Mary Barbour commemorative statue unveiled on International Women’s Day

By Catriona Burness

International Women’s Day 2018 sees a statue unveiled at Glasgow's Govan Cross in Scotland that commemorates Mary Barbour and her ‘army’.

Sixty years after her death, Andrew Brown’s sculpture of rent strikers led by Mary Barbour captures the remarkable events of November 1915.

Born Mary Rough in Kilbarchan in 1875, she was the third of seven children, following her father into the textile industry.

She married David Barbour in 1896 and by 1901 they had moved to Govan where Mary became an active member of the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

In 1914 housing was clearly Glasgow's greatest social problem and Mary Barbour was the ‘leading woman in Govan’ within the newly formed Glasgow Women’s Housing Association.

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. Instead, fury was aroused and the rent strike was the response.

By November 1915 as many as 20,000 tenants were on rent strike and rent strike activity was spreading country-wide.

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 Sheriff Court on 17 November 1915.

Mary Barbour was involved in every aspect of activities from committees and delegations to the physical prevention of evictions. 

Many of those in arrears were shipyard workers. There were strikes in support and deputations sent to the court whilst thousands demonstrated outside. Men, women and children were involved; the women nicknamed ‘Mrs Barbour's Army’ in tribute to her leading role.

Ministerial intervention by Lloyd George, then Munitions Minister, led to the dismissal of charges and a promise of action.

Within a month Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act, setting rents across Britain for the duration of the war and six months to follow at pre-war levels.

Mary Barbour’s capacity to mobilise working class families, especially women, to challenge the power of landlords and the state during the 1915 rent strike led to the passing of one of Europe’s first rent restriction acts.

Pioneering female councillor and social reformer

She went on to become a peace campaigner and to campaign not only for better homes, but a higher standard of living generally.

At the 1920 local elections she and four other women were the first women elected to Glasgow Corporation.

In 1924 Mary Barbour marked other milestones for women in public office when she became both a Bailie and ‘the first fully fledged woman magistrate of the City of Glasgow’. More controversially she was a leading mover in establishing Glasgow’s first birth control clinic to give advice to married women on family planning.

In 1931 she stood down as a councillor at the age of 56 stating that she felt ‘the difficulties ahead required young and strenuous fighters’.

When she died in 1958 her obituary in the Govan Press said that ‘there was never a more revered and loved local leader than she was in the heyday of her active life’.

In particular, her role in the 1915 rent strike ensures that she continues to inspire today. 

 

Acknowledgements:
Thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust for their grant which enabled archive research and to Govan artist Daniel Fitzpatrick for permission to reproduce his 2015 portrait of Mary Barbour based on her 1920 council election leaflet.

 

 

 

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