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Mary Barbour

We all hear about greedy landlords and soaring rents, especially if like me you dwell in London…maybe the answer is…rent strikes? After all, its been done before, and one of the most famous examples was done by a woman! Mary Barbour -  orchestrator of the Glasgow Rent Strikes of 1915. 

First, context: with the outbreak of WW1 just a year earlier, thousands of workers flocked to Glasgow to work in the shipyards and munitions factories.  Property owners decided to raise rents for tenement flats by 8%, thinking that as the demand for housing outstripped supply, they could evict the current tenants if they couldn’t pay up because there were plenty more tenants to choose from!  It was mainly women and children living in these tenements, while their men were away at war, so Landlords also thought they’d be a soft touch. 

But they underestimated the women. The families living there were already campaigning against the poor maintenance of their dwellings and the greed of the landlords in failing to carry out repairs (sound familiar?) And this was the final straw.  They decided to go on rent strike.

One campaigner, Helen Crawfurd, recalled; 

“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.”

How did the women resist? Well, they gathered together and used that sadly underused tactic to scare away men: pulling their trousers down! Apparently they would take it in turns to sit with a bell outside the tenements to keep watch. When a Bailiff arrived to evict tenants for not paying their rent, the woman would ring the bell to alert the others. The other women would hurry out and hurl flour bombs and other objects at the Bailiff, pull down his trousers, whatever it took to get him off their property! 

Mary Barbour acted as leader. She was born in Glasgow in 1875 and was a working class mother, the wife of a Ship builder. She had been an activist for working class and women’s rights for some years by this point, and formed the South Govan Women’s Housing Association in June 1915. She often got men from the shipyards to come up and intimidate the eviction officers, too. She was so successful that 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.

When 18 tenants were summoned to court for not paying their rent, thousands of women marched with thousands of shipyard and engineering workers in what the Govan Press described as “remarkable scenes”. They took over the court house, accompanied by a brass band! The court was forced to drop the case against the tenants and not prosecute them further. 

As a result of ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ - as it was dubbed -  the government passed the Rent Restriction Act, the first of its kind in Europe, which capped rents at pre-war levels. They had won! It also paved the way for the Housing Benefit Acts that are still in place in Scotland today. Mary subsequently became a local and national hero in Scotland. There are statues of her and folk songs. Below is my favourite- the very catchy ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’. 

After the war, Mary didn’t stop her activism. She campaigned for peace, she became a Labour councillor for her area, and spent the rest of her life campaigning and promoting healthcare and rights for working class women and children. She is truly inspirational and proof that we are not helpless, if we can gather together and organise, we can achieve. Mary Barbour summons to mind the famous and oft-cited poem The Masque/Mask of Anarchy by Shelley:

Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,

Let them ride among you there;

Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;

What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,

Look upon them as they slay,

Till their rage has died away:

Then they will return with shame,

To the place from which they came,

And the blood thus shed will speak

In hot blushes on their cheek:

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you:

Ye are many—they are few!

We should take a leaf out of Mary’s book today I feel! If you like this and would like to comment, please go to the post on our blog here. You can also repost on Twitter now that we’re on that too!

Until next month,

Herstorical Tours…x

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