Blog: Remembering Mary Barbour and the Glasgow Rent Strikes
The 17th November saw the 100th anniversary of the Glasgow Rent Strikes. In this blog, Shelter Scotland’s Housing Adviser, Jenny Love, tells us about the woman behind it – housing campaigner, Mary Barbour.
As a housing adviser I use the law every day to try and make things better for my clients. Whether I am helping someone to get repairs done by their landlord or helping a homeless person access the housing they are entitled to, the various elements of housing law help me to do my job. But the law doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Or things change but the law takes a while to catch up. This is why the campaigning side of Shelter Scotland is just as important to my work as the frontline advice services we provide, and I’d like to share a story about one of the most influential housing campaigners in Scotland.
Mary Barbour, an ordinary Glasgow woman with a couple of kids who helped organise the Glasgow Rent Strikes. The rent strikes of 1915 are a great example of when campaigning, resistance and mass protest can result in positive change.
Britain was at war. Thousands of people, who were not directly engaged in the fighting, were employed in industries connected to the ‘war effort.’ Glasgow saw its population increase by almost 65,000 people in just three years. Yet only 1,500 new tenement flats were built in the same period. This population growth exacerbated the existing housing shortage. Many homes were in desperate need of repair, but the lack of materials coupled with the lack of will and available labour made this difficult.
Mary Barbour had been politically active for much of her life, and was already involved with many of the organisations on Red Clydeside. As part of the movement to improve local housing conditions Mary and other local women set up Govan Women’s Housing Association. They were a collective, campaigning for better housing in the area, and in kitchens and back closes the movement began to gather support. But talk was one thing – now it was time to take action.
In response to rising rents of the time, it was agreed that the only way to fight back was to stand together against the landlords. A mass non-payment of the rent increases began. As arrears built up over the coming months, landlords began sending Sheriff Officers to collect arrears and evict non payers. However Mary and her supporters stayed resolute.
When an eviction was scheduled, one women would act as sentry, raising the alarm when the Sheriff Officers arrived. At that point everyone in the vicinity would squeeze into the close to prevent the officers from entering. Paper bags filled with flour or pieces of fish scraps would be thrown at the officers until they fled.
Autumn arrived and support for the Rent Strikers increased. The newspapers began referring to ‘Mary Barbour’s Army’. Similar protests sprung up in Aberdeen and Dundee as well as some of the major industrial cities in England. In Glasgow it’s estimated that 25,000 – 30,000 people were involved. Tenants who were refusing to pay the increases would place placards in their windows stating, ‘We are not removing’.
The situation came to a head on 17th November 1915 when 18 tenants were summoned to the court for ejection action.
Despite the cold November weather, over 10,000 Glaswegians lined the streets outside the Courthouse and the nearby City Chambers.
Govan Press described the ‘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.’
Mary Barbour and her supporters surrounded the court with the shipbuilders unions joining in, threatening a general strike. The Sheriff, at a loss of what he could do, is said to have telephoned Lloyd George (then Minister of Munitions) pleading for the government to intervene.
From the government’s point of view the shipbuilders and munitions factories had to keep producing. The people of Glasgow had to get back to work. Lloyd George advised the Sheriff to release the eighteen tenants immediately and it was promised that the government would take action.
As a result, on 25th November 1915, rents were frozen at pre-war levels, and The Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act 1915 was introduced by the UK Parliament. Royal Assent was given by the end of December. Some elements of this, and the various rent acts that followed, remained in force as late as 1989.
Today we are seeing similar problems with housing shortages and high rents and these are causing difficulties for tenants in Scotland and across the UK. I can’t help but wonder, if she were alive today, what would Mary Barbour do?