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Mary Barbour


Mary Barbour, based in Govan, is most famous for leading what was known as Mrs. Barbour’s Army in the Glasgow Rent Strikes of 1915.

She was born and raised in Renfrewshire, the third of seven children, to carpet weaver parents. She worked as a thread twister until she married David Barbour and moved to Govan, where he worked as an engineer in the Fairfield shipyards. She became active in local South Glasgow movements, including Kinning Park Co-operative Guild, the first of its kind in Scotland, and the Socialist Sunday Movement, and joined the Independent Labour Party.

In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, thousands of people moved to Glasgow to work in the shipyards and munitions factories. Local landlords saw this new demand for housing as an opportunity to raise rents, despite the fact that women – in the newly formed Glasgow Women’s Housing Associations – were already campaigning against negligent landlords, who were neglecting their duties to carry out maintenance work on their properties. Mary Barbour established and led the South Govan branch of the association, and was joined by numerous housewives (she had two children herself) at meetings held in kitchens and ‘the closes’ (tenement communal hallways and stairwells) in the area. These activists united to try to prevent evictions. One woman would keep watch with a bell, and ring it whenever the bailiff came, drawing all the other women away from their work. These women threw bags of flour and other sundries at the bailiffs, and crowded together to chase them off.

Local women refused to pay the increased rent and garnered support from workers in the shipyards and factories, who threatened to strike in solidarity with those being evicted. In November 1915, one factor, Mr. Nicholson, in Partick (west Glasgow) was prosecuting 18 tenants, mostly munitions factory worker families, for refusing to pay increased rents. This was the last straw, and the city was in uproar. On the 17th of November 1915, a crowd of roughly 20,000 women and workers from the shipyards and factories, nicknamed Mrs. Barbour’s Army, marched to Glasgow Sheriff Court and demonstrated against these prosecutions, in what the Govan Press called ‘remarkable scenes’. Helen Crawfurd, another striker, said: ‘This struggle brought great masses of women together.’

‘Headed by a band of improvised instruments, including tin whistles, hooters, and a huge drum, the procession aroused a good deal of interest. The majority carried large placards with the words: ‘Rent Strikers. We’re not Removing’.’

The court contacted munitions minister David Lloyd George (later Prime Minister of the Wartime Coalition Government 1916-1922), who ordered the eviction cases to be dropped. The Rent Restrictions Act of 1915 was introduced less than a month later, fixing rents in the UK at their pre-war level until the war ended. As historian James Smyth puts it, the rent strike ‘may well have been the most successful example of direct action ever undertaken by the Scottish working class’.

In 1920, Barbour was elected as one of Glasgow’s first female Labour Party councillors in Govan. In her new role, she fought for the introduction of washhouses, laundries, public baths, free milk for school children, child welfare centres, play areas, pensions for mothers, home helps and municipal banks. Barbour was appointed as the first ever woman Bailie of Glasgow Corporation in 1924, and she became one of the first woman Magistrates in Glasgow. In 1925, she chaired and raised funds for the Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic, Glasgow’s first family planning centre, where she supported birth control, though only for married women. She was on eight committees for health and welfare services, and continually campaigned on behalf of working class people. Although she retired from the council in 1931, she continued to serve on housing, welfare, and co-operative committees. She died, aged 83, in 1958.

Barbour has not been forgotten. She features in several books about the rent strikes, and socialism in Glasgow, such as Joseph Melling’s Rent Strikes: Peoples’ Struggle for Housing in West Scotland, 1890-1916, Maggie Craig’s When The Clyde Ran Red, and James Smyth’s ‘Rents, Peace Votes: Working-class Women and Political Activity in the First World War’. A play about the rent strikes, Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters by AJ Taudevin, sold out in 2014, received rave reviews, and was hailed as ‘Magnificent … A thought provoking piece of radical history’ by The Scotsman. The Remember Mary Barbour campaign has been working for years to commemorate her life and work. Finally, on International Women’s day (the 8th of March) in 2018, outside Govan subway station, a statue was unveiled of Barbour leading her army.


By Saskia McCracken



Maggie Craig. When The Clyde Ran Red. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2011.

Joseph Melling. Rent Strikes: Peoples’ Struggle for Housing in West Scotland, 1890-1916. Edinburgh: Polygon Books, 1983.

James Smyth. ‘Rents, Peace Votes: Working-class Women and Political Activity in the First World War’. Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society 1800-1945. Eds. Esther Breitenbach, and Eleanor Gordon. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1992.









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