Mary Barbour (20 February 1875 – 2 April 1958) was a working-class political activist, councillor in Govan, Bailie, and magistrate. Throughout her life she campaigned for better housing, healthcare, means-tested benefits, and family planning clinics. She was also a founder member of the Women’s Peace Crusade and the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association during World War 1.
It’s the latter that she is probably best known for. At the outbreak of war in 1914 there was a sudden influx of around 20,000 workers into Glasgow. Unscrupulous landlords saw increased demand as an ideal opportunity to put rents up, which quickly led to hardship for many working-class households. In Partick and Govan's rents rose by up to 20% and those who didn’t pay were at risk of eviction. This included hundreds of pensioners and families whose men were fighting in France.
The Glasgow Women's Housing Association was formed to resist the increases. Rent strikes were organized, and when the sheriff’s officers arrived to attempt evictions drums, bells, trumpets, and anything else that could make a warning sound were used to rally resistance. Supporters were mainly women and they became known as Mrs Barbour’s Army.
In November 1915 there was a massive demonstration when thousands marched through the city streets and to Glasgow Sheriff Court. Staff there were so alarmed that they phoned Lloyd George, at that time munitions minister in the wartime coalition government. He promised to take action and less than a month later Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act, the first of its kind in Europe, setting rents for the duration of the war and six months to follow at pre-war levels. A victory for working-class action!
In 2018, after a long campaign to raise funding, a statue of Mary Barbour was erected in Govan which shows her with some of her Army. This is only the fourth statue of a named woman in Glasgow and the first of a working-class background.
The unveiling, on International Women’s Day (8th March), was mobbed!
For more detailed information about Mary’s life, the site Remember Mary Barbour, set up during the statue campaign, is a good place to start.
This blog is part of a Trailblazers collection, celebrating the lives of 10 women who we decided to name our bikes after! To find out more and click to see some of the other blogs, please click on Trailblazers: The 10 Women who inspired Gallus Pedals
Many thanks to Anabel Marsh from Glasgow Women's Library for writing this post.
Anabel Marsh is a volunteer tour guide with Glasgow Women's Library (GWL). GWL now has six women's history walks, three longer trails, and one bike ride, all of which can be downloaded as self-guided tours from GWL's website. Guided walks take place during the summer months and can be booked via the library's events calendar.