Mary Rough Barbour (20 February 1875 – 2 April 1958) was a Scottish political activist, community leader and social policy pioneer, local councillor and magistrate who played an outstanding part in the Red Clydeside movement in the early 20th century.
She was born in the village of Kilbarchan, the third of seven children, to her father James Rough, a carpet weaver. In 1887, the family moved to the village of Elderslie and Mary gained work as a thread twister, eventually becoming a carpet printer. She married David Barbour in 1896 and the couple settled in Govan. She first became politically active after joining and becoming an active member of the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild. Her political activism began in earnest during the Glasgow rent strike of 1915, when she actively organised tenant committees and eviction resistance. Willie Gallagher dubbed the rent strikers “Mrs Barbour’s Army”. The government of the day could not withstand the pressure and by the end of 1915 the Rent Restriction Act was in place. The rent strike’s place in history was assured.
In 1920 she stood as the Labour candidate for Fairfield ward in Govan, and was elected to Glasgow Town Council, becoming one of the city’s first woman councillors. Until her retirement from the Council in 1931, she worked relentlessly on behalf of the working class of her constituency, serving on numerous committees covering the provision of health and welfare services, and led campaigns for free school milk, children’s playparks, municipal wash-houses and Glasgow’s first family planning clinic. From 1924-27 she served as Glasgow Corporation’s first woman Baillie and was appointed as one of the first woman magistrates in Glasgow.
She died, aged 83, in 1958. Her funeral took place at Craigton Crematorium in Govan. The song “Mrs Barbour’s Army” by Alistair Hulett is about Mary Barbour’s organisation of the 1915 rent strike. Mary Barbour was the subject of one of the “Not Forgotten” series of documentaries on Channel Four in 2007.
By 1914 Mary Barbour had become active in a range of organisations. She first joined the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild. This linked her to a platform campaigning against poverty and with specific policy demands to counter women’s poverty such as maternity benefit, education, the vote and a national minimum wage. At the same time the Guild offered its members training in organisation, and running and chairing meetings as well as addressing them – in effect, a political education.
Mary Barbour also became involved in the Socialist Sunday School and the Independent Labour Party and the home focus of her activity was Govan and Glasgow.
Glasgow’s scale and pell-mell industrial development into the “Second City in the Empire” contributed to its greatest social problem, housing. Overcrowding and tenement flats characterised the city’s housing. As Checkland points out “some 85 per cent of Glasgow’s population were born, raised, laboured and died in their world of tenements”.
Housing became central to Labour campaigning from the 1890s onwards. By 1914 Mary Barbour had become the “leading woman in Govan” within the newly formed Glasgow Women’s Housing Association set up “to bring women of all political parties into the agitation and drive for better housing in Glasgow”.
Women’s Peace Crusade
Socialist groupings such the ILP and the Labour and Socialist Alliance campaigned for peace from the day war started right up to the armistice. The war split the women’s suffrage movement. Both the militant (Women’s Social and Political Union) and constitutional (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) suspended campaigning for votes for women in favour of supporting the war effort. The Women’s International League (WIL) was formed on a cross-party basis in 1915 to offer a space to anti-war suffragists. According to Helen Crawfurd, it carried out important propaganda work, “Mrs Agnes Dollan, Mrs Barbour, Miss Walker, Mrs Ferguson and myself being the local propagandists”.
However, this same group of “more active spirits” went on to found the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC) on 10 June 1916. The aim was “to hold a conference and take greater risks in our literature and propaganda methods”. The “risks” involved taking an anti-war message out onto the streets and into working class areas. The risks were very real: people were sent to prison on sedition charges, and campaigners were subjected to physical and verbal abuse.
Over a three-week period in 1917 meetings were held in Partick, Maryhill, Bridgeton, Parkhead, Govan, Govanhill, Shettleston, Barrhead, Springburn, Possilpark, Bellahouston, Rutherglen, Paisley, Overnewton, Cambuslang, Clydebank, Renfrew, Kirkintilloch, Dumbarton, Whiteinch, Blantyre, Alloa, Cowdenbeath, Drongan, Drumpark, Douglas Water, Lanark and Edinburgh. Most of the meetings were held during the afternoon and often in back courts, making it easy for women to get involved.
