activists politics social reform

Mary Barbour

Mary Barbour was a Scottish political activist, community leader and social policy pioneer who became one of the first female Labour Councillors on the Glasgow Town Council, the first woman Bailie on Glasgow Corporation and one of Glasgow’s first female Magistrates. She is best known for her part in the Red Clydeside movement in the early 20th century.

Barbour was born Mary Rough in 1875 in the village of Kilbarchan. At the age of twelve, her family moved to Elderslie, Renfrewshire and two years later, she left school to work as a thread twister, eventually becoming a carpet printer. In 1896, she became Mary Barbour upon her marriage to David Barbour and the couple settled in Govan in 1901. At the time, women still had no right to a vote and Barbour was part of a working-class family – her husband worked at the Fairfield Shipyards – and she, and many other working-class families in Govan experienced hardship. Barbour began to develop socialist ideals, and became involved in the Kinning Park Co-Operative Guild, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Socialist Sunday School movement.

In 1914, due to large rent increases by Glasgow landlords The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association was formed. Landlords were taking advantage of housewives left by their husbands who had gone overseas to fight in World War I. A year later, Barbour was instrumental in the beginning of active resistance against the rent increases when she became involved in the formation of the South Govan Women’s Housing Association. She organised tenant committees to prevent evictions and drive out the Bailiff’s officers. They would pelt the officers with flour bombs and other missiles, and in some instances it is claimed they would pull down his trousers to humiliate him. The rent strikes spread across Glasgow and became known as the ‘Glasgow Rent Strikes’. On the 17th of November 1915, thousands of rent strikers known as “Mrs Barbour’s Army” marched the streets along with thousands of shipyard and engineering workers to the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court. It was one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Glasgow. Barbour and her ‘army’ successfully led to the Rent Restriction Act 1915 which gave working-class tenants throughout Britain greater protection against private landlords.

In 1916, Barbour, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan founded the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC) at the “Great Women’s Peace Conference”. The WPC campaigned for a negotiated settlement to World War I at meetings in Glasgow, Clydeside and Edinburgh. In 1917, Barbour spoke at the May Day rally in Glasgow Green to around 70,000 people. Although Crawford and Dollan were arrested on a number of occasions, Barbour avoided arrest, possibly because of her huge popularity following the success of the rent strikes. There would have been a huge public outcry if she had been arrested. The WPC grew, and over 100 branches were established throughout Scotland and England. They continued to campaign until the end of World War I.

In 1920, Barbour stood as the Labour candidate for Fairfield ward in Govan. She was elected to Glasgow Town Council, becoming one of the city’s first female councillors. During her time as a Councillor, she campaigned on and supported many issues including: the introduction of municipal banks, wash-houses, laundries and baths; free milk for schoolchildren, child welfare centres and play areas; home helps and pensions for mothers. She also served on eight committees including those concerned with health and welfare services and was chairperson of the Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic, Glasgow’s first family planning centre. Barbour used her position to promote the Advisory Clinic, going against the views of the majority of her ILP colleagues. From 1924 – 1927, she served as Glasgow Corporation’s first woman Baillie and was appointed as one of the city’s first female magistrates.

In 1931, Barbour retired as a Councillor but continued her commitment to housing, welfare and co-operative committees. During her later years, she helped to set up and organise trips to the seaside for children of disadvantaged families in Glasgow. She died aged 83 at the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow. She was a working-class champion of the working-classes and spent her life working to increase the standard of living for the people of Glasgow. In 2013, a campaign calling for a statue of Barbour was begun by the Remember Mary Barbour Association (RMBA), with support from Glasgow City Council, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Parliament and Alex Ferguson. It continues to campaign to raise the funds needed. In 2015, Renfrewshire Council unveiled a commemorative cairn at New St, where Barbour was born. The Council also established a Mary Barbour Prize which will be awarded annually to a pupil at Kilbarchan Primary School. Barbour continues to inspire community activism.

Sources here, here, here, here and here.

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