Mary Barbour, Scottish rent strike organizer

Mary Barbour Mary Barbour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This music video from Scotland is Alistair Hulett, Mrs Barbour’s Army.

The lyrics are:


(Alistair Hulett)


‘Cos I’m frae Govan an’ ye’re frae Partick
This yin here’s fae Bridge o’ Weir and thon’s fae Kinning Park
There’s some that’s prods, there’s some that’s catholic
But we’re Mrs. Barbour’s Army and we’re here tae dae the wark

In the tenements o’ Glesga in the year one nine one five
It was one lang bloody struggle tae keep ourselves alive
We were coontin’ oot the coppers tae buy wor scraps o’ food
When the landlords put the rent up just because they could
A’ the factories were hummin’, there was overtime galore
But wages they were driven doon tae subsidise the war
Oot came Mrs. Barbour from her wee bit single end
She said, I’ll organise the lassies if I cannae rouse the men

Mrs. Barbour made a poster sayin’, We’ll no’ pay higher rent
Then chapped on every door of every Govan tenement
She said, Pit this in the windae an’ when you hear me bang the drum
We’ll run oot an’ chase the factor a’ the way tae kingdom come
When the poor wee soul cam roon’ he was battered black and blue
By a regiment in pinnies that knew just what tae do
Mrs. Barbour organised the gaitherin’ o’ the clans
And they burst oot o’ the steamie armed wi’ pots an’ fryin’ pans

Mrs. Barbour’s Army spread through Glesga like the plague
The maisters got the message and the message wisnae vague
While oor menfolk fight the Kaiser we’ll stay hame and fight the war
Against the greedy bastards who keep grindin’ doon the poor
If ye want tae stop conscription stand and fight the profiteers
Bring the hale big bloody sandpit crashin’ doon aroon’ their ears
We’ll no’ starve, said Mrs. Barbour, While the men we ca’ wor ain
Are marchin aff tae hae their hairt’s blood washed like watter doon a drain

Well it didnae take the government that lang tae realise
If you crack doon on the leaders then the rest will compromise
They arrested Mrs. Barbour and they clapped her in the jile
Then they made an awfy big mistake, they let her oot on bail
She ca’d the men oot o’ the factories on the Clyde and on the Cart
They marched up tae the courthoose sayin’, We’ll tear the place apart
Mrs. Barbour’s Army brought the maisters tae their knees
Wi’ a regiment in pinnies backed by one in dungarees.

By Maria Fyfe in Scotland:

The forgotten woman behind the Glasgow rent strikes

Sunday 07 April 2013

by Maria Fyfe

The Glasgow rent strikes during the first world war in 1915 are a part of working-class history that is a fairly familiar story.

Yet few know anything about Mary Barbour, the woman who led the tenants to victory. Willie Gallacher in his book Revolt On The Clyde vividly described what happened, and it was he who dubbed the women she organised “Mrs Barbour’s Army.”

The story began with the greed of the landlords, who, seeing that so many men were away fighting in the war or in German prison camps, thought the women left behind would be a soft touch when they imposed massive rent increases. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The tenement buildings were not kept in decent condition and sanitation was non-existent. So the rent increases sparked fury.

When the evictions started the women got to work. Barbour (pictured) organised the South Govan Women’s Housing Association and held meetings in the streets and back courts. Posters saying: “We will not pay higher rent” were displayed in hundreds of windows in every street. Then they started defending their fellow tenants from eviction.

They blocked the tenement entrances and threw flour bombs – and, it was said, worse – at the sheriff officers. Another tactic was to humiliate them by pulling down their trousers.

The placards that can be seen in old photographs carried powerful messages. One reads: “While my father is a prisoner in Germany the landlord is attacking us at home.”

The rent strike spread throughout Glasgow and to other cities throughout Britain.

Then the landlords thought up another tactic. They took some of the tenants to the sheriff court for unpaid rent, and if the court found in favour of the landlord the tenants would have the court costs added on.

And here is where history was made. Barbour organised one of the biggest marches ever seen in Glasgow, as thousands of women headed for the sheriff court, joined by the men pouring out of the shipyards and munitions works.

Outside the court Gallacher, teacher and radical John MacLean and Independent Labour Party (ILP) leaders addressed the crowds.

Inside the court there was such alarm that a phone call was made to Lloyd George, at that time the munitions minister in the wartime coalition government.

He instructed them to let the tenants go and said he would deal with it.

Outside a massive cheer went up. The celebrations went on for hours.

In a matter of days, Lloyd George pushed a Bill through Parliament restricting rents for the duration of the war and six months after. This was the first legislation of its kind anywhere in Europe.

But that is not the whole of Barbour’s story. She joined the Co-op Women’s Guild and the ILP. She campaigned against the war. In 1920 she became the first female Labour councillor in Glasgow, only having won the right to vote two years before.

Then she got to work. She fought for baths and wash houses, child welfare centres and play parks. Better housing was a key demand.

She was the first to organise a family planning centre in the city, facing down opposition from the church.

She fought for home helps and free, pure milk for schoolchildren. She proposed having municipal banks that could lend at lower rates and build funds for the city’s needs – maybe that is an idea we should look at today.

It is nothing less than astonishing that the name of a woman of such achievement is not widely known, even in her own city.

But a small committee has been formed to remedy that. We want to raise funds for a permanent memorial to Barbour.

We want to have her name in the history books along with the famous men of the Red Clydeside days.

I grew up in Glasgow, learning about and admiring the heroes of those times, but knowing nothing of this amazing woman. We owe it to this generation of schoolchildren to let them be better informed – and not just for the sake of better history being taught.

A century ago people like Barbour inspired others to demand decent living standards. We can hardly credit today that even children’s play parks and municipal baths had to be fought for. Today we are in the throes of a battle to save the welfare state.

Barbour’s victories for working-class people throughout Britain can inspire us today. Are we the kind of people who will let the Con-Dems make people who are already poor, poorer still, while they hand out a massive tax cut to the rich? I don’t think so.

Maria Fyfe is former Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill.

Donations to the fund gratefully received, however small. Cheques should be made out to the STUC (Remember Mary Barbour) and send to STUC HQ at 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow G3 6NG.

12 thoughts on “Mary Barbour, Scottish rent strike organizer

  1. Statue to hero Mary Barbour gets green light

    Friday 17 May 2013

    Campaigners were celebrating today after Glasgow City council gave the go-ahead for a statue to honour “working-class heroine” Mary Barbour.

    Remember Mary Barbour committee head and former left Labour MP Maria Fyfe said: “I’m absolutely delighted. We are putting together a list of bodies, including the lottery, who could potentially assist us with funding.”

    Barbour was one of the main leaders of the Clydeside rent strikes of 1915. The large number of women involved were known as Mary Barbour’s Army.

    She became the city’s first ever woman councillor in 1920 and through her long political life fought for welfare benefits such as free milk for schoolchildren, pensions for mothers, municipal banks, wash houses, laundries and public baths.

    She also pioneered Glasgow’s first family-planning clinic.

    Glasgow Labour councillor Paul McKeever said: “As a councillor, Mary Barbour campaigned successfully for improvements in the lives of her fellow citizens, and spent her life helping others.”


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