Mary Barbour was a regular speaker at WPC rallies and spoke at the May Day rally in 1917. She may have been more restrained in her WPC activity than Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan who were arrested on a number of occasions (after one demonstration outside the Glasgow City Chambers, when the City Corporation refused to see their delegation, Crawfurd and Dollan broke into the building and showered councillors with leaflets). Or perhaps Mary Barbour avoided arrest because the authorities recognised her huge popularity from the rent strike, and feared a massive public outcry if she had been arrested.
Like the rent strike the WPC focused on housewives including married women whose husbands and sons had been killed in the war. The emphasis was on the family. At demonstrations women, men and children marched in separate contingents. The children would carry banners bearing such slogans as “I want my Daddy”.
Unsurprisingly WPC meetings were frequently targeted by pro-war opponents. For example, its meetings at the Aberdeen by-election in 1917 were broken up by “many members of the Gay Gordons”:
“How many of these young fellows lived to realise that we were correct one sometimes wonders? This Scottish Regiment suffered serious casualties in the First World War.”
The WPC did not stop the war but by the time the war ended it had over 100 branches and its propaganda work must have honed the platform and organisational skills of its leaders, including Mary Barbour. The ILP acknowledged this in 1920 when it selected Mary Barbour as one of their municipal candidates for the Fairfield ward in Govan.
Councillor, Baillie, Magistrate and Social Reformer
The focus on working class housewives continued into the municipal election campaign in 1920, one of the first elections after some women over 30 won the vote and Lloyd George had made the memorable post-war promise of “Homes fit for Heroes”. The Govan Press reported Mary Barbour as saying “she was asking the working class to send her to the Town Council to look after the domestic side of Town Council works” and she outlined what amounts a household manifesto:
“The working class had perforce to eat much adulterated food but if there had been a labour administration in the Town Council there would have been less of that food. She advocated a municipal milk supply in order to secure for the working classes a supply of pure milk. The candidate also expressed her intention to press for the abolition of wash-houses and the provision of public wash-houses where the working woman could have the advantage of all modern labour saving devices. …She wanted wash-houses provided so that the working-class woman could take the washing out of the house and bring it back ready for putting away in a drawer. She also intended to advocate that closes and common stairs be washed daily, but not by the working class mothers but by women sent by the Sanitary Department to do the job. She would also be in favour of setting up child welfare centres where young children could play instead of having to remain in a tenement.”
An article that she wrote for the Pioneer continues the women and housing theme “looking to the future, when housekeeping as we know it, with all the little utensils and wasteful methods of lighting and heating, washing and cooking, that at present make the house-mother little more than a household drudge, will be a thing of the past”. Her article concluded:
“The standard must be higher; better housing, and everything that makes life what it should be in the future must come first; the paying for it is the secondary consideration. Lloyd George has advised that you be daring in your demands. I hope the workers will be greatly daring in their demands, not only for better homes, but for a higher standard of living generally.”
At the election she and four other women were elected to Glasgow Corporation, the first women elected in the city since the passing of the 1907 act allowing women to be elected and to act as town or county councillors.
Eleanor Stewart was elected as ILP councillor for Maryhill whist Jessica Baird-Smith, Mary Bell and Mary Anderson Snodgrass were elected as Moderate councillors. The Govan Press hailed Mary Barbour as “Govan’s first women councillor” but said that “her work will be closely scrutinised”.
A week later the paper sought her first impressions of the Corporation. She had already found that the work was done in the committees, not at the Council meeting and that:
“The women had plenty of work to do and from now on would be in the Council Chambers every day.”
