Mary Barbour 1875-1958
Political activist Mary Barbour (née Rough) was born 22nd February, 1875 in Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire, Scotland and died 2nd April, 1958 in Govan, Glasgow, Scotland. She is noted as a ‘Red Clydesider’ and one of the leaders of ‘Mrs. Barbour’s Army’ who through rent strikes fought against rent increases in 1915. Mary was the first female Labour Councillor on Glasgow Town Council and as well as being the first woman Bailie on Glasgow Corporation she was also appointed one of Glasgow’s first women Magistrates.
Mary was the daughter of James Rough, carpet weaver and Jane Gavin. The family moved to Elderslie, Renfrewshire when Mary was twelve years old, Mary left school at the age of fourteen to begin working as a thread twister and later a carpet printer. She married David Barbour from Johnstone on 28th August 1896 and by 1901 they had settled in Govan first living at Macleod Street and later moving to Ure Street.
Mary was a working-class mother with two sons James and William living in a period where women still had no right to a vote, her husband David worked in the Fairfield Shipyards as an iron turner and Mary knew firsthand the hardships that a working-class family living and working in Govan could experience. This is perhaps where Mary develops her socialist ideals that are apparent when she first becomes active within the Kinning Park co-operative guild, the first such guild in Scotland and when she joined both the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist Sunday School movement.
The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association was formed in 1914 as a result of large rent increases by Glasgow landlords, these large rent increases were far from popular as most men were overseas fighting in World War 1 and people thought the landlords were taking advantage of housewives by increasing rent in what were already hard times. It was in Govan in 1915 that the first signs of active resistance to the rent increases arose and it is at this point that Mary Barbour earns her ‘Red Clydesider’ status as she comes to the forefront of local politics and community activism. She was instrumental in the formation of the South Govan Women’s Housing Association and was actively involved in organising tenant committees to physically prevent evictions and drive out the sheriff’s officers, on some occasions by pelting them with flour bombs or worse. This active resistance to the rent increases soon spread all over Glasgow and was known as the ‘Glasgow Rent Strikes’ which culminated on the 17th November 1915 when thousands of women known as ‘Mary Barbour’s Army’, marched with thousands of shipyard and engineering workers through the streets of the city to the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court in one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Glasgow. As a result of the actions of Mary Barbour and her Army the ‘Rent Restriction Act 1915’ was quickly pushed through parliament and gave working-class tenants throughout Britain greater protection against unscrupulous private landlords.
Mary Barbour’s political activism did not end after the success of the rent strikes, she also played a big part in the founding of the Women’s Peace Crusade in Glasgow along with friends and fellow activists Agnes Dollan and Helen Crawfurd. In 1920 Mary stood as a Labour candidate for the Fairfield ward in Govan and she was successfully elected to Glasgow Town Council as its first female Labour Councillor, later she served as Glasgow Corporation’s first woman Baillie from 1924 to 1927 and was appointed as one of the city’s first female magistrates.
The desire for social justice that Mary had shown during the rent strikes was also evident in her eleven years as a Councillor for the Fairfield ward campaigning on and supporting numerous issues including the introduction of municipal banks, wash-houses, laundries and baths; a pure milk supply free to schoolchildren, child welfare centres and play areas, home helps, and pensions for mothers, there can be no question of Mary’s commitment to Glasgow’s working-class families, testament to this is the fact that she served on eight committees covering the provision of health and welfare services and was chairperson of the Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic, Glasgow’s first family planning centre.
Mary retired as a Councillor in 1931, however she still continued her activities on a range of housing, welfare and co-operative committees and in later years helped to set up and organise seaside outings for the children of disadvantaged families in Glasgow.
David Barbour died in November 1957 and Mary died at the Southern General Hospital in Govan on 2nd April 1958. In her lifetime Mary was a working-class champion of the working-classes tackling social injustice and trying to provide a better standard of living not only for the people of Govan but for Glasgow as a whole, even in her death she continues to inspire a new generation of community activists. If anyone is deserving of having a street in Govan named after them, surely it must be Mary Barbour.