Mary Barbour & Rent Strike 1915

The Rent Strike 1915 and “Mrs Barbour’s Army”

After the First World War started in 1914, thousands of workers flocked to Glasgow to jobs in the shipyards and munitions factories.  Property owners calculated they could raise rents for tenement flats, thinking that as the demand for housing outstripped supply, if sitting tenants would not pay up others would. Besides, many men were away fighting or were bring held in German prisoner of war camps, and the landlords thought the women would be a soft touch.

Instead, fury was aroused.  Women were already campaigning against the poor maintenance of their dwellings and the greed of the landlords in failing to carry out repairs. The rent strike was the response.

Helen Crawfurd, who campaigned with Mary against the landlords, told how the women fought back:

“The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words ‘RENT STRIKE. WE ARE NOT REMOVING.’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increases were demanded.”

This is how they organised the resistance: one woman with a bell would sit in the tenement close, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff’s Officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the other women put down whatever work they were doing and hurried to where the alarm was being raised. They would hurl flour bombs and other missiles at the bailiff, forcing him to make a hasty retreat.  It is said they even pulled down his trousers to humiliate him!

Mary Barbour was involved in every aspect of activities from organising committees to the physical prevention of evictions and the hounding of the Sheriff’s Officers:

“In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the House Factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on to the street where the House Factor’s office was, and then went up with the women and demanded a return of the money. On the Factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street, he handed it over.”

By November 1915 as many as 20,000 tenants were on rent strike and rent strike activity was spreading beyond Glasgow to other parts of the country.

The decision by a Partick factor to prosecute 18 tenants for non-payment of a rent increase brought the crisis to a head in Glasgow’s small debt court on 17th November 1915. Many of those in arrears were shipyard workers and there were strikes in support and deputations sent to the court. Thousands of women marched with thousands of shipyard and engineering workers in what the Govan Press described as “remarkable scenes”:

“Headed by a band of improvised instruments, including tin whistles, hooters, and a huge drum, the procession aroused a good deal of interest. The majority carried large placards with the words: ‘Rent Strikers. We’re not Removing’.”

Within the Sheriff Court they felt alarmed at the sheer size of this peaceful demonstration.   They phoned Lloyd George, at that time munitions minister in the wartime coalition government.  He told them to release the tenants, and promised he would take action.  Outside the court the celebrations went on for hours. Less than a month later Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act, the first of its kind in Europe, setting rents for the duration of the war and six months to follow at pre-war levels.

Joseph Melling, the author of the most detailed study of the rent strikes, underlines the importance of the way in which the industrial and housing protests combined to challenge the authority of landlords and the state. Another historian James Smyth considers that ‘it may well have been the most successful example of direct action ever undertaken by the Scottish working class’ Mary’s involvement in this struggle made her a local hero in Govan and much further afield, and, as Helen Crawfurd put it:

“This struggle brought great masses of women together.”

A poem was written which captured the essence of “Mary Barbour’s Army”:

“Mary Barbour’s Rattle” 

“Mary Barbour’s Rattle” by Christine Finn

Can you hear it yet?

The rioty past
of its hand-waxed
handle

Rattety, rattety

Crank turns, wood aligns,
sound alarms

Rattety, rattety

Mary’s army,
holding the fort,
with the men off
fighting 

Rattety, rattety

Sounding the rattle,
they ratted on bailiffs 

Rata-tat-tat

intent on evictions

from trench-dreamed
hearth-sides 

Rattety, rattety! the Govan artillery 

Ratta–ratta –tatt! the echo back.

Poem by Christine Finn on Mary Barbour’s rattle, which you can see at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on Level 6, ‘Scotland: A Changing Nation’.

Author of this page is Dr Catriona Burness, who has also contributed to the About Mary Barbour section. Dr Burness would like to acknowledge permission to quote from texts and papers held in the Glasgow Libraries Collection (@CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: the Mitchell Library, Special Collections; and Glasgow Elder Park Library).

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5 thoughts on “Mary Barbour & Rent Strike 1915

  1. christina milarvie quarrell

    i am trying establish the numbers of lives saved through the work of mary barbour. through housing sanitation increase in survival through better childbirth/pregnancy care.
    it is one thing to establish for example how the discovery of penicillin saved life’s but how to discover the impact of mary barbour and the women/men who fought for the changes which my parents and family benefited from
    any ideas welcome.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Honour Scotland’s real heroes in George Square | Kevin McKenna | Your Opinion

  3. Pingback: Honour Scotland’s real heroes in George Square | Kevin McKenna - News-9.comNews-9.com

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