Mary Barbour and the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

Glasgow Rent Strike

1915 saw thousands of men up and down the country engaged in fighting the First World War. In the same year, Glasgow’s women were engaged in a fight of their own, a fight they termed to be against ‘the Hun at Home’. In the three years preceding 1915, Glasgow’s population had swelled by almost 70,000 people, with less than 2,000 tenements built to accommodate these newcomers. The landlords responded to this excessive demand for housing by drastically increasing the rents on their properties with very little notice, and evicting those who fell into arrears on their rent. Mary Barbour who was a member of the Independent Labour Party soon became the key activist in the movement against these unjust rents and evictions, and along with Jessie Stephens, Helen Crawfurd, and Agnes Dollan fought a campaign known as the Glasgow Rent Strike. Due to wartime restrictions on trade unions meaning men were unable to participate in strikes, Barbour turned to Glasgow’s women to take up the fight against terrible living conditions and drastic rent increases.

rent strike poster
Poster displayed in windows during Glasgow rent strikes, 1915 From Glasgow Digital Library, http://sites.scran.ac.uk/redclyde/redclyde/rc028.htm

Barbour called her ‘troops’ to order in kitchens, back yards, and streets across the city until all of Glasgow was involved. The threat of evictions was still looming, so Barbour organised look outs at the end of streets who would alert the community if and when a landlord attempted to evict a family from their home. Upon hearing the call, everyone would rally together to defend their neighbour, throwing whatever came to hand, which was most often flour, peasemeal, or rotting food. By November of 1915, twenty thousand households were withholding their rents in demand of proper social housing. On the 17th November, 49 striking households were threatened with eviction. This became the final straw, prompting huge demonstrations, and with trade unions now also threatening strike action, legal action against the strikers was dropped, and rents were frozen at pre-war levels. Following on from Rent Strike’s victory the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act was introduced which brought with it council housing for manual workers throughout the UK. Their collective action serves as a reminder of the potential gains if trade unions and political organisations to join together to fight for social justice.

BBC Video on Mary Barbour

Bibliography

Trish Caird “Mary Barbour and the Glasgow Rent Strike” from Counterfire website, 8th March 2013, http://www.counterfire.org/articles/199-women-on-the-left/16331-mary-barbour-and-the-glasgow-rent-strike

Education Scotland “Snapshot: Rent Strikes” – http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/higherscottishhistory/impactofthegreatwar/war_societyandculture/rentstrikes.asp

“The Glasgow Rent Strikes” BBC Scotland History – http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/modern_scotland/glasgow_rent_strikes/

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