As the anniversary of the Rent Strike passed last month, Chris Bambery writes for The Point on the strike that has became known as an iconic moment in the history of the Scottish working class. Chris is the author of "A Peoples History of Scotland"
Whenever Red Clydeside, that extraordinary period of working class insurgency which lasted from 1915 to 1919, is discussed attention generally centres on male shop stewards in Glasgow's giant engineering plants and on leaders like John Maclean and Willie Gallacher. Yet the greatest victory chalked up by the working folk of Glasgow came early, and central to its success were some remarkable working class women, that was the 1915 rent strike. Long before the outbreak of the First World war the city's housing conditions were a time bomb waiting to explode. War lit that fuse.
At the turn of the last century Glasgow's housing conditions were the worst of any British city. The rapid expansion of the city and the availability of cheap labour from rural Scotland, particularly the Highlands, and from Ireland meant employers were under little pressure to provide decent housing, property developers threw up poorly built tenements with one or two room apartments and landlords could charge high rents and ignore any repairs that were needed.
The first real census to record details, in 1861, found 34 percent of the population lived in a single room, 37 percent in just two rooms. Two thirds of the population lived in a single end or a "but-and-ben." A two roomed cottagei In 1881 a quarter of Glasgow's citizens still lived in such cramped conditions, and 50 percent in a room and kitchen.
By 1911 half of all Scots still lived in one or two bedroom homes. In England and Wales the figure was seven percent.
In 1908 the Glasgow socialist, John Wheatley, published an index of infant mortality across the city and argued: "You may see at a glance that the infant death-rate in working-class wards is three, four and almost five times higher than in Kelvinside [in the affluent west End]."
Yet Glasgow boasted it was the "Second City of the Empire." The contrast between rich and poor was shocking:
"Between the middle class residential area of Pollockshields and Blackfriars, the most congested slum in Europe, the distance was two miles. But the health figures were life-miles apart. The respective figures per thousand were: death rate, 10.3 and 29.2; TB [Tuberculosis] 1.4 and 3.9; infant mortality, 27 and 28."
Those figures come from 1881. In the first year of World War One not much had changed:
"The general death rate that year was 16.6 per thousand. In the elegant West End district of Kelvinside it was only 8.7, while in Broomielaw, part of Glasgow's dockland, it was 24.3! For the infant population, Broomielaw and Blackfriars, were an express journey to Paradise."
The outbreak of war in August 1914 brought a further influx of workers into the city to meet the demand of its engineering works and shipyards, all with full orders from the military and the navy.. Rents were higher than elsewhere in the UK and with accommodation in demand landlords raised rents. Existing tenants, who could not afford the extra, faced eviction, even the families of those away fighting in the trenches.
The government found in October 1915 that at least 33.9% of rents had increased by 5%, while in "Govan and Fairfield, the centre of the storm, all the houses...suffered rent increases ranging from 11.67% to 23.08%."
Across Glasgow and the west of Scotland a network of Independent Labour Party branches, tenants groups, Co-operative Society branches, the Govan and Glasgow Trades Councils, trade union activists and socialists were able organize a rising groundswell of discontent.
The "Partick and Maryhill Press" reported the 1915 May Day rally in Glasgow thus:
"Over 165 labour and socialist organisations took part... and Glasgow Green was crowded with thousands of spectators. There were 12 platforms. Among those represented were those of the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children's School and Women Trade Unionists."
Women would take the lead in winning the single greatest victory notched up on Red Clydeside. One of the organizers of the Rent Strike, Helen Crawfurd, had been a radical suffragette who had been jailed three times before the war for actions which included smashing the windows of the Ministry of Education in London and the army recruitment office in Glasgow. Seán Damer notes: "The Glasgow suffragettes had a tradition of militancy which includes blowing up all the telegraph and telephone cables, cutting the wires around the city."
Mary Barbour arrived in Govan in 1896, a newly married engineer's wife, and became active in the Independent Labour Party. She began organizing over rents by holding meetings, large and small, in kitchens, in closes, and in backcourts attracting her audience with a football rattle.."
In April 1915 the family of a soldier serving in France was evicted in Govan which was met with angry protests as Willie Gallacher, a leader of the shops stewards movement on the Clyde describes: "In Govan, Mrs. Barbour, a typical working class housewife, became the leader of a movement such has never been seen before, or since for that matter, street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets – every method was used to bring the women out and organize them for struggle. Notices were printed by the thousand and put up in the windows: wherever you went you could see them. In street after street, scarcely a window without one: WE ARE NOT PAYING INCREASED RENT."
