Tag Archives: Dr Catriona Burness

Looking for Mary Barbour

There will be a Mary Barbour statue.*

The Remember Mary Barbour Association is formally up and running. We can now begin applying for funding to raise a statue in lasting memory of Mary Barbour, social campaigner and key leader of the Rent Strike during the First World War.

I am still looking for Mary Barbour amid the archives. The Govan Press has probably been the most fruitful source of information, perhaps not surprising as Mary Barbour lived and was politically active in Govan, representing the Govan Fairfield ward on the Glasgow Corporation from 1920 until 1931.

Most recently I’ve been checking on what I can find in the pages of Glasgow-based newspapers and journals such as The Glasgow Herald, The Bailie and The Bulletin.

These three papers were not in the habit of lavishing praise on Labour politicians, however. When Mary Barbour first stood as an Independent Labour Party (ILP) council candidate in 1920 a “Special Correspondent” for The Glasgow Herald listed her among the “Red Flag” candidates.

The reporter wrote: “Apparently in the opinion of the ILP, the ability to pour forth a spate of words at a street-corner meeting is a supreme qualification for the office of a Town Councillor.”

Yet one of Mary Barbour’s first interventions on the Corporation won praise from The Bailie, a Conservative-inclined satirical magazine:

“At the Town Council meeting on Thursday, I heard two of our lady Councillors speak. One read her speech; the other spoke impromptu. The lady who read is a middle-class Moderate; the second lady was a working class representative. Surely a sign showing that if there is any class inarticulate it is not the working class.”

The reference is to what the Govan Press described as “a very effective speech” by Mary Barbour on the question of the Corporation employing women to wash stairs and closes:

“Mrs Barbour said that this was a subject that had engaged her attention, as a tenement dweller, for some time. It would provide employment for women out of work and would take work from women who were already over-wrought … In concluding a very able speech she said, ‘I support this measure as a mother who likes to keep her stair clean and who has still to wash it. It is my turn to-day.’ On resuming her seat she was loudly applauded by friends and opponents alike. Unfortunately, however, her eloquence was unavailing, and when, after further protracted discussion, the vote was taken, the proposal was defeated by 58 votes to 36.”

Mary Barbour served on the Glasgow Corporation until stepping down in 1931. Her work as a councillor spanned many firsts, from being one of Glasgow’s first female councillors and its first fully fledged woman magistrate through her pioneering social reform including the establishment of the city’s first family planning centre.

*As long as we raise enough money! Please help us by donating to the Mary Barbour Campaign.

Catriona Burness would like to acknowledge permission to quote from texts and papers held in the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh) and Glasgow Libraries Collection (@CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: the Mitchell Library, Special Collections; and Glasgow Elder Park Library).

Dr Catriona Burness on looking for Mary Barbour

There will be a Mary Barbour statue.*

The Remember Mary Barbour campaign was launched last year to make sure that the centenary of the 1915 Rent Strikes would see a statue raised in lasting memory of its key leader Mary Barbour.

The campaign won support from the Scottish Parliament and from the councils of Glasgow, scene of the most dramatic points in the Rent Strike, and of Renfrewshire, Mary Barbour’s birthplace.

Mary Barbour’s contribution to social history has been discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, on Newsnight Scotland and on Al Jazeera, and has featured in the Evening Times and The Observer.

2014 is going to be a key year for the campaign as we move into the serious business of identifying sources of funding. My contribution to the campaign will be continuing research support and trying to uncover more information about Mary Barbour.

The archive research that I have done so far has focused on the Govan Press, The Glasgow Herald, clips from the Socialist press, Glasgow Corporation minutes and secondary literature.

And I’ve had help (in alphabetical order) from Councillor James Adams, Professor John Foster, Maria Fyfe, Jean Melvin, Flora Pagan, artist Sharon Thomas and the staff of the Elder Park and Mitchell Libraries and of Glasgow Council Research Centre.

I have contributed to this website’s pages abut Mary Barbour. For me the high points of the research are when I come across something that brings Mary Barbour to life. Helen Crawfurd’s Memoir gives vivid descriptions of how the Rent Strike was organised and underlines Mary Barbour’s key role. If only Mary Barbour had kept a diary! I was interested in the Govan Press first interview with her after she was elected to Glasgow Corporation, struck by her seriousness of purpose and intent to be in the Chambers every day. The later report of her directly organising the sale of small fish in Govan highlights her practical focus!

This year we will draw together education packs putting Mary Barbour in the context of her times. If you have information on Mary Barbour it would be great to hear from you. Please email us at info@remembermarybarbour.com

*As long as we raise enough money! Please help us by donating to the Mary Barbour Campaign.