 25th December. Mrs Barbour’s Army had won.
The 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act commonly called the Addison Act codified for the first time a programme of council housing for the shelter and well being of manual workers throughout the UK. This Act was to become both the beginning and the peak of council housing reform in Britain. In the century that followed, succeeding Governments watered down and debased the original concept of well built low cost municipal housing, constantly introducing new legislation to hamper the Act’s effectiveness. The 2013 Bedroom Tax is just the last in a long line of iniquitous legislation to be inflicted upon the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. After all, what constitutes a ‘bedroom’ in Law? That question is now being asked of everyone in society, especially our political representatives.
To resurrect those heady days of almost a century ago would require, I submit, just as big a commitment from every community in every part of Britain. Only then can municipal housing and the ideals enshrined within the Addison Act be rekindled.
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