Tony Wallace, former ARC president
Tony Wallace summons Mary Barbour’s army
I was born in April 1965. Within five years my mother was taking me to workers demonstrations in Glasgow; she was a Trade Unionist and of the left always. Born into a working class family from the East End of Glasgow she did her very best for me, my sister and my brother throughout her entire life. She was all the inspiration I have needed and I thank my stars every day for her. But I want to share another Glasgow hero with you, one who should be far better known for standing up for what was right at the height of the First World War. Mary Barbour remains a folk hero in the city to this day.
In 1915 Glasgow was awash with men, those who were not at the front, building the ships to take the War to Germany. The landlords saw the opportunity to make a fast buck in a city where the demand for housing far outstripped the supply. They decided to do what profiteers the world over have sought to do, they ramped up the rents for tenements that were already little more than slums. Believing that they could simply evict those who could not pay, and replace them with those that could, was their first mistake; their second was underestimating the women of Glasgow and “Mrs Barbour’s Army”.
The Glasgow Women’s Housing association refused to pay, they organised. They launched the Glasgow rent strike. They posted notices in their windows and awaited eviction. Whilst the other women in the tenements went on with their household work one of their number, equipped with a bell, would watch for the Bailiff’s and when they arrived the whole close would pelt them with flour bombs and force them to retreat. By November 1915 almost 20,000 tenants were on strike and the crunch came when 18 of their number from Patrick were to be prosecuted in the small debt’s court on the 17th. Thousands of women, headed by a makeshift band, marched on Glasgow Sherriff Court where the Sheriffs, alarmed by the crowd, phoned Lloyd George.
Lloyd George ordered the Sherriff to release the tenants and promised to take action. Within a month Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act setting rents, for the duration of the War, at pre- war levels; the first time such an Act was passed anywhere in Europe and all thanks to Mary Barbour’s Army.
My mother was still telling me about Mrs Barbour’s Army into the 1970’s. My mother was not an educated woman, but she was a clever one, and she knew what was right and what was not. I am not an advocate for breaking the law but there comes a time when a lesser crime trumps a far, far greater one — and two more inspiring women would be difficult to find.
A full account of the story in verse can be seen here: https://youtu.be/1REUYD01Nr0
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