“The rent strike at Birmingham ended yesterday. The victory of the tenants was celebrated with much rejoicing, flags and banners being stretched across the streets from house to house. The rent collectors were, as usual, accompanied by two policemen but as the collectors accepted the amount of the original rent for the past three weeks [there] was no disorder.” (Hull Daily Mail, 16 November 1915)
Mrs Mary Barbour (1875-1958) was a political activist in Glasgow. She mostly worked through the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and she is interesting for her role in the successful Glasgow rent strike of 1915.
This was not the only successful rent strike in Britain that year, but, such was the reputation of Red Clydeside, it has had the most attention from historians, and Mary Barbour is held up as an example of leadership. She was indeed a formidable leader, but she also had a terrific lot of women behind her, known at the time as ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’.
Housing in Glasgow, an industrial city with large populations of both internal and Irish immigrants, was already overcrowded, and its tenement slums were home to shared privies and other horrors. Although the beginning of the war in 1914 saw many of Glasgow’s young men leave for the front, it also brought an enormous influx of workers into the munitions factories and other war-related industries.
This created a correspondingly enormous demand for housing, and the Glasgow landlords decided to cash in by demanding massive increases in the rents. A similar situation prevailed in Britain’s other big industrial cities, which witnessed great influxes of men and women coming to work in the munitions factories.
In response to this blatant exploitation, Birmingham saw a successful rent strike, as did Poplar in the industrial heart of London’s East End, and there were many others. Indeed, such was the success of the movement that some towns and industrial areas merely had to threaten to follow the militant Glasgow example to have their demands met.
Prominent in the Glasgow fight-back, Mrs Barbour was imprisoned at one point, but she did not exist in a vacuum – the Glasgow rent strike got really united support. The Glasgow women collectively resisted, organising a military-type support system with look-outs in each tenement detailed to keep watch for the bailiff officers.
As in the later resistance to the Poll Tax, the bailiffs initially came trying to demoralise and divide by picking out individual tenant families in arrears as a way of intimidating the rest. And, just as in the later Poll Tax resistance, the bailiff officers found themselves physically attacked and forced to flee. In November 1915, the Glasgow rent strike came to a head when one landlord tried to take 18 of his tenants to court for arrears. The court case was set for 17 November 1915 and the Glasgow sheriff court was surrounded by some 20,000 women with bands and banners, not all of them entirely progressive: “My father is fighting the Hun in France, we are fighting the Hun at Home” was popular.
Red Clydeside’s great political stars – John Maclean, Willie Gallacher and James Maxton – all addressed the crowd. Impressed by the women’s determination, but essentially terrified that it could result in lost production, the munitions minister (the vile David Lloyd George) ordered the Glasgow sheriff court to release the tenants, and within the month a terrified Liberal government passed the Rent Restriction Act to return rents to their pre-war level for the duration of the war plus six months.
It was a victory and there is no doubt that militancy achieved it, but while Mary Barbour and the Glasgow women, and all the other rent strikers throughout the country, should be remembered and celebrated, it should also be remembered that success was only achieved because the government feared a loss of war production, and that capitalist governments only make concessions when they are frightened of the consequences.
They need to be frightened more often.