Mary Barbour, 1875 – 1958
The conference suite at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow is dedicated to the memory of one of Govan’s great working class heroes Mary Barbour. A suitable plaque adorns the suite. Now there are plans to organise a permanent memorial to her, in time for the centenary of the 1915 Glasgow rent strike in which she helped lead tenants to victory.
Greedy landlords sought to take advantage of the increased housing demand that was the result of men pouring into Glasgow to work in the shipyards and munitions factories. Where sitting tenants could pay a higher rent they were replaced by anyone that could. With many men away at war, the property owners reasoned the women at hone would be a soft touch, even though the accommodation provided was poorly maintained.
Mary Barbour had political experience as a member of the Co-operative Women’s Guild and the Independent Labour Party. She joined other women in forming the Govan Women’s Housing Association. Meetings were held at which it was agreed to pay the pre-war rent whilst also campaigning for decent municipal housing. When fellow tenants were threatened with eviction, women rushed to prevent the sheriff’s officers throwing anyone on to the streets. Soon the strike spread across Glasgow and to other British cities.
On 17 November 1915, landlords sought to take some tenants to court for unpaid rent and at which point Mary Barbour helped to organise one of the biggest marches ever seen in Glasgow. Men from the shipyards and munitions factories joined women heading for court. Frightened court officials rang the munitions minister, David Lloyd George, who instructed them to let the tenants go. Within weeks, Lloyd George pushed through a Parliamentary Bill restricting rents to pre-war levels. This was the first legislation of its kind anywhere in Europe.
Mary Barbour also campaigned against the war and often spoke at public gatherings in Glasgow Green. In 1920, she became one of the first two female Labour councillors after women over 30 were granted the vote. She battled for baths and wash-houses; child welfare centres and play parks. Better housing was a key demand and she was successful in organising a family planning centre, no easy task in a city where the church was strong and many in her own party opposed her. She also fought for many other basic welfare services.
Yet as Maria Fyfe, the former Labour MP for Govan Maryhill, says, “the name of Mary Barbour is not widely known, even in her own city.” That could be about to change as a committee has been established to raise funds for a permanent memorial to a woman who inspired others to demand decent living standards. Support is growing with backing from the Scottish Parliament, Glasgow City Council, East Renfrewshire District Council – her birthplace – and the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
For more information see: - www.remembermarybarbour.com
Donations to the fund are needed, however small. Send them to STUC (Remember Mary Barbour), 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow G3 6NG.
The Pierce Institute is over a century old and is 840-860 Govan Road, Glasgow G51 3UU.