Stories Behind: Mary Barbour and The Legendary Rent Strike

Some stories are never to be forgotten. After a hundred years, Mary Barbour’s statue now stands at Govan Cross.

I am starting a new series called “Stories Behind” telling the stories behind statues on the streets.

The series starts with a brave woman, Mary Barbour, whose statue was erected in Govan, Glasgow today at the International Women’s Day.

The early 1900s were the times of overcrowding and poor living conditions in Glasgow.  The workers were flocking into the cities to work at newly emerging industries and the landlords were benefiting of this. During the World War I the rent incresese reached up to 25 %, and the rent strikes were against this unacceptable rates.

Tenants across the city refused to pay increases imposed since the start of the war. So, their point is, this increases were unacceptable and unaffordable by many working class families.

Yet the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, established before 1914 to fight for better housing conditions, soon galvanised growing discontent over the increases by calling for a city-wide rent strike … . Early support from the areas closest to the shipyards, such as Govan and Partick, where tens of thousands were crammed into poorly maintained tenements, soon spread across much of the city. By September 1915 around 20,000 households were on rent strike in Glasgow alone, and the protests were spreading to other parts of the west of Scotland and beyond. (theconservation)

Mary Barbour was a leading figure in the epic rent strike started in Glasgow in 1915. The strikers formed eviction resistance groups, mainly women, which were dubbed as “Mrs Barbour’s Army”. (commonspace)

This is how they organised the strike and prevent evictions:

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! (Remember Mary Barbour)

The rent strike started in September and by November more than 25,000 working class families were refusing to pay rent. As a result of the strike, the Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act. This froze rent at 1914 levels unless improvements had been made to the property.

The strikers’ demands had been met.

Remember Mary Barbour Campaign raised funds to errect a statue of Mary Barbour to commemorate her legacy. The statue now stands at Govan as a constant reminder of the legendary rent strike in Glasgow.

 

 

(Image credit: Top Eveningtimes / Bottom Personal Archive)

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