Her practical focus on improving everyday life is illustrated by the remarkable Govan scenes in 1924 over the arrival of “Cheap Fish. … Councillor Mrs Barbour’s Idea to Prevent Waste”:
“From time to time there have been serious complaints about wastage of food in Glasgow, particularly fish. There are generally two sides to a story, and while the fish vendors claimed that the fish allowed to go to waste was small ‘sprats’ that should never have been taken out of the water and could not be disposed of to traders in the normal manner. Councillor Barbour and others who shared her views thought it a scandal that the ratepayers should have to pay to have food destroyed in the city destructors while many of the citizens could not get enough to eat. She contended that she would find people who would eat such fish, and on Tuesday, to prove her words, she was offered and accepted two boxes of these small fish. The boxes were sent to Govan, and within fifteen minutes they had been entirely disposed of.
On Wednesday Mrs Barbour agreed to buy another at 2s each another dozen boxes of the small fish and the Executive of the Housing Association rallied round to help her dispose of the fish. Instead of only twelve boxes, twenty-four were actually sent to Govan, and there ensued in Langlands Road scenes baffling description. Women flocked to the stances where the fish was being sold, and for three ha’pence received a great bundle that was nominally supposed to weigh two pounds. The entire twenty-four boxes were disposed of, and so far as can be learned, none of the purchasers burked about the smallness of the fish offered. They were perfectly contented with what they had received.”
In 1924 Mary Barbour marked other milestones for women in public office when she became both a Bailie and a magistrate. Her party colleague Patrick Dollan told the press that “he was pleased to have the distinction of introducing the first fully fledged woman magistrate of the City of Glasgow”. The Glasgow Herald reported on her first session:
“The calendar was a light one. Two men who admitted having been intoxicated were dismissed with no admonition, while a woman whose offence was similar was advised to go home and attend to her family and household duties.”
Her focus on families continued and in November 1926 she saw the opening of the new Elder Park Child Welfare Association. She had evidently co-operated with the Moderate councillor, Violet Roberton to get the Clinic in place. Speaking at the opening Mary Barbour informed the audience the Committee had been pioneers:
“They had been pioneers in more ways than one. It was not merely a child welfare centre, but an institution for ‘mother-craft’ – and ‘father-craft’, too. (Laughter.) Next evening … would see the first meeting for fathers, and she asked the health visitors to turn out and make the first ‘father-craft’ meeting a success.”
Her support for Glasgow’s first birth control clinic was more controversial. The Glasgow Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic opened in August 1926 at 51 Govan Road. It was reported that:
“The object of the Clinic is to give advice to all married women desiring information on the limitation of families. … A circular issued by the Clinic … states: – ‘We feel it to be of the utmost importance that this knowledge, which has long been in the hands of the rich, should be given to the poor also, for their benefit and well-being.’”
This was a position that went against the voting record of her Socialist MP colleagues, none of whom had supported the Birth Control Enabling Bill in 1922. The historian Annmarie Hughes has pointed out that:
“Most of the male leadership of the labour movement refused to consider promoting birth control [sometimes due to fear of alienating the Catholic vote]. In response socialist women simply defied the party line.”
The issue of birth control was one of the few issues on which she parted company with significant numbers of her ILP colleagues and it seems likely that she used the “respectability” of her own position as a married woman and city councillor and magistrate to assist in promoting the Advisory Clinic.
In 1931 Mary Barbour opted to stand down as a councillor at the age of 56 stating that she felt “the difficulties ahead required young and strenuous fighters”.
Was she despondent over the political direction after the Labour split over the formation of the National Government in August 1931? Were there particular local factors? Was she simply tired?
James Crawford replaced her as ILP candidate and was subsequently elected to the Corporation whilst eight women were elected to the Council (7.2%), two Moderate and six Labour. The Glasgow Herald reported that:
“An intriguing aspect of the election is that all the Labour women candidates met with success.”
Questions remain about why Mary Barbour stood down in 1931. Anyone who has information about this, or any aspect of Mary Barbour’s life or activities , is very welcome to get in touch. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org