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Govan’s Monument to Mary Barbour

A reflection of history and the spirit of a community


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

Alistair Hulett, Mrs. Barbour’s Army

International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023, marked the fifth anniversary of the unveiling of the now-iconic monument to Mary Barbour and her “army” in Govan Cross.  Barbour, whose husband was an engineer at Fairfield Shipbuilding, became a resident of Govan shortly after her marriage in 1896, and she soon became active in the Independent Labour Party, the Kinning Park Women’s Co-Operative Guild, and the Socialist Sunday School, a movement founded in Glasgow to organise society ‘on a basis of love and justice’.  While all of these groups encouraged equal participation among men and women (aside from the lack of women’s suffrage), the co-operative guild in particular encouraged working-class women to value themselves not only in the domestic sphere, but also in social and political matters affecting their communities.

At the turn of the twentieth century, with the proliferation of tenements, Glasgow’s housing was seen as being among the worst in the nation.  At the outset of World War I, as the men of the city were joining the front lines in Europe, profiteering landlords – hoping to capitalise on the influx of workers to the munitions factories and shipyards –  raised rents in the city by 8-23%, assuming that the women left behind would have little recourse but to pay or be evicted.  The Labour Party soon established the Glasgow Women’s Housing Authority, and Mary Barbour was head of the South Govan branch by 1915.

Struggling not only to pay rent but also to secure food for their families, the angry housewives of Govan began to agitate for a rent strike.  Barbour organised the first of these in May 1915 along with what Red Clydesider Willie Gallacher named “Mrs. Barbour’s Army”, and by November, over 25,000 tenants were refusing to pay the exorbitant rents.  When eighteen families in Partick were taken in to the Sheriff Court for failure to pay, Barbour, who was joined by fellow activists Helen Crawfurd, Agnes Dollan, and Mary Burns Laird, organised a massive demonstration throughout the city, joined by men from the factories and workshops, to descend upon the court.  This forced the hands not only of Glasgow officials, but also Parliament, with Lloyd George, then the Minister of Munitions, being forced to cap rents and mortgages at the August 1914 rate through the issuance of the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act 1915.


Fundraising postcard featuring Mrs. Barbour’s Army. Copyright: Remember Mary Barbour Association


After the successes of the Rent Strike of 1915, Barbour turned her energy to securing food for the people of Govan by working with local fish mongers to distribute the fish they discarded as too small to sell to families in Govan Cross.  She then advocated for green spaces for children and greater opportunity for working-class women and the working classes in general.  Barbour went on to achieve many firsts in Glasgow.  She became the first female councillor for Govan’s Fairfield Ward in 1920; became Glasgow’s first female magistrate and first female bailie representing Govan in 1924; and founded the woman-staffed Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic, Glasgow’s first family-planning clinic for married women, in 1926.  After a life of service to the working classes of Glasgow, Mary Barbour died in Govan in 1958.

Unfortunately, though not uncommon among historical women, her story was soon somewhat forgotten; though, she lived on in the memories of many Govan residents.  As regeneration efforts were undertaken in the community at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Govan Reminiscence Group (GRG), invaluable curators of Govan’s social history, sought to commemorate her achievements by having one of the newly built streets named in her honour.  Esmé Clark, GRG’s secretary, wrote a letter to the Glasgow City Council to make this request and received in return what she called “the cheekiest letter”, which claimed that it was the Council’s policy that no twentieth-century figure be named in the built environment.  Members of the GRG contacted local councillors, who could find no evidence of this rule.  Additionally, Clark cited the fact that Nelson Mandela was honoured with a square in the city centre, so it was unclear why a street in Govan could not be named after Mary Barbour.