One landlord had applied for an eviction order against a mother and family for non-payment of rent at a time when the man of the house was fighting in France and a son was recovering from war wounds. The Court supplied the necessary authorisation despite an offer from the local miners' union to repay the rent debt within a week. However, the attempt at eviction was successfully resisted by a large crowd which had to be restrained from physically attacking the landlord."
Similar scenes were repeated across the city, for instance in Partick:
"... a 70 year old pensioner living alone was due to be evicted on a warrant issued by Sheriff Thomson for refusing to pay a rent increase. The old man barricaded himself in his tiny tenement flat and a large crowd gathered outside in his support, making his 'castle' impregnable. Again no official showed face."
Gallacher records that "the factors [agents for the property owners] could not collect the rents."xv When a factor turned up in Partick in late October, the "Glasgow Herald" reported "he was pelted with bags of peasemeal and chased from one of the streets by a number of women, who upbraided him vociferously."
The Landlords then applied for an eviction warrant from a judge and the task of carrying that out fell to the city's Sheriff who asked the police to carry out the task:"But Mrs. Barbour had a team of women who were wonderful. They could smell a sheriff's officer a mile away. At their summons women left their cooking, washing or whatever they were doing. Before they were anywhere near their destination, the officer and his men would be met by an army of furious women who drove them back in a hurried scramble for safety."
In every window of every house there were 1/d notices which read: 'We are not removing.' Within weeks thousands of notices were displayed in street after street. Soon all of Glasgow was involved: from Parkhead to Govan, Pollokshaws to Calton.
The turn out on the May Day march and rally that year reflected the mood and confidence of the Clydeside working class. The "Partick and Maryhill Press" reported:
"[It] was organized on a larger scale than on any previous occasion. Over 165 Labour and Socialist organizations took part. There were 12 platforms. Among those represented were the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children's School, and Women Trade Unionists."
Throughout 1915 John MacLean, the leading revolutionary on Clydeside, spoke at meeting after meeting outside the shipyards and other workplaces demanding action on rents. On Sunday nights he addressed huge open air meetings in Bath Street while his Marxist night class had an average attendance of 493, mainly shop stewards. In October he was brought to court under the Defence of the Realm Act for opposing the war and was bound over on agreement he would not speak publicly on the war, though he made it clear he would still speak out over rents. Because of this conviction MacLean faced the sack from his teaching position.
By October 1915 15,000 were refusing to pay rent increases, and a month later it was 20,000. That month a factor took 18 tenants to court, providing a focus for the movement, as Mrs. Barbour's women marched on the City chambers. Tom Bell would write that on route:
"The women marched in a body to the shipyard and got the men to leave work and join them in a demonstration to the Court." "Forward" estimated the crowd outside the city chambers as being 4,000 strong. John MacLean was among those who spoke, denouncing the evils of capitalism. His arrival was unusual:
"On their way from Govan one contingent marched to the school where John Maclean, already under notice of dismissal from Govan School Board, was teaching. He was taken out and carried shoulder high through the streets to the court."
Helen Crawfurd would remember: "I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men [from the shipyards]. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets to the Sheriff Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean MA... was one of the speakers, who from barrels and up-turned boxes, addressed the crowds."
The government in London was worried by the scale of the protests and that the eviction of rent strikers might be the spark for a walk out in the Clyde yards. It responded quickly, hurrying through the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, which returned rents to pre-war levels. This was a major victory for working class people of Britain, won by the working women and men of Glasgow.
The rent strike coincided with the creation of the Clyde Workers Committee, an unofficial group of shop stewards from across the city's engineering plant committed to defending conditions, under constant attack from employers with full order books, and wages, being eroded by war time price rises. Their union leaders had signed up to Britain's war effort and had agreed to a ban on strikes.
It is another magnificent chapter in working class history, but one which has often overshadowed the achievements of the rent strikes organisers.
In this centenary year there has been a demand for a statue to be raised to Mary Barbour. I agree, but I'd like her to be beside Helen Crawfurd too. But in many ways the person who needs to be honoured are those unknown women in Partick who chased the factor out of their street, covering them with peasemeal. Across the city women like that stood up to rack renting landlords and made a wee but significant piece of working class history.
Adapted from "A Peoples History of Scotland (Verso)" Chapter on Red Clydeside