Mary Barbour (20 February 1875 – 2 April 1958)

Today at Govan Cross a statue is unveiled to commemorate Mary Barbour. James Adams and Dr Catriona Burness, both Trustees of the Remember Mary Barbour Association, tell us why.

 

Today on International Women’s Day we see the culmination of a five-year campaign to build a statue to a remarkable woman. Unveiled at Govan Cross it commemorates Mary Barbour and her ‘army’.

Over the course of the five years the Remember Mary Barbour Association has done a huge amount to raise the profile of Mary Barbour, highlight her contribution to Govan, the Labour & Co-operative movement and the working-class communities of the UK. In that time we also raised over £120,000 to commission this work and we are deeply appreciative of the support we have received from across the Labour movement and beyond.

This campaign has also been supported across the political spectrum, with political leaders from the SNP, Conservatives, Lib Dems and the Scottish Greens all recognising the historical legacy that Mary left.

We are especially proud that providence has meant that, whilst we received an initial setback and were unable to meet our aim of unveiling on the anniversary of the Rent Strike in November, we are unveiling the statue on International Women’s Day. It is an especially fitting day given Mary’s steadfast campaigning to improve the social and economic conditions of the working poor, especially women.

Mary was the epitome of what the fledgling Labour Party stood for – hard-edged determination to change society for the better, striving for social justice, identifying exploitation and campaigning to end it.

Who was Mary Barbour?

Born Mary Rough in Kilbarchan in 1875, she was the third of seven children, following her father into the textile industry. She married David Barbour in 1896, and by 1901 they had moved to Govan where Mary became an active member of the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

In 1914 housing was clearly Glasgow’s greatest social problem, and Mary Barbour was the ‘leading woman in Govan’ within the newly formed Glasgow Women’s Housing Association.

The Rent Strike 1915 and ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’

After the First World War started in 1914, thousands of workers flocked to Glasgow to jobs in the shipyards and munitions factories. Property owners calculated that they could raise rents for tenement flats. Instead, fury was aroused and the rent strike was the response.

By November 1915 as many as 20,000 tenants were on rent strike and rent strike activity was spreading country-wide. The decision by a Partick factor to prosecute 18 tenants for non-payment of a rent increase brought the crisis to a head in Glasgow’s Sheriff Court on 17 November 1915.

Mary Barbour was involved in every aspect of activities from committees and delegations to the physical prevention of evictions.

Many of those in arrears were shipyard workers. There were strikes in support and deputations sent to the court whilst thousands demonstrated outside. Men, women and children were involved, the women nicknamed ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ in tribute to her leading role.

Ministerial intervention by Lloyd George, then Munitions Minister, led to the dismissal of charges and a promise of action. Within a month Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act, setting rents across Britain for the duration of the war and six months to follow at pre-war levels. Mary Barbour’s capacity to mobilise working class families, especially women, to challenge the power of landlords and the state during the 1915 rent strike led to the passing of one of Europe’s first rent restriction acts.

Pioneering female councillor and social reformer

Mary Barbour went on to become a peace campaigner and to campaign not only for better homes but for a higher standard of living generally. At the 1920 local elections she and four other women were the first women elected to Glasgow Corporation.

Mary was elected in the Govan Fairfield Ward alongside two other Labour candidates, Thomas Kerr and a young man by the name of Emmanuel Shinwell, who went on to become a giant of the Labour Movement and died at the age of 101 as Baron Shinwell.

The Govan Press of 5 November 1920 detailed the tension of awaiting results:

The Closed Door

Prompt at eight o’ clock the doors of the polling booth were closed and the crowds dispersed. Some repaired to the committee rooms of their respective favourites, where sing-songs were held to while away the time of waiting for the result. The majority, however, made for the Cross … by half-past eleven a crowd of about five thousand had gathered at the foot of Helen Street and settled down for what proved to be “a long stand”.

… About two o’clock a motor passes by. We just have time to catch a glimpse of Councillor Wardley’s face for our whole attention is taken up with the news he has brought: “Shinwell at the top of the poll, with Mrs Barbour and Tom Kerr second and third.” A few minutes later someone arrives with figures, and conversation which has been decidedly desultory for the past hour, is resumed. Handshakes and congratulations are exchanged among the supporters of the successful candidates, while the friends of the unsuccessful ones try to hide their disappointment and assure their neighbours the result is just as they anticipated.

Another hour passes, at the end of which the crowd has been reduced to about 500. Presently the lights of a taxi-cab are seen twinkling far along the Govan Road, then a faint hurrah is heard and Govan’s newly elected Town Councillors are borne to a hastily improvised platform at the Square. Brief speeches, words of thanks and a little cheering – and the crowd disperses.

The full results for 1920 in Govan Fairfield and its electorate of 11,672 brought a clean sweep for the ILP. Shinwell, Barbour and Kerr topped the poll, with 5067 votes for ‘Manny’ Shinwell, 4704 for ‘Mrs Barbour’ and 4685 for Thomas Kerr.

The Govan Press reported that ‘Labour Sweeps Govan and Fairfield’:

Not an Old Govan Councillor Left – Labour has scored a triumph in Fairfield, and the electors must give the Labour nominees a fair chance to justify their selection. Councillor Shinwell is already a known quantity, and of the others especial interest will attach to the work of Mrs Barbour,

GOVAN’S FIRST WOMAN COUNCILLOR.

Her work will be closely scrutinised, and the fact she will retain the seat for two years ought to have the advantage of familiarising her with her surroundings and enabling her to render some practical service before she is called upon to face the electors.

Mary Barbour met the scrutiny as Govan’s first woman councillor and one of the first literal handful (five) of women elected to Glasgow Corporation in 1920. She marked other milestones for women in public office when she became both a Bailie and ‘the first fully fledged woman magistrate of the City of Glasgow’. More controversially in 1926 she was a leading mover in establishing the first birth control clinic in both Glasgow and Scotland to give advice to married women on family planning.

In 1931 she stood down as a councillor at the age of 56 stating that she felt ‘the difficulties ahead required young and strenuous fighters’.

When she died in 1958 her obituary in the Govan Press said that ‘there was never a more revered and loved local leader than she was in the heyday of her active life’. In particular, her role in the 1915 rent strike ensures that she continues to inspire today.