Still, the idea of commemorating Barbour in some public and permanent way continued to simmer, and in 2013, The Remember Mary Barbour Association (RMBA) was formed with the aim of installing a monument in her honour.  The group was chaired by Maria Fyfe, a former Labour MP from Maryhill, and when they formally organised as a charity to raise approximately £110,000 for a statue, their stated objectives were ‘to advance education for public benefit in the life, works and importance of Mary Barbour as an iconic figure in the history of Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, and the UK’ and ‘to advance the arts, heritage and culture through the erection of a statue in a public place to commemorate Mary Barbour.’

Esmé Clark was soon invited to join the RMBA, and in fact it was she who came up with the name for the organisation.  As news of the monument began to spread, she recalls how enthusiastic Govanites would hand her money on the street so often that she had to start carrying small envelopes around with her to ensure these impromptu donations were properly documented and accounted for.  Councillor Stephan Dornan, Vice Chair of the RMBA, likewise described “weans giving their pocket money” as excitement began to build.

Through donations big and small (including from Govan legend Sir Alex Ferguson), GRG bake sales, and the sale of merchandise and event tickets, the RMBA raised the funds needed to commission a monument.  After significant community input, a design by sculptor Andrew Brown, which reflected Barbour’s ‘grassroots campaigning and down-to-earth nature’, was selected.  Dr Catriona Burness, who served on the RMBA board and functioned as its historical researcher, believes Brown’s design was chosen because it represented working people coming together to achieve a goal, with Barbour as the leader but still a part of the group.


Andrew Brown and his winning design. Copyright: Eddie Middleton


Though originally intended to be in place by the centenary of the 1915 Rent Strike, the statue was unveiled on 8 March 2018, International Women’s Day (IWD), to a great deal of enthusiasm.  At the event, Maria Fyfe expressed her confidence that ‘the memorial [would] help the people of the area reconnect with their rich social history and heritage [and would] serve as a beacon of inspiration to women everywhere.’

Former Councillor John Kane, Treasurer for RMBA, also noted that it was ‘an exciting, important and proud day for the people of Govan and Glasgow.  It’s highly appropriate that we gather on International Women’s Day to celebrate the legacy of Mary Barbour…who made a massive contribution to this city, and beyond.’  As proof of Barbour’s legacy, the Govan Reminiscence Group has led an IWD celebration at the monument every year since the monument’s installation.


The unveiling on 8 March 2018. Copyright: Eddie Middleton


Councillor Dornan and members of the GRG note how the statue has become a rallying place for groups not only in Govan, Glasgow, and Scotland, but across the UK, including housing associations, Scotland’s Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPIScotland), artists, groups against gender-based violence, and politicians from all creeds.  GRG Chair Colin Quigley is pleased to see that the groups that gather are promoting ‘good causes, fitting for what Mary Barbour herself did.’  Furthermore, a week after the monument’s unveiling, one of the figures received the famous Glasgow “cone treatment”, and Barbour and her army have also been “yarn bombed” in hats and scarves on cold nights.


WASPIScotland at the monument. Copyright: WASPI Glasgow


Of great surprise to members of the GRG is the fact that the monument has never yet been vandalised and that “all the kids respect it”.  Clark recalled an incident when two inebriated football supporters were seen throwing chips at the monument.  However, when another local reprimanded them, saying, “You can’t do that! That’s Mary Barbour!”, one of the men apologised and immediately picked up the chips and took them away. Quigley expresses with some satisfaction the fact that more young people now know about Barbour and what she did for Govan, and her activism has since become part of the school curriculum.  In a time when statues are more and more contested in public spaces, he notes that he has never heard a bad word about the statue nor does he know of any occasion when it has been spoken of in a negative context.

Despite not occupying a place among the grand academic narratives of Scottish history, Mary Barbour has been remembered and respected by the citizens of Govan who aspire to her ideals of community cohesion and of neighbours helping neighbours.  The unique nature of Govan’s socialist and industrial community in Mary Barbour’s time helped shape her as a leader, activist, and politician, and she used her influence not to her own benefit but to improve the lives of Glasgow’s working classes by helping them help themselves.


By Erin Burrows

Published 23rd March 2023


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