Tuesday 11 March 2014
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.
During WWI, greedy landlords sought to take advantage of the increased housing demand that arose as a result of men pouring into Glasgow to work in the shipyards and munitions factories. Where sitting tenants could not pay a higher rent they were replaced by anyone that could. With many men away at war, the property owners reasoned that, even though the accommodation provided was poorly maintained, the women at home would be a soft touch.
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, “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.
A Statue to Mary Barbour was unveiled on 8 March 2018, International Women’s Day.
Interviewed shortly afterwards, Maria Fyfe said:
I had been making a point for some years that the name of Mary Barbour, who was one of the first female councillors in Glasgow, was not known under the history of Red Clydeside. Yet she had made this great achievement of leading the rent strike campaign to success and after complaining about it for sometime it then the Labour councillors in Govan asked me to meet with them. They said they would like to be part of our group to create some kind of memorial to Mary Barbour and would I chair it?
I agreed and so we set up a fundraising group, the Remember Mary Barbour Association. At first we thought we might struggle to raise monies but we got a fantastic response, more than anticipated. The housing associations and trade union branches were keen, the Labour Party chipped in a large amount and Alex Ferguson made a substantial donation.
As we campaigned we got the attention of the local media and further afield and I ended up on Woman’s Hour.
The Glasgow public responded well. I think it is because they had a huge feeling of rapport with Mary, she was an ordinary working class women who had achieved something really significant and I felt people were inspired by it. With all the similar problems they face today, then here was someone who previously stepped forward and did such a great job, including being amongst a group of councillors who introduced many measures that were of benefit to the working class in the City, such as children’s play parks and the first ever Scottish family planning clinic.
After about 5 years we had enough monies to make a start and what we did was approach the Glasgow Arts school about how to find a sculptor. We were advised to advertise to seek examples and look for artists to come forward for ideas. We had a good number of applications and we shortlisted six.
Those elected were asked to make small models of what they were suggesting and they were paid and we then showed these in different locations. Various statues had their own supporters but the most backed by far was the one by Andrew Brown. It has gone down very well with the general public and flowers and dolls have been laid at its feet.
The unveiling was packed. We invited local schools and 300 children came along in red ponchos and they were carrying placards stating ‘rent strike and Mary Barbour’. The video that was done was also great.