Statue of rent strike leader Mary Barbour to be built in Glasgow

Published

Mary Barbour

Credit: Glasgow Caledonian University Special Collections and Archives

Jonny Smart
Writer

Statue of left-wing activist Mary Barbour to be built in Govan

A statue of Mary Barbour, a leader and key figure during the 1915 rent strike, is to be unveiled outside Govan Subway Station on Friday 17 November following several years of campaigning and fundraising by the Remember Mary Barbour Association (RMBA).

Designed by the sculptor Andrew Brown, who was selected from a shortlist of five artists by the RMBA in February 2016, the statue depicts Barbour marching with other women who participated in the agitation directed against wartime rent increases on the Clydeside.

Former Labour MP Maria Fyfe, chairwoman of the RMBA, emphasised that the campaign received support from a number of local bodies, including housing associations and trade unions, enabling the campaign to meet its fundraising target of £110,000.

She said: “They were all keen that the statue was in Govan because Mary Barbour lived here, she was a councillor of a ward here, and they just felt she belonged here.

“Women haven’t been given a proper place in history books, and it’s not just social history, it’s science and other areas too. There are only three statues of women in the whole of Glasgow. We thought it was high time to have another one and who better than Mary Barbour.”

Fyfe highlighted the importance of ensuring that Mary Barbour’s leadership of the rent strike is remembered and celebrated, stressing the small number of statues and buildings commemorating the achievements of women in Glasgow in public spaces. The statue celebrating Mary Barbour’s achievements is understood to only be the fourth statue of a woman in the city, placing the activist and politician alongside Queen Victoria, the Glaswegian philanthropist Isabella Elder, and Spanish Civil War hero Dolores Ibarruri.

Living in Govan with her family, Mary Barbour, a working-class woman and Independent Labour Party member, became actively involved in agitation against rent increases in Govan in June 1915, encouraging and directing non-payment of rent as leader of the South Govan Women’s Housing Association. The resistance quickly spread throughout Glasgow, resulting in the widespread politicisation and mobilisation of working-class women as local women organised tenant’s committees, coordinated resistance to paying rent and physically defended their communities from factors and officers with volleys of flour and piecemeal.

Stimulated by popular outrage, the protests rapidly evolved into a concentrated rent strike that spread across England and the east Coast of Scotland, as hundreds of thousands of tenants displayed their outrage against the perceived unpatriotic and immoral wartime profiteering of landlords, demanding the government implement legislation.

Brown’s sculpture of Barbour is to be unveiled at a rally and parade on the anniversary of the famous mass demonstration of 17 November 1915, where over 10,000 people poured out of their communities and factories and gathered outside the city courthouse in protest against the trial of 18 striking tenants for non-payment of rent, threatening to call a general strike on 22 November.

Along with her close friends Agnes Dolan and Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour was also a leading figure in the Women’s Peace Crusade in Glasgow during the later years of the First World War and regularly addressed large crowds assembled in Glasgow Green. In 1920, she was among the first female Labour councillors elected to the Glasgow Town Council, representing the Fairfield Ward in Govan and enthusiastically promoting policies to improve living conditions and reduce poverty throughout the City. At her election address she declared: “My time and energies have all been spent in the working-class movements for the social betterment of the community.”

Between 1924 and 1927, she served as the first woman bailie on the Glasgow Corporation and was appointed as one of Glasgow’s first woman magistrates. Her commitment to improving the welfare of women was underlined by her role in founding the first family planning centre in Glasgow in 1925, the Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic, and she went on to chair its committee, raising vital funds in order to maintain its staff of female doctors and nurses.

The public commemoration of a leading figure in the struggle against rentier capitalism and the British state during the Red Clydeside agitation comes at a time of renewed campaigning for rent controls and legislation to resolve the housing and homelessness crisis both in Glasgow and throughout Scotland.